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Making it all add up

Whenever the education experts (including media pundits), government bureaucrats and parents would all line up to bemoan the latest international test scores of Alberta students — and then proceed to blame the teachers for them — I would always tell myself how glad I was that my kids were safely out of school.

And then I started having grandchildren. Does this mean I have to be invested in the next round of the “new math” debate, all over again? I guess so.

Here’s a question from an international Grade 8 level math test: Find 1/3 minus 1/4.

Four possible answers below the question are presented to test whether the student knows the method to finding the answer, which is 4 minus 3 over 3 times 4 (that’s 1/12 in the old math I was taught).

According to university math instructor Robert Craigen, in the last round of testing, Alberta students did no better than random guessing on this question. He says this was a lower score than — gasp! — American students, whom everyone acknowledges as the world’s back-row kids of the academic world.

I tried the question, and got it both wrong and right — which is the frustrating foundation of the new discovery-based method of teaching math. All in my almost-60-year-old head.

The mathematically-correct 1/12 is achieved by doing it right, using the method one of my least-favourite teachers tried to drill into me in junior high math. But the fuzzy-head method I used is just as correct (or so they would say these days).

Express 1/3 as 33.3 over 100. Express 1/4 as 25 over 100. Subtract. You get 8.3 over 100. Test the answer my multiplying by 12, and you get — wait for it — 99.6 over 100. Close enough? Without having the correct answer in advance, who would know?

The point here is that under the new curriculum that is supposed to be installed in Alberta this fall, I would likely have been rewarded with a good score on the question.

But a satellite guided by my calculations would probably have missed the planet Mars, or crash-landed, while the satellite guided by the rote-learning types would have landed safely, from whence it would be beaming really cool photos of the planet’s landscape back to Earth.

The discovery-based math curriculum is about more than freeing elementary kids from having to memorize the times tables. It is about more than multiplying equations (or calculating compound interest) later on. It is also about streaming kids early in the education system, by testing them at a time when math proficiency may not be fully-expressed in a kid’s brain.

I don’t really “get” math, but I get it more now than I did in junior high — and I hardly ever use it anymore. When I was streamed, I wasn’t ready.

But students are placed into math streams as young as 15 — and that can have lifetime consequences.

We pushed our kids into the “academic” math program in high school, to ensure they had maximum choice for career paths in post-secondary.

But now, there’s a new stream. There’s Math 31, Math 30-1 and Math 30-2, each a gold standard unto itself for entry into university programs.

Want engineering? Take Math 31 and Math 30-1. Calculus until your head spins.

Want nursing? It’s Math 30-2, which is more statistics and data than calculus.

Not sure what you want while still in your teens? Join a rather large club and take what your parents tell you to take. Chances are (statistics again), you’ll be fine.

I only hope my grandchildren know what they want and have the basics well in hand to make choices. And I have no idea which curriculum path is the right way to get there.

Here’s another problem: two 60-ish couples share a condo in the mountains for the weekend, and agree to split the rental. The deposit (X) was made by Couple 1 for half the cost, but a later discount was applied to the final bill (Y) paid by Couple 2.

How much does Couple 2 owe Couple 1?

While the wives were digging calculators out of their purses to add up the basic rate, taxes and fees, the fuzzy math guy figured out it was half the value of X minus Y. In his head. Which, with the cash in his pocket, balanced within a margin of $1.50.

Close enough. Curiosity has landed.

And our incredibly smart grandkids (that’s the only kind we ever have, right?) will do well enough in school, whatever.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email



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