There is a large potential to further develop mathhematics teaching
Name: Johan Lithner
The alarming reports about the poor mathematics skills of Swedish students are pouring in. Johan Lithner’s research indicates, however, that the probleme is not mainly with the students - it is the instruction.
“It is not true that Swedish students are awful at math, but it is worrying as long as we have many that cannot achieve the goals. Altered mathematics instruction is needed for Swedish students to perform better,” says Johan Lithner, Professor of Mathematic Didactics.
Johan conducts research on mathematic didactics – how to teach mathematics.
“There is a great deal in this area that we researchers and educators lack knowledge about. One general research result is that learning is more complex than previously thought,” confirms Johan Lithner.
The alarming reports about the poor mathematics skills of Swedish students are pouring in. But according to Johan Lithner, this picture is somewhat simplified.
“The parts of the studies where dramatic changes have occurred are often highlighted. Within some areas, performance has dropped and within others, Swedish students are doing well.”
Johan’s research is focused on learning difficulties in mathematics.
“It is not about those who need special education, but rather the difficulties that the majority run into in their mathematics studies. There are indications that the instruction is not working well and that the students should be able to learn more through altered instruction.”
A villain in the drama seems to be learning by rote that characterised Swedish instruction for an extended period.
“It works in the short term, but not in the long term. The students learn without understanding. I have taught 7-year-olds to differentiate polynomials so that they could earn some credits at the upper-secondary level, but they do not understand what they are doing.”
Johan believes that mathematics instruction has become too superficial, a result of having simplified it to make it accessible to more people.
“Some things have to be learned by rote, not everything can be understood. But one needs other mathematical competenciesand must develop problem-solving abiltities, introduce creative reasoning instead of imitative reasoning – learning by rote – of which schools have far too much. Instruction must be both intelligible and useful.”
Johan and his colleagues have studied and analysed a number of textbooks in compulsory schools and exams at the university level and the picture is the same regardless of level.
“Most problems build on learning by rote, only 10% are solved through self-reasoning. These are also most often the most difficult problems that few run into.”
Paradoxically, the design of the national exams looks completely differently. There, half of the problems are creative and half are the kind that one manages through learning by rote. This may be one of the explanations for the poor results.
“Those who design the tests follow the curricula, which state that major emphasis shall be placed on problem solving. The instruction does not always fulfil the goals, maybe because it requires more time from the teachers, time that they do not have.”
Attitudes and approaches to learning also play a role.
“The Asians are successful, the subject has a high status and they work in a different way. At the same time, studies indicate that Swedish students like math, while Asian students do not like the subject. Finnish students, who are successful in international measurements, say that they are not comfortable with the instruction.”
Another problem is making the research results more usable in the classroom.
“It takes time before they become known so we researchers must become better at developing results in a form that makes them easier to use in practice, in the classroom,” says Johan Lithner.
Name: Johan Lithner
Profession: Professor of Mathematic Didactics
Leisure activities: Spend time with my family, outdoor activities, exercise, building housees
Likes to read: Everything
Likes to eat: Fish I’ve caught myself
Listens to: Rock
Role model: My wife