The numbers don’t lie: Australia is failing at maths and we need to find a new formula to arrest the decline

Divide, subtract, add, multiply: whatever way you cut it, Australia is heading in one direction when it comes to global maths rankings — downwards.

From an OECD mathematics ranking of 11 in the world 20 years ago, Australian secondary students are now languishing in 29th place out of 38 countries, according to the most recent statistics.

The sliding maths rankings have created widespread debate over whether curriculum changes are needed in our schools, but a new international paper co-authored by University of South Australia cognitive psychologist Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos could provide part of the solution.

In the latest edition of Integrative Psychology and Behavioural Science, Dr Marmolejo-Ramos and researchers from China and Iran explain why simple gestures such as hand motions are important in helping students understand mathematical concepts.

“Many people struggle with mathematics and there is a lot of anxiety around it because it is an abstract topic,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says. “You see the numbers, equations and graphs, but unless you engage human motor and sensory skills, they can be very difficult to grasp.”

To get maths concepts across, it is important to bring together language, speech intonation, facial expressions and hand gestures, particularly the latter, the researchers say.

“Using your hands to create triangular, spherical, circular shapes and straight lines, reflecting the formulas you are trying to explain, is vital. It helps our brain better understand the concepts and commit them to memory.”

Gestures are body movements that are learnt from infancy, usually before speech, so they are ingrained in humans as a way of processing and acquiring new knowledge.

Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says hand gestures are more relevant in teaching mathematics than other subjects because they engage our sensorimotor skills to help students interpret numbers more effectively.

The shift from face-to-face teaching towards online learning in the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging for maths students, Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.

“When the only input you have is from a screen and a set of headphones, it is more difficult to use tools and gestures on screen. It’s not impossible, however, and if online learning is going to become more widespread, then hand gestures should be incorporated into the online teaching.”

“People struggle with mathematics for several reasons. It’s progressively demanding but if you grasp the basics, the curve is not as steep.”

“Gestures Enhance Executive Functions for the Understanding of Mathematical Concepts” is published in the Integrative Psychological and Behavioural Science journal. It is authored by Omid Khatin-Zadeh from the University of Electronic Science and Technology, China; Dr Zahra Eskandari from the Chabahar Maritime University, Iran; and Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos from the University of South Australia.

Notes for editors

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assesses 15-year-olds’ maths, science and reading skills every three years. The most recent assessment in 2019 show that Australia’s performance in maths has been declining since 2003.

On average, Australian maths students are 14 months behind than where they were 20 years ago, with 46 per cent of 15-year-olds failing to meet the national standard of proficiency in mathematics.

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Materials provided by University of South Australia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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