When it comes to discussion about public schools, the administation's education experts call the educators and students they claim to support 'dismal' on a regular basis.

But that isn't really so, unless the goal for students is to teach them how to take standardized tests, which educators don't like and was the chief criticism of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind program signed into law by former President George W. Bush. No Child Left Behind was actually quite successful, boys and girls achieved math parity for the first time in history, but it was still solving the wrong problem.

The math kids will need in the future is not the legacy mode of inertly applying and performing standard calculations, but rather understanding how different economic, social, technological and work-related processes can be mathematically represented or modeled. As we see in any number of observational studies, even those in the science field know just enough math to be wrong, using factor analysis and p-value and statistical significance to draw dubious causal conclusions. It has to get better if we are going to solve real problems.

The Academy of Finland’s research program The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS) is running until 2017 and its goal is to explore new pedagogical practices and technological environments that can prepare students for the flexible and adaptive use of their mathematical skills in future activity environments.

“Our goal is to have students be able to use their mathematical skills in a highly adaptive and flexible way. We want to promote mathematical thinking so that future minds can recognise the mathematical aspects in their environments,” says Academy Professor Erno Lehtinen from the University of Turku, the project’s principal investigator. The new pedagogical methods, digital games and other applications promoting an active awareness and mathematical reading of the surrounding environment are aimed at sparking an interest in mathematical mind games.

The educational games developed in the research project are designed to support a creative application of flexible mathematical strategies for novel situations. The idea is also to help students view natural numbers as an interlinked system and understand mathematical contents, such as equations.

Inspired by everyday phenomena

The research project will also investigate how students understand fractions and decimals and how they flexibly apply their skills in interpreting various practical phenomena. “In our previous breakthrough studies, we’ve established the role of spontaneous quantitative focusing tendencies in the development of mathematical thinking. Now, we’re trying to develop new pedagogical practices and technological environments that will inspire students to observe quantitative relationships in their everyday surroundings,” said Lehtinen.

The idea is to get students to use fraction-based thinking even before they actually are taught fractions at school. According to Lehtinen, the premise is that the ability to perceive quantitative and later fraction-based relationships in varying practical situations can help students manage the difficult conceptual transition from natural numbers to fractions and bridge school learning with students’ everyday activities.

The project will make use of both basic research and applied school research. The mathematical phenomena under study will be investigated in laboratory settings using precise experiments, observations and even brain-imaging methods. On the other hand, the research methods will also involve longitudinal studies in normal school environments. The plan is to test the new pedagogical methods and games in comprehensive teaching pilots using wide-ranging national-level data.