Comment: Balanced approach needed to teach numeracy

A recent commentary about math education in B.C. requires a response and some clarification (“Province is botching mathematics education,” comment, Feb. 18).

I agree with the importance of practice and assessment as fundamental processes of good instruction, and that the fundamental principles of arithmetic are non-negotiable. Of course they are. It is how they are taught that is at issue.

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I also agree we must build on the successes of the past; any major change process that tries to move educational practice into the future should retain aspects that are still applicable in a modern context. However, that does not extend to being entrenched in old practice, especially when the evidence is clear that it does not work. Then we look to research, best practice and modern context to shape our instructional practices.

What I take issue with, based on research and best practice, is almost everything else. Terms such as “hyped up progressive fads,” “rabid fervour,” “any attempts at Math 10, pre-calculus or entry-level university mathematics will end in failure” are hyperbolic statements made to stir up emotions and frighten parents.

They are also demeaning to the efforts of incredibly dedicated provincial mathematics experts and teachers who are truly dedicated to serving the needs of children in a modern world. Let’s bring some rationality into the discourse.

As a math teacher working in public education, I see the damaging effects of teaching math procedurally every day. I see kids who retain little of what they were taught in previous grades, have memorized some rules but don’t know when to apply them, and more often misremember the rules or apply the wrong rules.

For example, I asked a class of Grade 6 students to come up with a situation that would be solved by finding the answer to 4 x 3. More than half the class gave situations such as this: “If Joey had four apples and Sammy had three apples, how many do they have all together?” I was looking for examples such as: “There are four baskets each with three apples in them, how many apples are there all together?”

What is the point of knowing that 4 x 3 = 12 if you don’t know what multiplication means and when to use it to solve problems? Our current curriculum is designed to address this problem. It is based on a Know-Do-Understand model, meaning that we want our students to be able to do math procedures, understand why they work and know when to apply them to solve problems.

This is a balanced approach that will help our students to be numerate. We currently do not have a numerate population. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development results suggest that Canadian adults fall below the average in numeracy, and as a math teacher I have heard countless adults (often in front of their children) admit to being terrible at math, hating math, never understanding math, etc.

I have never heard an adult openly admit to being illiterate. Why is it acceptable in our culture to be innumerate, but not illiterate?

The real problem we have with math education in this province is that the ministry has not trained the teachers on how to successfully implement the curriculum. Like most adults, teachers were taught traditionally, so many don’t have conceptual understanding of the math and they have never been taught how to teach math in any other way than the way they learned in school.

The irony of this is that critics who call for more traditional methods of teaching also criticize teachers’ lack of ability to teach math properly, yet these teachers were trained with the exact methods the critics are endorsing.

What we do need is more training for teachers so that they can develop a conceptual understanding of math, thus better equipping them with the skills to weave conceptual and procedural fluency into their daily math lessons.

This way of teaching is not a fad, nor is it new. There are decades-old research studies that show that procedural learning is not an effective way to teach students how to solve problems nor gain conceptual understanding of math.

I think if education critics actually spent time in classrooms on a regular basis they would change their tune quickly, because those of us who teach know that most students do not develop good number sense nor have good retention from learning procedurally.

Our goal is to equip them with literacy and numeracy skills they will need to be successful in their daily lives and chosen professions.

 

Nikki Lineham is a teacher and co-founder of Educating Now.

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