It’s subject selection time in most schools and students in Year 10 are making decisions about what subjects they want to study in their senior and final years of school.

It’s a much more involved process than it was when you and I were at school. Students attend numerous information sessions and there are the usual information sessions for parents. Universities host Open Days at around this time so that students can find a possible future pathway and learn what they might like to study and the prerequisites to get there. They undergo counselling sessions with course and career advisors and their teachers recommend which subjects are available for study.

It’s also at this time that students realise that they need to do a harder maths than their current achievement and pathway of learning will allow. Parents become worried that their child will miss out on their “dream” and tend to put the pressure on the school to allow their child to study a maths subject for which they are unprepared. In some circumstances, parents expect the school to help the student bridge the gaps in preparation for success in these new courses.

For most other subject areas, the choice for senior school courses is pretty much wide open. Physics and Chemistry are often an exception as students have to have achieved a certain level of competence in lower school courses. But as I always like to tell people, maths is different, the usual rules don’t apply.

Most other subjects are skills based rather than content and knowledge driven. Once you master skills of analysis and argument, these can be applied to any context. For example, analysis of primary documentation in history can be applied to any era in history that a school chooses to study.

But maths is different.

Each year, and often each topic, builds upon the work from the previous year or the previous unit of work. As I keep emphasising with my Year 7s – you can’t just forget what you learnt about fractions, or BIMDAS or algebraic conventions. We need to build on these again and again because they will be important throughout the remainder of your schooling in maths.

It’s too late to say mid-way through Year 10 that you will work harder, try harder or get a tutor. If you haven’t been trying your best and working to the best of your ability all along, no matter how hard you work you will still have significant gaps in your skills and knowledge about mathematics. If you haven’t been working hard since the beginning, you won’t have a foundation on which to build on.

The hill to climb from a Year 10 level of maths to a Year 10 A (extension) level is a steep one indeed. It might actually end up being to the detriment of a student’s studies of their other chosen subjects because it will take considerable time to achieve a satisfactory level.

When it comes to maths there is only one path to take:

Work hard on learning to master each concept as they are presented from the very beginning. Realise that maths truly is different and that understanding, focus and hard work can’t be delayed until later on when it’s “important”.

Mathematics learning is cumulative, and respecting and acting on this truth from day one can make all the difference to your future.

Photo credit: jimmiehomeschoolmom / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)