Emily Burke (MA '09, UWO) loves being a production assistant for CBC's Cross Country Checkup because she gets to speak directly to interesting people from all over the country. She lives in Toronto and writes on a wide range of topics from municipal politics to food sustainability to all things arts and culture. She hates to go a day without listening to CBC radio.
Emily Burke writes on Canadian math student woes:
Zach Bedard learned his times tables years ago in math class, but the grade eight Markham, Ontario student is noticing a surprising number of classmates who still don't have a grasp on basic multiplication. "There are kids in my class who don't know how to multiply six times seven," said Bedard. "That seems like a problem."
Bedard's concern for his classmates is part of a larger and troubling trend across the country - Canadians performance in math has dropped over the last few years. In the most recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada ranked tenth place in math skills out of seventy countries, down three spots from the previous OECD survey.
Some believe the decline in skills has to do with a change in the way math is taught. For years the emphasis was on rote learning, which involves drills and memorization of multiplication tables and basic exercises. This gave students a solid foundation and taught them how to solve equations, but sometimes left them without an understanding of why they came to the answer. In the last few decades, there's been a shift in math curricula to focus on teaching the deeper concepts, using grids and colour blocks to help students understand math in visual and conceptual ways.
The trouble is, students are often being taught these concepts before they've mastered basic arithmetic and many are arguing that if students don't have the skills to get to the answer, there's not much use in learning the conceptual meaning behind the answers. And some are finding that the skills being skimmed over in the classrooms are very rudimentary.
"We never learned long division," said Christian Charbonneau, a grade 11 student in Cornwall, Ontario. "Everyone uses a calculator for everything," Though long division was taught in his class, there wasn't sufficient practice and drilling for the students to master the technique so he and many of his classmates aren't able to do simple, pen-and-paper long division, said Charbonneau.
This changing approach to math is also difficult on parents trying to help their kids with homework and getting stuck because the new approach to math is foreign to them as well. "The problems are so convoluted in these books," says Heather Knight, the mother of a grade eight student in Calgary. Asking students to work through concepts without giving them the nuts and bolts skills to do so is "putting the horse before the cart. It's incredibly frustrating."
This shift to new math also means all the old textbooks got tossed out and replaced by new ones, which also equals big money for textbook publishers. "Publishers make lots of money every time the curriculum changes," said Margaret Bellerby from Sparwood, B.C. whose been teaching for 30 years. "Every new curriculum, the textbooks move farther away from teaching basic math skills." The more problems there are with the curriculum, the more frequently it has to be changed, with fresh new textbooks being shipped in every time.
On top of the curriculum shifts, it doesn't help that in elementary schools, some homeroom teachers are instructing math right up to grade eight. These are teachers who may not have gone beyond grade 11 math in their own education and yet are still expected to teach students the complexities of mathematical concepts, which they may not even fully understand themselves, says Jeremy Bass, a French and math teacher from Toronto. "To properly teach numeracy requires a deeper understanding on the part of the teacher." This is especially true now that teachers are expected to go beyond rote memorization and actually teach the meaning behind the methods.
Some elementary schools have a designated math class for students in younger grades, led by a teacher with a specialty in math. Considering that multiplication tables are taught in grade two and long division only a couple years later, Bass recommends starting students with these specialist math teachers as early as possible.
Gaps have formed in important parts of the curriculum, according to a study from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. "Traditional math education methods are superior to the highly ineffective, discovery-based instructional techniques that are in vogue now in educational curricula," finds the author of the study, Michael Zwaagstra. "It is important for our schools that students graduate with solid math skills. Not only are they essential in the workplace, they are a necessary foundation for success in many college and university programs."
This struggle between the old school method and the new style of math may be misguided, and in fact the better solution is likely to meet somewhere in the middle. Why does it have to be one or the other? Rote learning and memorization drills may be necessary, but students will have a more developed mathematical intellect if those exercises are paired with teachings of the deeper concepts.
The barebones, memorization-focused approach to math does take some of the thought and creativity out of it. But trying to skip students straight to the creative work without teaching them basic math skills like multiplication and division is like asking students to analyze literature without teaching them to read.