Why is Studying Mathematics on the Nose?

Writing a November article to be relevant for November but having to submit it before the Spring Carnival is particularly difficult. 

I can’t tell you about my winners, I can’t tell you about the horses that were harshly done by, and I can’t tell you about those that should be sporting the next Pal label*.

So, what to write about?

The Spring Carnival brings gambling to the fore and many people, not otherwise interested in mathematics, start to get enthused and wanting to understand how those close to the industry can calculate the cost a multi-leg quadrella or boxed trifecta etc. They are often astounded when the cost of a multi-leg parlay bet is calculated without any apparent thought.

It would be great if the attraction was to understanding the mathematics and not in regarding that the ‘genius’ quoting the figures to be some sort of savant.

Disturbingly (and note that this is coming from a punter), every sport now seems to be dominated by the odds and how much you could win by backing your team etc. I find this concerning from a social perspective on the basis that relatively few people truly understand the odds and our kids (well, at least mine) are growing up potentially thinking that sport is all about betting. I know one of my good friends would support that comment – though I discount his view because he doesn’t like horse racing and barracks for North.

I consider that the issue would be less of a problem if mathematics was growing in popularity and a greater proportion of people really understood what they were getting in to. Consider the simple calculation of the probability of picking the winning numbers in a Tattslotto draw. What proportion of people can accurately work out that calculation? I’d suggest it’s pretty low given the number of tickets bought each week!

At the IAA meetings in London the President of the South African Actuarial Society outlined the current situation in South Africa where universities use entrance exams and first year results to determine who will be allowed to continue in mathematics because the high school teaching is typically inadequate. Surely we do not want to reach this position in Australia?

Our Senior Vice-President has done a bit of research into the decline of mathematics in high schools and, in particular, the reduction in girls taking up the high level mathematics subjects. Some high level statistics for the 10 years from 2004 to 2014 in NSW are:

  • There has been a 14% decrease in the numbers of students studying 2-unit mathematics (note that the decrease in numbers coincides with a period when the number of students sitting year 12 has increased by around 7%).
  • Of additional concern is that the number of students undertaking the mathematics extensions (ask someone from NSW if you need to know what that means) have decreased by 6%.
  • This reduction in mathematics students is more worrying when looking at females. Females made up 47% of the students sitting 2 unit mathematics in 2004 in 2004 and 46% in 2014 – this is despite representing more than 50% of the population.
  • Further, of the reduction in mathematics extensions (outlined above), about 80% is due to the reduction in females taking up the extension option.

I consider this to be a great concern for the actuarial profession. At a time where there is increasing demand for numerate people (as part of the ‘big data revolution’) we are finding a smaller proportion of students wanting to take up a ‘serious’ mathematics option. Will we be willing to accept a lesser level of mathematical knowledge and understanding going forward in order to maintain growth in the number of actuaries? I know there is more to a good actuary than mathematics alone but it still seems like a risky strategy to me – a natural understanding of mathematics and being particularly numerate are key characteristics of all good actuaries in my view.

What to do? I consider that the Institute should be proactive in encouraging mathematical training at schools and in monitoring the level of mathematical understanding to ensure that our standards remain high. I would hope that members would support the Institute in various initiatives such as speaking at schools, encouraging high standards in marking Institute exams and in corresponding with universities regarding their handling of any drop in standards.

Some people will think that I am being a bit alarmist. Having heard about the situation in South Africa, and seeing the way that my son is taught mathematics in primary school, makes me consider that this is a real issue that requires action. Does anybody know of any studies on the proportion of people who are good at mathematics who then go on to be primary school teachers? My suspicion is that the percentage would be pretty low – of course that is my (potentially uneducated) opinion. I think it is worth pushing for a higher level of numeracy to be taught in both primary and secondary schools.

So, should the Institute develop a public policy position on the teaching of mathematics within schools and seek to influence our educators?

* I am an owner of a few horses (ok, a part owner – I think I own a few front left fetlocks) and would not send a horse to the knackery!

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