Matematiikkalehti Solmun etusivu

The PISA survey tells only a partial truth of Finnish children's mathematical skills

The results of the PISA survey ( have brought about satisfaction and pride in Finland. Newspapers and media have advertised that Finnish compulsory school leavers are top experts in mathematics.

However, mathematics teachers in universities and polytechnics are worried, as in fact the mathematical knowledge of new students has declined dramatically. As an example of this one could take the extensive TIMSS 1999 survey, in which Finnish students were below the average in geometry and algebra. As another example, in order not to fail an unreasonably large amount of students in the matriculation exams, recently the board has been forced to lower the cut-off point alarmingly. Some years, 6 points out of 60 have been enough for passing.

This conflict can be explained by pointing out that the PISA survey measured only everyday mathematical knowledge, something which could be - and in the English version of the survey report explicitly is - called "mathematical literacy"; the kind of mathematics which is needed in high-school or vocational studies was not part of the survey. No doubt, everyday mathematical skills are valuable, but by no means enough.

Out of the 85 assignments in the survey about 20 have been published. The assignments are simple numerical calculations, minor problems or deductions, interpretation of statistical graphics and evaluation of situations where text comprehension is an essential part. However, hardly any algebra or geometry is included. Nevertheless, the assignments are well in agreement with the goals of the survey; in fact, the goal was to study everyday mathematical knowledge.

The PISA-survey leaves us, thus, with unanswered questions regarding many skills, like computing with fractions, solving elementary equations, making geometrical deductions, computing volumes of solid objects, and handling algebraic expressions. Still algebra is perhaps the most important subtopic in mathematical studies after the compulsory comprehensive school.

In comprehensive school, the goal should be to learn the basic concepts of mathematics so that they can be used as a basis for more. Even the use of calculators does not change this situation: although calculators nowadays might be able to handle fractions, manual computation is essential to master since it is part of the foundations in handling algebraic expressions. Further study becomes impossible if the basics are not learned properly.

One reason for the increase of poor standards in the matriculation exam and in the beginning of university studies is, undoubtedly, the weakness of the foundation received in the comprehensive school. New, more difficult concepts are hard to learn because still in upper secondary school much energy is spent in reviewing concepts that should have been learned in the comprehensive school. This vicious circle continues in tertiary education: the high-school concepts are not properly learned, and further learning becomes more difficult. The PISA survey provides us with useful information regarding the mathematical literacy needed in everyday life and the ability to solve simple problems. These skills are simply not enough in a world which uses and utilizes mathematics more and more.

A proper mathematical basis is needed especially in technical and scientific areas, biology included. The PISA survey tells very little about this basis, which should already be created in comprehensive school. Therefore, it would be absolutely necessary that, in the future, Finland would participate also in international surveys which evaluate mathematical skills essential for further studies.

Kari Astala, Professor of Mathematics, University of Helsinki, President of Finnish Mathematical Society
Simo K. Kivelä, Senior Lecturer, Helsinki University of Technology
Pekka Koskela, Professor of Mathematics, University of Jyväskylä
Olli Martio, Professor of Mathematics, University of Helsinki
Dr. Marjatta Näätänen, Senior Lecturer, University of Helsinki
Dr. Kyösti Tarvainen, Senior Lecturer, Helsinki Polytechnic Stadia
and 201 mathematics teachers in universities and polytechnics

See also Severe shortcomings in Finnish mathematics skills by Kyösti Tarvainen and Simo. K. Kivelä.

Solmu © 2005 Matematiikkalehti Solmu
31.8.2005 ISSN 1458-8048 Tekijänoikeudet