Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Right idea on math, wrong way to get there

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Dear Editor,

Re: Basic arithmetic back in class (June 18). Quick! What are your memories of school math? I've asked this question of many adults I've taught and most have a pretty grim recollection of that time. They recall it as being a focus on arithmetic, taught largely without understanding and involving plenty of drills and worksheets. Many of these people are the ones you run into at parties, stating almost as a badge of honour that they can't do math.

And now, according to Anna Stokke, these same people, the ones who suffered through that most arcane and ill-understood algorithm, long division, would gladly inflict the same punishment on their children. It's what the noted education critic Alfie Kohn calls the Listerine view of education: It's awful so it must work.

As a math educator, I am dismayed by the backward step taken by the provincial government. While high-performing countries such as Finland and Japan move away from memorization of math facts, we embrace it. While Australia, another world leader in mathematics, encourages the use of calculators on the basis that they support the development of number sense, we now discourage it.

Difficulty with math is nothing new. One can read decades-old accounts of teachers saying the same things as today. The difference is they couldn't blame the problems on a lack of memorization or the standard algorithm, since both of those things figured prominently in math education of the time.

Students need to be proficient in math, and that's a point that is not even up for debate. They do need to know their facts and be able to use a method of computation that is efficient and reliable. It is in discussion of these issues in particular that things become heated.

The move by the province to help kids do better in math is entirely laudable but misguided. Instead of bringing back the long-division algorithm (which has been called the least understood algorithm in math, by the way) and suggesting teachers take higher-level courses in the subject, we need courses that focus deeply on elementary math.

A pre-calculus course does not help the teacher who is asked by a student why the invert-and-multiply procedure works when dividing fractions, how the array model of multiplication links to polynomials in later grades, or the stages kids go through as they develop number sense.

Kids can do better in math. It's too bad the province has taken the first steps in the wrong direction to try to make this happen.

Neil Dempsey

Winnipeg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2013 A13

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