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Lessons from Archimedes

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Seeing that the provincial math curriculum was failing children, University of Winnipeg math professor Anna Stokke didn’t sit on her hands.

"There’s been a pendulum-swing in math education," says Stokke, who with her husband, fellow U of W math prof Ross Stokke, began running after-school remedial and enrichment math classes in their own home for three years.

Beginning in Sept. 2012, that initiative morphed into Archimedes Math Schools, which the River Heights residents founded with two other math professors. Archimedes offers low-cost, after-school group instruction in math for elementary students out of St. George’s Anglican Church in Crescentwood.

The present math curriculum isn’t without its positives, Stokke says, citing the (claimed) emphasis upon underlying mathematical concepts.

However it’s come at the expense, she continues, of students learning the basic skills needed to perform at ever-higher levels as their education progresses.

The Stokkes had heard similar complaints from similarly concerned parents. Not surprisingly then, there are now over 60 kids enrolled at Archimedes, some coming from as far as Fort Richmond and Lockport.

One frustrated parent was Susan Goldie of Winnipeg-based Norima Consulting, whose Grade 5-aged daughter joined the Stokke’s home-based classes after she started coming home from École Robert H. Smith School without "homework that had numbers.

"She hadn’t even been exposed to multiplication tables enough to master them," Goldie says.

Anna Stokke has been an outspoken critic of how math is being taught, having been featured in a March 2012 article in Maclean’s and written columns on the topic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 2011 and 2012.

She and colleagues have also posted an online petition through the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in math to raise the math requirements for teacher certification in Manitoba.

Among Stokke’s own findings have been absences of teaching basic algorithms – not only memorization of multiplication tables, but performing long division. Whereas Stokke has found fractions going untaught until Grade 7, at Archimedes "we teach it at the Grade 4 level."

What’s required, she declares, is a more balanced approach emphasizing both theory and practice.

At Archimedes, she continues, there’s also a desire to "open kids’ minds to the fascination of numbers." Goldie has personally observed students reactions: "They say, ‘It’s so cool that numbers do this!’"

She’s also observed classes applying math to real-world situations, and even turning it into a game.

The not-for-profit school receives sponsorship from numeracy charities Jump Math and the Canadian Mathematical Society, and also charges a tuition of $335 – for classes from September to May – to pay instructors and cover overhead.

There needs to be "quite a shift" in the curriculum to make things better, says Stokke, who’s also been among a body of advisors to the provincial government.

"We have incorporated feedback from our education partners into the revised K–8 curriculum, which we expect to introduce in schools this fall," says Naline Rampersad, press secretary to Nancy Allan, Minister of Education.

"Deputy Minister of Education [Gerald Farthing] has had very positive conversations with… Anna Stokke and other education partners," Rampersad continues.

Stokke plans in the meantime to run Archimedes through the 2013-2014 school year, and expand to include additional grades and locations.

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