'Math wars' shouldn't sidetrack education debate, UNB prof says

New Brunswick politicians must avoid getting “sucked into math wars” and find ways to support teachers and parents to teach crucial math skills.

David Wagner says parents should avoid blaming teachers, curriculum if their children struggle in math

UNB's David Wagner said New Brunswick students are performing well in mathematics but improvements can be made. (iStockphoto)

New Brunswick politicians must avoid getting “sucked into math wars” and find ways to support teachers and parents to teach crucial math skills.

Education has been a focus this week during the election campaign as the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals released their education strategies.

New Brunswick's results in international tests are often portrayed negatively, but a University of New Brunswick education professor said that isn't the case with math.

David Wagner, the associate dean of education at the University of New Brunswick, said international math scores show New Brunswick students are performing well, ranked sixth among Canadian provinces, and putting them on par with students in Finland, Poland and Germany.

Wagner said it is important to think about ways the province can to improve how math is taught to students.

But he said New Brunswick cannot slip into the “math wars” that are being waged in other countries, such as the United States.

“In the math wars, as with any war, there are elements of truth behind the claims of the warring parties. The problem is with oversimplification,” Wagner said in an op-ed written for CBC News.

Wagner warns that provincial politicians should avoid the "math wars" that are being played in other countries, such as the United States. (Submitted by David Wagner)
“The math wars boil up when people claim that children are not being taught basic math procedures. They ridicule any efforts to support children’s understanding of what they are doing.”

He said math wars are often coded in the rhetoric of “tradition” versus “reform.” Wagner said it is more accurate to change the conversation to describing the two different approaches to “teaching how” versus “teaching why.”

Instead of pitting the two sides against each other, the UNB education professor said it is better for politicians and parents to understand that the debate about teaching styles should be viewed on a continuum and not as binary options.

“New Brunswick curriculum currently demands both. It would be devastating if any party sought to change this because the result would be teachers looking over their shoulder worried about criticism instead of focusing their attention on the students,” he wrote.

The United States is going through an intense debate over how subjects, such as math, are taught in classrooms across the country.

My hope for New Brunswick is that we don’t get sucked into math wars, and that we all learn to use math to address our individual and community needs.- David Wagner

The Common Core initiative establishes what students from kindergarten to Grade 12 should know in arts and mathematics at the end of each grade.

The concept behind the Common Core strategy is to put in place consistent educational standards across the United States and better prepare students for post-secondary education.

The Common Core curriculum has turned into a political football for state and national politicians and experts. Comedian Louis C.K. waded into the Common Core debate earlier this year when he tweeted how the new standards have made his math-loving kids “cry.”

Wagner said he believes math education is too important to be sidetracked by political debates.

He said students need to understand how to use math, but also when to use it in their daily lives.

“Our children, and adults (because we missed this as children) have not learned to discern when to use math to address critical social issues and when to question the math used by others,” he said.

Wagner said if a child is struggling in math, parents should not "get sucked into blaming the teacher or curriculum."
“Statistics and risk calculation are becoming increasingly important and ought to be given more attention, especially in relation to social issues.”

Wagner said steps can be undertaken to improve math education, but he isn’t calling for sweeping reforms.

He said teachers need better professional development when it comes to math education.

The education expert also said parents need to change the way they are involved in math homework.

“If a child is struggling, let us not get sucked into blaming the teacher or curriculum. It is better to support their efforts,” he said.

Wagner said this support could come in the form of listening to how the child is trying to solve math problems or to help them memorize basic facts.

“My hope for New Brunswick is that we don’t get sucked into math wars, and that we all learn to use math to address our individual and community needs,” he said.

About the Author

Daniel McHardie


Daniel McHardie has been a reporter with CBC.ca in New Brunswick since 2008. He also co-hosts the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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