When Manitoba children return to school in September, they will encounter a revised math curriculum that expects them to memorize their times tables and learn to multiply and divide on paper and in their heads.
Also, children from kindergarten to Grade 8 will learn to do arithmetic before they use a calculator, parents will have a website helping them understand the math their kids are learning, and teacher candidates will be expected to take the heavier math courses in high school they'll later teach to children.
"That is basic foundational math they need to know -- that is knowing how to do conventional math... counting, memorizing math facts," Education Minister Nancy Allan said in an interview Monday. "Let's face it: Doing math in your head is important."
The minister said the revised curriculum makes Manitoba the first province in Western Canada to go back to placing an emphasis on basic skills previous generations had.
'A lot of kids were simply not learning how to add, subtract, multiply or divide efficiently'
"This is really, really exciting," Allan said. "This has come out of two years of serious work with our education partners. We have met with all the math professors, the superintendents have been part of this.
"We have made some curriculum changes, we have put in some benchmarks to help everyone get there," she said.
Every school division in Manitoba will have a numeracy adviser overseeing implementation of the new curriculum.
"I heard from parents" that their kids were lacking basic arithmetic skills, Allan said. "It was during the (2011) election campaign, and I picked this up on the doorstep."
It all starts in September, Allan said.
Math professors Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg and Robert Craigen of the University of Manitoba applauded the government's moves. Their Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math) group had been critical of the move away from basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing and away from memorizing multiplication tables.
Said Stokke: "All four standard algorithms have been put back in the curriculum (the vertical addition, subtraction, multiplication and long division previous generations learned in school). Parents were especially upset about these being excluded and a lot of kids were not learning how to add, subtract, multiply and divide efficiently.
"There is a specific requirement for times-table memorization now," Stokke said. "They have removed most of the language that disparaged practice or pencil-and-paper math. Language discussing the importance of practice, efficient computation and knowing math facts automatically was added."
Stokke said the province has decided technology can enhance but not replace learning.
But Stokke said much more could and should be expected of students in every grade than is required in the revised provincial curriculum: "We think that Manitoba students are capable of achieving much more than is being asked of them, and this is a curriculum that severely underestimates what kids are capable of learning."
Craigen noted the basic math skills "are the procedures everyone learned in grade school. Everyone, that is, until the recent WNCP (Western and Northern Curriculum Protocol) math curriculum as currently used across Western Canada (was introduced), at which point ministry officials, consultants and education faculties put on a concerted effort to convince teachers to avoid introducing them.
"This sent many teachers and most parents into confusion and left children without effective, efficient procedures for performing the most elementary tasks of arithmetic," Craigen said.
He said the prevailing attitude in recent years has been "that it is better for children to invent their own methods and to always have to think through the details of a mathematical problem, including elementary arithmetic, rather than using established methods."
Allan said the province will provide parents with a website to help them understand what their kids are learning. It will also allow parents to pose questions.
Stokke and her group had been especially critical of faculties of education accepting candidates who may have only studied consumer math in high school, but who would then graduate and teach applied math and pre-calculus to children.
Allan said talks are underway to fix that.
"We are in discussions with post-secondary institutions to ensure (university faculty of education) students are prepared to teach. We have to be sure our teacher candidates are prepared," the minister said.
Is the switch in teaching math skills the answer to one of the major problems ailing our education system? Join the conversation in the comments below.