Back to school: How parents can fight the fear of math

In a world where angst over mathematics reigns supreme as Canadian students falter in international test results and parental backlash comes out swinging against newer teaching methods, those same parents can also help their children flourish at school, experts say.

Being a positive role model for children is key

Parents can help their children with math by encouraging them to see how useful it is in daily life, including in the kitchen when cupcake recipes might have to be doubled for a big birthday party. (Simone van den Berg/Shutterstock)

When Jody MacArthur was in Grade 9, she had a fantastic math teacher who took a lot of time to explain the concepts.

Beyond that, however, math was always a struggle.

Now, as a Halifax parent of two elementary school-age girls, MacArthur says it's important to take the fear out of a subject that's easy to become frustrated with, and emphasize to children the importance of math and how it's used in everyday life.

"As parents, we keep hearing about the 'new math' and it’s intimidating for us. 'Friendly numbers' and 'mental math' just are not in our vocabulary," MacArthur said in an email. "I think that comes through to our kids, who can smell our fear."

A Grade 1 math textbook introduces students to addition and subtraction. (Sola DaSilva/CBC)

Education experts would say MacArthur is on to something, particularly in a world where angst over mathematics reigns supreme as Canadian students falter in international test results, and parents become flustered with teaching methods that are unfamiliar to those who grew up memorizing times tables.

"The anxiety around mathematics is unbelievable among parents, because they see the math their children are doing in schools as being so different from what they did," says Lynda Colgan, an associate professor in the faculty of education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"They're so intimidated by math, and societally, math has such a negative image, and it's perpetuated in so many different ways, subtly and explicitly."

Colgan is not-so-subtly doing what she can to debunk that negative image, leading workshops with parents and creating a tip sheet for them at the request of the Ontario Ministry of Education.

That tip sheet will be distributed province-wide this month. Among other things, it tells parents they are role models who can instil positive impressions of math in their children and help them recognize the usefulness of math in everyday life, whether they are weighing apples at the grocery store or playing math games on a rainy day.

Positive role models

For those who suggest the school system should be able to give children the knowledge they need to succeed and question why parents even need to be involved, Colgan turns to educational research.

"There's only one thing that has never wavered since it was first studied back in the 1950s, and that is the fact that children who have parents who are involved in their education...  those children do better at school," she says.

"When we transfer that to math education, the impact is even greater."

For Reva Seth, a Toronto mother of three boys, putting in the time to explain to her kids why math is relevant is vital.

"I still remember my frustration at struggling [in school] to learn concepts that felt utterly removed from anything I was doing or wanted to do," she said in an email.

Seth thinks the anxiety parents have around math is the result of several factors, including how we are constantly told that math and technology will be essential skills in a global economy, something that feeds into larger worries about career opportunities for kids down the road.

"That worry is further compounded by the sense that our education system is faltering — between the backlash against new math and Canada slipping out of the Top 10 in the latest international rankings of OECD countries — parents feel like they need to step in, except that so many of them are themselves not all that confident in math," says Seth, author of The Mom Shift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children.

Working together

But stepping in need not require great math prowess, experts suggest. People like Colgan and Peter Taylor, chair of the Education Committee for the Canadian Mathematical Society, say there are simple things parents can do.

"There are lots of good resources, games and puzzles, many of them exploratory, that require some calculations and that promote things like pattern recognition and an appreciation of structure," says Taylor, who is also a math professor at Queen's.

"The important thing, of course, is that these are activities that parents and kids can and should do together."

That said, Taylor notes that there are also a lot of Canadian families in which the parents — or parent — struggle to simply put food on the table, and there may be little time or energy for helping out with math.

Education Minister Liz Sandals says that there is a need to increase the number of math specialists teaching in Ontario classrooms, particularly within the elementary system. (CBC)

"So it is important to emphasize that the first responsibility for this activity lies with 'the state,' perhaps through extracurricular programs, community initiatives, etc," Taylor said in an email.

Right now, however, there's considerable parental concern about how "the state" is looking after math education. Petitions have flourished online in Alberta and Ontario calling for a return to more basic skills or a review of the current curriculum.

In Ontario this summer, the province spent $4 million on helping teachers learn to teach math better in a move to try to boost test scores on Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests. 

Parental angst over math was magnified late last year when an assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found Canadian students were slipping in math and science.

Sticking with it

Colgan says one of the reasons North American children don't do well in international tests has nothing to do with their skill with numbers. Instead, it has to do with their ability to persevere, because they are stressed by math, and when they're under stress, they won't even try to solve a problem.

In Eurasian and European countries, if a child isn't sure how to begin a problem, he or she will persevere, Colgan says, and try a few ideas until finding one that works.

"But if we rely only on memorization, children will never be able to actually do that," she says.

One private school just outside Toronto has decided to bring Asian math teaching methods into its own classrooms.

Three years ago, Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ont. introduced the Singapore Method for students in grades 5 to 8.

"It's been nothing short, I would say, of miraculous," says the head of the school, Adam de Pencier.

Since introducing the method, which de Pencier says "really slows the process of learning math down" and depends on pictorial representations such as graphs, student scores have "gone up sharply" on tests.

The school has found that it is critical to have a "really proficient teacher of mathematics," he says.

Talk to the teacher

De Pencier also suggests parents talk with their kids about how math is used in different contexts, and keep up good communication with their children's teachers, particularly if the students don't seem to be progressing.

One British Columbia family did just that last year when their daughter Alexandra was struggling with her Grade 2 assignments.

"The [number] groups and expanded notation were foreign to us, compared to what we grew up on," says Danielle Christopher of Langley, B.C.

Christopher sent her husband to talk to Alexandra's teacher. "She was fantastic, first answering emails and then offering a meeting."

Colgan says it's important for parents to remember they are part of the teaching team with their child's teacher, and they should spend uninterrupted time with their children, talking with them and having them explain what they are doing in class.

"When kids know their parents are invested in their well-being, in their achievement at school, they try harder and they succeed more, and it doesn’t have to be highfalutin' help," she says.

"All it has to be is a few simple questions. 'Tell me what you're doing ... What did you learn in school today?' It's all about simplicity."


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