Chief Scientist says do the math

The Chief Scientist has slammed assumptions that a fast-changing economy will require adaptability rather than discipline-based deep abilities, notably in maths.

Addressing a STEM education conference at QUT yesterday, Dr Finkel warned against assuming that a changing labour market means educating students to be “capable generalists,” saying an absence of school maths makes university harder and reduces people’s choices.

“We know what happens to those students who opt for easier courses with more soft skill components in school. They arrive at university – and discover they are in the same unprepared position as that ten-year old holding a clarinet in her hand for the first time the same day she was enrolled in the school band.

“They have got to grapple with a discipline like science, or commerce, or architecture, whilst simultaneously trying to fill the maths gap. And at that stage, what choice do they have? “They can drop out of university. They can find another course – after drawing a cross through all the courses involving maths. Or they can struggle through – and then find themselves at the end of the degree, competing for a job with students who were better prepared, and thriving from day one.”

And as for the idea that immersion in a discipline kills creativity, tell that to “virtuoso jazz players.”

It was a speech with themes familiar to Finkel fans, the danger of students trying to game the ATAR by doing easier maths, the need for universities to specify maths as a prerequisite for subjects where it is an essential.

And the Chief Scientist makes the case for teaching maths, for the content it offers and the character it builds.

“It’s a skillset that’s fundamental to science, to commerce, to economics, to medicine, to engineering, to geography, to architecture, to IT. And partly, because it’s the textbook example of why you need to learn things in sequence through hard work, with the guidance of an expert teacher – and the very clear message from schools that it’s a priority. You can’t just trust your passions to help you meander through it.”


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