The rise in computer use combined with a decline in core maths skills presents a challenging conundrum for educators developing future generations of workers, Robert Matthews writes
It is the future, it is where the top paying jobs are, and the nation is committed to it.
A month into the new school year, only children who have been messing around in class can fail to know what it is: Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths.
Over the past few weeks, Abu Dhabi Education Council has been promoting its Journey of Discovery: Innovation campaign, which aims to integrate Stem subjects into the K-12 curriculum across public schools.
Pupils are given access to technology and instructors in a drive to boost interest in Stem-based careers.
It is an ambitious programme, but then, it has to be.
For all its wealth, the UAE languishes in the bottom quartile of the global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings of educational achievement.
But there are encouraging signs. The most-recent assessment, published in 2013, revealed that the UAE was one of only six countries to show a big improvement in scores.
If the new campaign achieves a further leap in performance in next year’s Pisa rankings, the UAE could find the world’s educationalists beating a path to its door.
This is because poor performance in Stem subjects is endemic everywhere outside Asia, and the search is on for a remedy.
The issue is most critical in that least-loved of subjects, mathematics. While Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan vie for the top places in the international league tables in maths, most other countries struggle to compete. Some, notably the UK, are even on the slide.
A recent study showed that 22 per cent of people in England have the number skills expected of school leavers.
While the maths skills crisis is now making headlines worldwide, there’s never been a shortage of grand plans for solving it.
In the 1950s, the belief that maths cultivated the mental habits needed for success led to the emergence of the New Math – a largely American-driven campaign to bring the rigour of mathematical thinking to the classroom.
It led to a generation of primary schoolchildren being taught the likes of base-8 arithmetic, on the grounds that it encouraged mathematical reasoning, rather than mindless computation.
In reality, it led to little more than bafflement among teachers, pupils and parents alike.
By the mid-1970s, the New Math was dead, dismissed as trendy but useless. Today it is chiefly remembered for being lampooned by the United States satirist Tom Lehrer, ironically a Harvard-trained maths lecturer.
In one of his most-viewed performances online, Lehrer talks of how, “In the new approach – as you know – the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer”.
New Math was brushed aside by Back to Basics, which emphasised core skills such as multiplication tables. But then the challenge became one of keeping children interested.
During the 1990s, education ministers believed they had found the answer: investment in computer technology.
Encouraged by the IT industry, governments spent vast sums on hardware and software offering “fun” ways of doing everything from arithmetic to algebra.
The rapid advance of technology meant that this fun required regular – and expensive – upgrades.
According to technology analysts Gartner, global annual expenditure on educational IT runs at US$27 billion (Dh100bn).
Even so, many countries have deemed it a worthwhile investment, more than paid for by the resulting boost in Stem skills and GDP growth.
That argument has now been dealt a heavy blow by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Earlier this month, the OECD published a report on the impact of IT in education.