Comment: Lack of basic math skills holding children back

Does anyone know what a Sudoku math puzzle is? How about lattice multiplication?

These are two strategies my eldest child used to learn her multiplication tables — when she was nine years old. Many more convoluted strategies followed, leading to increased frustration and greater despair with her arithmetic homework.

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My other child was reduced to tears when trying to understand the various strategies and language used in her Math Makes Sense textbook. Her math homework used to frustrate her so much that she eventually lost interest in the subject. If it wasn’t for the intervention of some excellent teachers and Kumon for our eldest, both would have fallen through the cracks and become victims of discovery-based math.

A recent C.D. Howe report firmly places the blame of our lagging math skills on discovery-based math. The author of the report, Anna Stokke, said there was overwhelming evidence revealing the shortcomings of discovery-based instruction, and it was time to put more emphasis on direct instruction to help reverse the decline in student achievement.

Stokke also pointed out that British Columbia experienced a 16-point decline in our Program for International Student Assessment scores between 2003 and 2012. This decrease in scores is statistically significant, which indicates there is a serious problem with how B.C. students are learning math.

Alberta’s decline was much more significant, with a decrease of 36 points. It’s interesting to note that Alberta’s math curriculum has a much stronger emphasis on discovery-based principles, and the result has been abysmal for their students.

Many Canadian provinces adopted discovery-based curriculums about 15 years ago. Newer curricula and textbooks appeared, advocating the use of multiple strategies in the classroom, replacing more conventional methods for teaching arithmetic. The result of this phenomenon has led to a remarkable decline in math skills, and a proliferation of children enrolled in costly learning centres to achieve knowledge of foundational math facts.

These centres and private tutors use more conventional and traditional methods to teach their students, because they have been proven to work. This is something to which our policy-makers must pay attention.

In another recent report, the Canada West Foundation determined that 40 per cent of all employees could increase their productivity if they had better basic skills such as math, reading and writing.

The interesting part is that a lot of chatter behind 21st-century learning, i.e. discovery-based learning, places a greater emphasis on creativity and collaborative learning, which pundits claim is more important than having strong foundational skills for our 21st-century workforce.

They are wrong. Knowing your times tables, adding and subtracting in your head, and knowing how to spell are more important than ever in the constantly changing workplace. Googling the answer does not make you smarter.

A final point involves the way children think. Research in cognitive science has proven that introducing a number of different strategies to children when they haven’t mastered their math facts overloads their minds, causing frustration to set in.

So if the evidence suggests children learn best through mastering their facts before being introduced to the next concept, why are they being taught a wide variety of convoluted strategies before they understand what they’re doing? Math hasn’t changed, and neither has the way children think or process information. The key to success is daily practice, memorization and learning arithmetic effectively through addition and subtraction in columns, long division and mastering fractions in elementary school.

That is what the evidence tells us. None of these methods are included in discovery-based principles, and none of these standards exist in our current provincial math curriculum. And the newly drafted curriculum is even more watered down, with standards slipping even further, all with a greater emphasis on discovery-based, 21st-century learning.

Our math initiative is calling for common-sense arithmetic to be taught in our schools. It’s about moving forward to the fundamentals. We demand proper support and resources for our front-line teachers, and that the math curriculum be reviewed to include specific methods such as using the four standard algorithms, memorizing the multiplication tables and daily practice to learn arithmetic.

Effective math instruction has always included a balanced approach for learning. Pure discovery strategies ignore the mastery of foundational skills, which is why we must insist that our policymakers listen to the evidence.

Fundamentally, taxpayers have a minimum expectation that the province will undertake evidence-based practices in the administration of its responsibilities. This is particularly true of education. Why haven’t they responded to our concerns?

Tara Houle of North Saanich is a parent advocate for common-sense math instruction.

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