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Why our kids fall behind in math

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My university math colleagues and I recently started a petition which calls on the government to raise math standards for Kindergarten to Grade 8 teachers.

Certainly, one of the most important things we can do to improve math education for children in this province is to ensure that our teachers get the training in math that they and their students deserve. The action suggested by the petition is a first, and necessary, step towards doing this.

Over the past week, I have listened to many opinions regarding what many perceive to be serious problems with math education in schools. Why are Manitoba students faring poorly in math compared to the rest of the country?

In addition to being a mathematician, I have two young children. As a mathematics professor, I see the skills of students who enter university courses and, as a parent, I talk to my kids about what they are doing at school. I see the alarming trends at both ends.

It is important to note that math has not changed recently -- the math or arithmetic kids are supposed to learn in grades K to 12 today is the same math that has been around for hundreds of years.

Yet, anyone who has a child in school in Manitoba will be aware that math teaching methods have changed. The focus seems to be on how math is taught as opposed to what is taught and these new methods for teaching math are supposedly backed by research.

I have spent a fair amount of time perusing math education articles and have observed that many of these new teaching methods are based on studies that fail to conform to proper statistical research study protocols (small sample sizes, lack of randomization, missing or improper control groups). I am therefore very dubious whenever I hear the term "research shows" in regards to math teaching methods.

How do kids end up falling behind in math?

Math is a very cumulative subject. To learn multiplication, one must be able to add; to learn division, one must be able to multiply; and to learn algebra, one must be fluent with the arithmetic of fractions. The list goes on.

When children do not learn one concept properly, it makes it difficult for then to learn another on which it relies. This is why the malaise in math education starts early -- in elementary school -- when kids should be learning the basics so they can move on to more difficult concepts.

When kids are moved through the system without mastering early concepts, both kids and teachers are frustrated, and a downward spiral can progress quite quickly.

Unfortunately, practise and memorization of number facts are no longer a priority in our schools. Children are instructed to use overly complicated "horizontal" methods to work out simple arithmetic problems. Now, simply knowing how to produce an answer to a basic multiplication question, no matter how long it takes, is considered to be a sufficient indicator of fluency.

Imagine the middle years student who gets stumped with an algebra problem because he or she needs to work out 9 x 4 by repeated addition: 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 = 36!

Kids are set up for failure if they are not required to memorize basic number facts. Without the memorized facts, they will become hung up on these simple numbers when they are trying to solve more difficult problems.

It is important to understand the concepts behind the math that is taught, but this should not be at the expense of basic arithmetic competency. A false dichotomy in math education is that memorization and practice of basic skills must come at the expense of understanding. This is simply not true -- one can, and should, have both.

(Kids should be able to tell you that 9 x 4 = 36 automatically, but they should also be able to tell you that this is because 9 + 9 + 9 + 9 = 36.)

We would not discourage a child from practising the piano or from memorizing piano scales since we know that this is the only way that they can become competent piano players. We also know that children can only become good in sports by rigorous and regular practise.

Similarly, children need to practise arithmetic skills, without calculators, do an adequate amount of pencil-and-paper math, and memorize times tables in order to become proficient in math.

Children need to be given time to do a reasonable amount of math daily at school and this needs to be a priority. Providing a child with a solid foundation in arithmetic is the most important thing elementary schools can do to ensure later success in math and to produce fully functioning numerate citizens.

How can Manitoba correct weaknesses in the early grades? First, we need to insist that elementary teachers have a high level of mathematics proficiency. Ideally, math specialists would be present in schools beginning at about Grade 3.

Beyond that, we need to ensure that children are sufficiently assessed at each grade and receive immediate intervention if they are falling behind; kids should not be pushed through the system when they are not ready for the next level unless they are given the support they need to succeed.

Math curricula needs to be reconsidered, particularly the de-emphasis on practice and memorization.

Our children deserve superior math instruction, guided by strong math curricula, so that they are not cheated of the opportunity to enter careers of their choosing.

If our children are doing poorly in math, we will have a shortage of tradespeople, engineers, technologists, scientists, mathematicians and economists, to name a few.

Our government needs to take action. The success of our children and our economy depends on it.

Anna Stokke is a professor in the mathematics and statistics department at the University of Winnipeg. She co-hosts a gaggle of Grade 4 kids in free math tutoring in her home biweekly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2011 A14

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