New Brunswick Votes·Opinion

Politicians must 'avoid being sucked into math wars'

New Brunswick politicians should avoid being "sucked into math wars" and focus on helping students learn, according to UNB education professor David Wagner.

UNB professor David Wagner says a strong understanding of mathematics is crucial for students

The University of New Brunswick's David Wagner warns that provincial politicians should avoid the "math wars" that are being played in other countries, such as the United States.

The upcoming provincial election gives us a unique way to reflect on the place of math in our schools. I am thankful that the political parties vying to represent us have not turned math education into a political football.

Elsewhere in Canada, and more so in the United States, math wars (yes, they are called wars) have wrought destruction as some vocal parents and educators have bashed each other for their practices and views.

The victims of math wars include our children and the truth. 

Looking at the party websites, I see little explicit mention of education issues in the policy statements for this election.

The NDP, the Liberals, and the incumbent Progressive Conservatives have chosen to focus on other issues.

The People’s Alliance promises significant changes to schooling while reminding us of how destructive previous governments’ significant changes to school policy and structure have been.

The Green Party aims to add focus on civic education and co-op programs.

Although none of the parties make mention of math in particular, some politicians have made recent statements about our poor math performance.

New Brunswick is performing well

Let me set the record straight.

New Brunswick students could be doing better when it comes to math scores. (Sola DaSilva/CBC)
International comparison studies show that we are doing well in Canada and in New Brunswick. When the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were released in November, countless news articles and statements from special interest groups said we were failing miserably. 

It is interesting to see that articles in other countries point to Canada as a model. Likewise, the PISA documents praise us for ensuring that students understand their math, and for giving good resources to all students, rich and poor.

Our PISA scores were in the middle of the above average OECD countries — about the same as Finland, Poland, and Germany. We were behind Korea and ahead of Denmark, both of which were above average.

By comparison, the United Kingdom and Norway are in the OECD average, and the United States and Sweden are below average.

New Brunswick ranked sixth among the Canadian provinces, in the same range as Denmark — still above the OECD average range. Our Anglophone and Francophone systems are more equal than in any other province.

I encourage readers to look at the PISA documents when doomsayers claim we are failing.

'Math wars' lead to oversimplification

We are doing well, but I am sure we all want to do better. Math is an important tool for understanding our world.

We can use it to identify what is important, to convince others, and to protect ourselves from being manipulated. Thus, it is worth thinking about how we might do better as a province and how we can help our own children do better.

Our children, and adults ...have not learned to discern when to use math to address critical social issues and when to question the math used by others. Statistics and risk calculation are becoming increasingly important and ought to be given more attention, especially in relation to social issues.- David Wagner

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.

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.

The rhetoric pits “tradition” against “reform.” It is more accurate to distinguish between teaching children to “know how” to do procedures and to “know why” they work.

The tradition-reform language is dangerous because it suggests that teaching for understanding is new. The truth is that both “teaching how” and “teaching why” are as old as public schooling and so are the arguments.

I have never encountered a teacher at any level of education who teaches only how or only why. Teachers teach procedures and give students experiences that help them understand those procedures. 

We might ask where someone is on the continuum between procedure and understanding, but it is ridiculous to claim that a teacher focuses only on one end of this continuum.

What does this mean for educators in New Brunswick? We must recognize that both are necessary — knowing how to do the procedure and knowing why it works.

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.

If I were to suggest new policy, it would be to support wider professional development, and to add another form of knowing — “knowing when.”

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. Statistics and risk calculation are becoming increasingly important and ought to be given more attention, especially in relation to social issues.

Implications for parents

And for parents, what does it mean? We know that children have struggled with math as long as it has been taught.

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

Talk with the teacher and your child to identify the particular sources of struggle. Ask them what you can do to help. This might involve playing games that help your child memorize basic facts.

It might involve listening to your child do their math, which may take you beyond the math you learned or understood. Active listening includes asking questions: Why did you put that there? What other ways can you think of for doing this?

Don’t judge the child or the teacher. Instead, listen. Praise the child for ingenuity and for explaining the way he or she is thinking. It will help you understand your child.

This is what I learned to do in my years of helping students. In almost every case, the biggest problem was the child’s confidence. Criticizing the child or the teacher only undermines confidence.

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.

About the Author

David Wagner

Education expert

David Wagner is the associate dean of education at the University of New Brunswick. He researches the teaching and learning of mathematics and he trains beginning and experienced teachers.

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