Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/9/2011 (2070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You're sitting in the chair, waiting for the dentist. He arrives, and as he's getting ready to peer into your mouth, he casually says, "Yep. I graduated in 1971. Haven't done a bit of upgrading since then." Whoa. You're gone. You can't get out his office fast enough.
Just as we expect that professions such as law and medicine remain on the cutting edge of knowledge and expertise, we expect the same from teachers. What we know now about when children should learn concepts and how they learn them is vastly different from even a decade or two ago.
Anna Stokke, in her article Why our kids fall behind in math (Sept. 16), makes some worthwhile points, particularly when she stresses that children must have a solid foundation in math and receive early intervention if they fall behind. However, she raises a number of other issues which are misguided and reflect a view of school mathematics that is outdated and much like the dentist, accepted in its day but now we know better.
She states that the math is largely unchanged but disparages the different method of teaching. Sure. The math is pretty much the same, but thank goodness for the change in delivery. What she advocates is a return to something referred to as "drill and kill" for learning math facts.
Kids should memorize their facts as opposed to newer methods "supposedly backed by research." The assertion that these are not research-based is completely without basis. There is a great deal of data gathered worldwide from rigorous studies which all point to the same conclusion: instead of memorization, children need strategies to learn their facts. The result is that kids not only learn their facts, their recall (again, another study) is significantly better than similar-age kids who have gone the memorization route.
As far as memorization is concerned, no less an august body than the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics uses the term "number combinations" instead of "number facts" and states they do so "to emphasize that the knowledge is relational and need not be memorized mechanically."
Contrary to what Stokke claims, children are not "instructed" to use horizontal methods to work out problems. For example, if faced with an addition problem such as 19 + 12, young children might take one from the 12 and add it to the 19, making the problem 20 + 11. Or they might add 10 + 10 to get 20, add 9 + 2 to get 11 and combine the two. There are a number of ways to approach this but all have the same thing in common: they make sense to the child. Forcing a child to line up the numbers and regroup makes children abandon the thinking that makes sense to them and has been shown (by numerous researchers) to lead to very fragile sense of place value. This has huge implications for further math learning. Researchers (sorry, there's that research thing again) in New Zealand have stated, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that standard algorithms should come with a health warning and not be taught to children younger than Grade 4.
Do we need a high level of proficiency in math teaching? Sure. Is our goal one of raising student achievement and equipping kids with the math tools they need to function effectively in society? Absolutely. But we do this through effective, reflective practice, not by blindly adhering to outdated approaches that have characterized instruction for the past century.
Neil Dempsey is a Winnipeg math support teacher.