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Why is it so hard to recruit good maths and science teachers?

There are well-recognised problems with student participation and achievement in maths and science. Widespread shortages of suitable secondary maths and science teachers and low levels of students studying these subjects at secondary and tertiary levels are not just problems faced by Australia, but have become international issues.

A number of interrelated factors that form a self-perpetuating cycle contribute to this situation.

Lack of confidence

Many primary teachers report a lack of competence and confidence in teaching maths and science, not having taken the higher levels of these subjects in senior secondary school or in some cases not having studied maths and/or science at senior level.

Negative mindsets

Primary students can develop negative attitudes and mindsets about their ability in these subjects. Early experiences of struggle or “failure”, especially in maths, can powerfully predict and constrain future engagement and achievement and act as a barrier to learning. Students can see their ability and indeed their identity as fixed.

Australian primary students perform relatively more poorly than their secondary counterparts on international measures of achievement in maths and science, with a general pattern of decline.

Lack of trained maths and science teachers

Approximately one-third of Australian year nine students are being taught maths and one-quarter are being taught science by an out-of-field teacher.

This situation is worse in government schools, low socio-economic status (SES) schools and regional and remote schools.

Some schools tick all these boxes. Some students will not encounter a trained maths or science teacher until the latter years of secondary schooling, if at all. This situation has been with us for some time and is, frankly, a national disgrace.

Participation in the higher levels of maths and science at senior secondary level is declining. Participation in undergraduate maths and science courses is also declining; some departments of maths are shrinking or closing.

There are shortages of initial teacher education secondary candidates in maths and science (especially physics and chemistry). Some initial teacher education (ITE) primary candidates will struggle with maths and science because of background, mindsets and attitudes towards these subjects.

What are the typical responses?

When faced with the above situations, the usual responses include providing ITE and practising teachers with more content knowledge and pedagogical strategies, along with producing units of work and resources for teachers.

Often these resources and strategies emphasise “hands on” approaches to both maths and science in the hope that these will lead to greater engagement on the part of students and greater effectiveness for teachers.

Such “teacher-proof” resources can be counterproductive, however, if teachers lack confidence in their capacity to use these “black boxes”.

Another approach is to provide scholarships to attract additional science and maths teachers.

Higher pay for such teachers has also been suggested, but is usually resisted in the public sector.

None of these measures gets to the heart of the matter.

What do we need to change?

Additional training and resources can be useful treatments of the symptoms, but we need to address the underlying causes of the situation.

It is imperative that action is taken in primary schooling to influence the mindsets and thinking of both students and teachers.

Both need to engage with “real world” maths and science, in the sense that mathematicians and scientists are engaged with solving contemporary problems.

The thinking behind such problem solving needs to be made visible. In this respect, practice, identity and attitudes are more important than content.

Trainee teachers need to overcome their doubts and fears about their capabilities in maths.

This requires ITE candidates to experience maths and science through exposure to scientists and scientific thinking. The aim is to overcome their doubts and fears about their personal capabilities and their capacity to teach in these areas; they need to be motivated to want to engage and learn, rather then merely teach what they find difficult.

To do this education academics and ITE candidates need to engage with science and maths faculties and with research centres. And these faculties need to engage in a variety of outreach activities such as “scientists in schools”.

Maths and science needs to be seen as contemporary and alive and not something archived in a text or on the web where we already know the answers.

We need to expose undergraduate maths and science students to the possibilities of teaching as a rewarding career. Given the above, there is also a compelling argument for some primary teachers with suitable background and training to act as specialist maths and science teachers in schools.

Primary students in particular need to experience success in understanding and doing maths and science and to see that their efforts can lead to improvement, if they are to have any chance of enjoying and succeeding in maths and science in the secondary years and beyond.

These changes and approaches are integral to the ReMSTEP (Reconceptualising Maths and Science Teacher Education Programs through collaborative partnerships between scientists and educators) project being undertaken at Melbourne, Monash, Deakin and La Trobe universities. This is part of a national project termed Enhancing the Training of Pre-service Maths and Science Teachers.

Changing the thinking of primary and secondary teachers and students about maths and science lies at the heart of what these programs are attempting to achieve through exploring multiple models for engaging ITE candidates in a variety of learning and professional practices.

The Conversation

Stephen Dinham is Professor and Associate Dean at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. This article was originally published on The Conversation.