Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/6/2015 (2308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I did not enjoy math as a kid. In fact, to say I didn't like it would be like saying that being hit by a meteor is an inconvenience. I hated it. It just didn't make sense to me and my classroom was a place where the only voice was that of the teacher and where we were expected to replicate the teacher's method as we slogged through unappealing word problems. I didn't feel actively engaged in my own learning. I don't think I was alone.
A 2005 Associated Press poll indicated that four out of 10 adults hated math in school. That was twice as much as any other subject.
Fast-forward many years. I love math now. For me, it was a realization I had been learning arithmetic, not mathematics and that arithmetic was answering the question, math was questioning the answer. We know now that being a good mathematical thinker and problem solver is at least as important as being good at calculation.
Anna Stokke, in her article Halting the slide in math (May 27), raises a couple of points that are misguided. She decries "trendy" techniques and claims they are responsible for the current state of math education. Sadly, this shows her lack of familiarity with the concept of constructivism: students are not empty vessels to be filled with information but beings who must create meaning in order to truly learn. The concept has its roots in the work of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and can be dated to the mid-18th century. Trendy? New? Hardly.
The other flaw in her thinking is the assumption our present woes in math are the result of adherence to this philosophy. Simply, this could not be further from the truth. I have spent a large part of my career in classrooms of other teachers, observing, coaching, and co-teaching. I have seen first-hand what works and what doesn't. I have seen classes of children absolutely enthralled by math, young learners anxious to share their strategies and listen to the viewpoints of others, kids who engage in math debates. It's wonderful to see.
Unfortunately, such classrooms are not the norm. Stokke claims the discovery movement (hardly a movement by any stretch of the imagination) has "taken over" schools in this province. Simply not true.
School mathematics, despite what Stokke would have us believe, remains largely a murky collection of disconnected skills taught in isolation. It has been pointed out that, of all the subjects taught in school, math is the one that has changed the least. In fact, instruction for the most part looks like it did 40 or 50 or 60 years ago: very teacher-directed, reliance on worksheets and drill, and little discussion of ideas among students.
Cathy Seeley, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, believes traditional methods have not served most of our students. As she says, "They have not learned the math we wanted them to learn, either in the past or more recently." Maybe it's time to change.
Nor do we need more testing and measurement to help us get better. That's like taking your temperature and expecting that to make you well. There is a principle in sociology known as Campbell's Law that states the more an indicator (in this case, tests) is used to make high-stakes decisions, the more likely that indicator will be corrupted. In other words, when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, the educational process is distorted in negative ways. High-stakes testing has been compared to performing an autopsy after the funeral: Whatever you learn from it is too late to use to save the patient.
So what do we need?
Teachers taking more math courses is a great start. This would help teachers focus on the big, interconnected ideas that drive math learning and help them recognize that while worksheets have a place, they should not be the sole focus of any program.
And the big question we need to ask ourselves? "What does it mean to teach and learn math?" Teachers who see math mainly as computational procedures that can be learned by rote will produce far different learners than teachers who can create and guide a community of young mathematicians who can debate, prove, question and yes, discover.
Problems we may have aren't caused by too many of such classrooms but by not enough of them.
Neil Dempsey is a school administrator in Winnipeg.