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Numbers game

Educators say parents need to show their kids that math matters in the real world

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Panicked parents are desperate to know: Can my son count? Does my daughter know her multiplication tables?

And if their sums aren't up to snuff, what can parents do to help?

Manitoba kids overall scored abysmally in a national math test reported this week by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, finishing second-lowest in the country.

How to help, parental units?

First off, model proper attitudes for your kids: Don't give them that guff about how your parents can't do math and how you hated math when you were in school and can't do math now, because it's way too hard.

"You don't say, 'I can't do reading,' " reasoned Clifton School math teacher Antonio DiGeronimo.

Next, go and see the teacher and get her assessment of how grounded your child is in math. As they are at many schools, West Kildonan Collegiate's math teachers are available during their lunch break, said Gerry Cor, the school's principal.

There are oodles of resources available, say teachers and professors: fun math books in the children's section of libraries and bookstores; online sources such as JUMP or Singapore Math; resource material galore on the provincial Department of Education website.

"I tell parents they need to immerse their child in numbers in real-life situations. Playing games is very key. We're trying to hook the brain into thinking something is fun and worthwhile," advised Harry Bell, instructional resource co-ordinator for the Louis Riel School Division.

"Finding math in daily life would be a recommendation for parents," echoed Angela Bubnowicz, a teacher at Ecole Riverbend School.

Take the kids grocery shopping. Cook with them and assign them the responsibility of measuring out portions.

"How much is the price of an item on the shelf? And how much money do you have?" said Bubnowicz.

"I play a version of War with my daughter to get her to learn times tables, whereby I remove J,Q,K from the deck and give each of us half the deck. We each flip a card and the first to come up with the product of the two cards wins the two cards (the parents can add 156 to the product so the adult doesn't have the advantage)," said University of Winnipeg math Prof. Anna Stokke.

She and her husband, U of W math Prof. Ross Stokke, run a math club at their home for Grade 4 students.

"For basic addition and subtraction, there is a game called Sequence that is sold at McNally Robinson that is helpful. When we are driving, I make up number word problems for my kids and get them to give me the answer," Stokke pointed out.

Stokke is one of the organizers of WISE Math (Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math) at wisemath.org. Academics are seeking parents' support in lobbying for curriculum changes and changes to K-8 math teacher training.

University of Manitoba dean of education Robert Macmillan said provinces such as Alberta and Ontario, whose students are doing well in math, conduct provincewide standards testing, but they use that testing to see where the curriculum needs to be improved.

Ontario identifies low-performing schools and pours in extra help, Macmillan said.

Those provinces develop research-based curricula, Macmillan said -- they adjust curricula to use what the latest research shows works.

An advocate of games and taking kids grocery-shopping, Macmillan also suggests parents read what their kids are learning. "Curricula are public documents."

Look to Ontario, said Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O'Leary, president of the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents. "Ontario has had a very determined focus on reading, math and equity -- lots of discussions with teachers about what really works," O'Leary said.

One teacher and parent, Leanne Kochan of Fisher Branch Collegiate, said teachers are already going the extra mile for students -- it's the parents who need to get involved in their children's education, to help their children and ensure the kids do their homework and complete assignments.

"Parents should get off their behinds and come and spend a day with their child and see the behind-the-class scene to get a peek, just a peek into what their child does all day long when they, the parents, aren't with them," Kochan said.

"I send out a challenge to all the parents who are the 'slackers.' Wake up and smell the coffee!"

U of M math Prof. Robert Craigen, another founder of WISE Math, organizes math contests. Schools used to enter national math contests to challenge the best math students, but no longer, he said, and that can explain why we underperform at the heights of excellence, as well as underperform at the lowest level in the national tests.

"There is a strong culture of anti-competitiveness in Manitoba schools. It is sold as a sort of egalitarianism, but it comes couched in the language of anti-elitism," Craigen said.

"In current parlance, the bright kids who are keen on math are the one per cent, and they are given plenty of reason to keep their heads down in this environment," Craigen said. "Surely there must be a way to design the system so that fewer are left behind, the average is raised and those striving for excellence are also given the opportunities they need."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Explaining

a bad grade

THE Council of Ministers of Education, Canada tested Grade 8 students from the 10 provinces and Yukon in math in the spring of 2010. Manitoba finished ahead of only Prince Edward Island, scoring 468 points against a Canadian average of 500.

It's obvious, on the most superficial level, why our overall score was so low.

The test broke down results by four levels of performance. Sixteen per cent of Manitoba kids scored at the lowest level, compared to nine per cent nationally, seven per cent in Alberta and eight per cent in Ontario and Quebec. At the top of the scale, one per cent of Manitoba kids excelled in the highest category, compared to four per cent nationally.

Why so many Manitobans did so poorly, why so few excelled, are the subject of all kinds of speculation -- kids from improverished backgrounds, lack of programs for gifted kids, class sizes, the wording of the test, who wrote the random test, parents unable or unwilling to help their kids learn, the so-called no-fail policy officials deny exists, the lack of standards testing, the number of students for whom English is a second language.

Education Minister Nancy Allan has ordered bureaucrats, teachers, trustees and superintendents to find out why Manitoba students did so poorly and to recommend what can be done about it.

Whose math is it, anyway?

IT'S not our math, nor our parents' math, nor our grandparents' math.

Let Julie Smerchanski, director of assessment and instructional support services, take a crack at explaining it.

We all know what Pythagoras figured out about triangles back in the day, Smerchanski said. Everyone knows that A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared, right?

We had that drummed into us.

"We didn't know why it was true," said Smerchanski. We memorized it, and we used it, but we didn't understand it.

Today, before kids learn the theory, they learn what A is, they learn what A-squared is, they learn why you square the A.

"Why wouldn't you want to know why it works?" said Smerchanski.

Well, because we had to memorize it, not understand it. That's how we were taught math.

Clifton School math teacher Antonio DiGeronimo says that if he asks parents to multiply 12 times 12, they know the answer, because they memorized their times tables. But 12 times 13 can throw parents, whereas his students know several ways to reach the answer.

At Forest Park School in Seven Oaks School Division, teachers Sabrina Slessor and Karen Hartikainen use bingo chips, cards with varying numbers of different-coloured dots and bead strings with alternating sets of 10 red and 10 white beads that can be moved to show the concepts of addition and subtraction visually.

Teachers emphasize that kids still learn to add and subtract, multiply and divide, but now they learn the relationships among numbers, they learn how and why they work out an answer.

"They need to have the conceptual understanding first," said Maples Collegiate teacher Gwen Birse.

Like us, said Slessor, Grade 3 students at Forest Park know that two times three and three times two are both six. But the kids also know that two sets of three and three sets of two are different things altogether. For us, nailing the six was enough.

"People want to see drill and practice because that was their comfort zone. Doing that 100 times on a piece of paper doesn't help kids understand it," said Jennifer McGowan, a teacher at Ecole Seven Oaks Middle School.

"We understand parents will always default to what they know," Hartikainen said.

"What we understand was procedure -- borrowing, carrying. What we want to get is the process of how we get to the solution," Hartikainen said.

And let's let Meagan Mutchmor, WSD's K-8 math consultant, illustrate that last point.

If we old-timers wanted to subtract 498 from 505, said Mitchmor, we'd put the 505 above the 498, borrow 10 from the zero so we could subtract eight from 15 to get seven. But students might see that, logically, 505 is a greater number than 498, yet five minus eight won't produce a positive answer. They might see that 498 is two less than 500, then add the five, and get seven, said Mutchmor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 A6

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