The article Teachers' math skills alarmingly weak (Free Press, Sept. 10) is best seen as a signal that we need to fix a festering concern that has existed for years in the school system.
Mathematics teaching, in far too many elementary classrooms, is inadequate. Students are too often being shuffled up the grade-system ladder until they reach a crisis point. Then nothing is really fixed; it is merely shunted aside.
What is the typical kindergarten to Grade 8 education student's attitude toward and understanding of mathematics? This comment from one of the teachers in training provides some insight:
"I have never been good at math, and I haven't had anything to do with math other than the practical everyday uses of math. This year I am in a Grade 3 classroom. I am afraid of making a mistake, and I am also afraid that my co-operating teacher will think that I am stupid (when it comes to math), and as a result, I get a complete mental block when it comes to math in the classroom. When the teacher sends the students to me to correct their papers, I am afraid that I will do the question wrong. I feel unable to even think of simple concepts because of my fear of failure."
I used to assess how well my education students understood the mathematics concepts contained in the K-8 mathematics curriculum at the start of my mathematics methods course. Over 10 years, the average score was about 40 per cent, with 70 per cent of students earning a score in the range of 28 per cent to 48 per cent. These results are consistent with findings across North America about the mathematics conceptual knowledge of K-8 teachers-to-be. I discontinued doing the assessment. There were better things to do with class time than to discover the same thing over and over again.
Matters are interesting as well in the practicum portion (10 weeks a year) of our teacher preparation program. My students too frequently report that they see mathematics taught only occasionally and/or that the teaching involves doing worksheets or pages from a textbook.
This cannot be described as an inspiring experience for my students.
What can be done about inadequate mathematics teaching in the school system? While raising university mathematics admission standards for K-8 teachers-to-be may seem like a step in the right direction, it is not going to fix the problem. There are three arenas that need major overhaul if we are going to accomplish anything substantial to help schoolchildren in Manitoba enjoy and be good at mathematics.
One arena is what takes place in an undergraduate degree. A teacher-preparation program has no say in what kind of mathematics is taught or how it is taught. University mathematics courses such as calculus are intended for fields that require mathematical rigour and sophistication, such as science and engineering.
K-8 teachers have no need of that type of course. They require mathematics courses that deepen and extend their understanding of the mathematics in the Manitoba K-8 curriculum. A teacher education program must have a strong voice in the design of an undergraduate degree if we are serious about improving mathematics teaching in the school system.
Another arena is the way mathematics methods courses are taught. Part of the delivery should involve working with K-8 students in a school setting. This seems like a simple thing to arrange, but it is not.
Timetabling issues, staffing problems and university rules and regulations get in the way. I managed to teach part of my mathematics methods course in a school setting for two consecutive years. Then the roadblocks became too powerful, ending the project. Having teaching schools (akin to teaching hospitals) and looser ties with the rest of the university would largely remove those roadblocks.
The third arena is the classroom. The critical grade levels for developing initially strong and positive mathematics understanding and attitudes are from kindergarten to Grade 6. Yet, this is where teachers are most likely to dislike and not feel comfortable teaching mathematics. I wonder how parents would feel if they sent their child to a soccer school where the coach was afraid of soccer and thought you kicked the ball with your elbows.
Part of the issue in the classroom is the archaic and ludicrous expectation that one person, the elementary teacher, should be able to teach and do everything well for all students. It may have been possible 60 years ago when regimented show-and-tell teaching with student regurgitation of what was taught was the norm, when inclusivity was an unknown word and when social engineering programs such as anti-bullying were unlikely to be found.
Nowadays, teaching is a far more complex and difficult task. For example, mathematics teaching is supposed to encourage and develop sense-making and meaning. This requires a good understanding of the mathematics being taught and appropriate teaching models.
Elementary teachers realize the predicament, but they are trapped by the ludicrous expectations. A much better approach might be for two teachers to be responsible for teaching 40 to 50 children. One of the teachers is strong in the humanities; the other is strong in science and mathematics. This approach might result in better learning and far less stress and preparation demands for the teachers.
To conclude, two of the three arenas that need reworking are in the university that graduates teachers. We need to start there in order to improve mathematics teaching in our school system. In the classroom, elementary teachers need to become proactive about redefining teaching assignments and reorganizing classroom structures.
Jerry Ameis is a member of the faculty of education at the University of Winnipeg.
The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to firstname.lastname@example.org.