Skill reader, lesser arithmetician

Various reports and findings over the years have had pointed to one conclusion – students in Nagaland excel at reading skills but are average arithmeticians. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 released last week reaffirmed the conclusion.

The report, based on an annual survey, aims to provide reliable annual estimates of children’s schooling status and basic learning levels for each state and rural district in India.

It indicated a declining trend in basic arithmetic proficiency among school children (Class III to VIII) in the state. For instance, only 37% of students could perform at least subtraction – the corresponding figures for the previous years were: 2016 – 42.8%, 2014 – 40.2%, and 2012 – 53.6%. The percentage of class VIII students who could do division fell from 81.6% in 2012 to 51.5% in 2018.

On a positive note, the report stated 61.4% of Class V students and 83.6% of Class VIII students could read Class II level texts in Nagaland, much ahead of national average of 50% and 75% respectively. However, government schools showed a declining trend in reading proficiency levels needing intervention.

These conclusions might be an indication a varying degree of ‘math trauma’ described by Jennifer Ruef of University of Oregon as “form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.” These include someone telling them they were “not good at math,” panicking over timed math tests, or getting stuck on some math topic and struggling to move past it, she noted.

A ‘Position Paper’ by a National Focus Group on Teaching of Mathematics formed by National Council of Educational Research and Training also noted that mathematics education in schools is beset with problems. Some of areas of concerns, among others, reflected were: a sense of fear and failure regarding mathematics among a majority of children, crude methods of assessment and lack of teacher preparation as well as support in the teaching of mathematics.

Mathematics often induces a fear among students, but experts concur that proper ‘teaching methods can reduce or even remove this fear completely.’

The NCERT paper called for shifting the focus of mathematics education from achieving ‘narrow’ goals to ‘higher’ goals – from content to earning environments; engaging every student with a sense of success; changing modes of assessment to examine students’ mathematisation abilities rather than procedural knowledge, and enriching teachers with a variety of mathematical resources.

Ruef called for games and puzzles that get people playing with numbers while reframing mistakes as explorations. While it is important that parents avoid giving kids messages that they are not math people, she maintained that most mathematics teacher educators are in agreement that moving away from speed and accuracy—sometimes called “drill and kill”—and toward discussing and making sense of mathematics are good things.

In most reports, students in Nagaland breezed through reading, but flounder in basic mathematical calculations. Similar findings by different reports are indication of a systemic problem. It is therefore a historic imperative for the state’s policymaker to take note and search for way forwards.