Adding up education’s woes

There’s a lot of talk lately about “new” math and “old” math. If I had to distill the math wars down to a simple idea, I would probably say that constructivist (new) math calls for an increase emphasis on understanding while simultaneously calling for a decrease emphasis on direct instruction of facts and algorithms.

There’s a lot of talk lately about “new” math and “old” math.

If I had to distill the math wars down to a simple idea, I would probably say that constructivist (new) math calls for an increase emphasis on understanding while simultaneously calling for a decrease emphasis on direct instruction of facts and algorithms.

The math wars get heated when critics come to see these changes to mean an elimination of basic skills and precise answers.

I would like to address three frequently asked questions about constructivist math:

l Math hasn’t changed and neither have kids, so why are we changing how we teach math?

Maybe math and children haven’t changed, but our understanding for how children learn math is more sophisticated than generations ago.

Memorization is important and it is a very real product of learning, but memorization is not the primary purpose. Memorization is something that happens because children learn and understand mathematics first.

l In math there is one right answer. Doesn’t this new math just confuse kids and convince them to hate it?

Let’s not pretend that traditional math instruction didn’t confuse and turn a lot of students off of math. When adults think back on their schooling, it’s easy to succumb to something called nostesia, which is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50 per cent nostalgia and 50 per cent amnesia, which distorts rational thinking.

I remember dividing fractions. I was told to flip the second fraction and then multiply. It was a trick that enabled me to get high scores on tests. To this day, I have absolutely no idea why I flip the second fraction and multiply. This felt like magic when it should have been math.

If we want to confuse and turn students off math, I can think of no better strategy than to make math a ventriloquist act where children are merely told the most efficient ways of getting the right answer. However, when students are simply told the most efficient way of getting the answer, they get in the habit of looking to the adult or the book instead of thinking things through.

l Canada’s ranking on international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are dropping. Doesn’t this mean we should go back to basics and traditional math?

Since 2009, Alberta has dropped from ninth to 10th place in world rankings. A two per cent drop in our raw scores on math over two years has led to hysteria. The sky is not falling. It’s also important to note that the children who wrote the 2012 PISA test had “old” math for their first seven years of school and only three years of “new” math.

My point is not to indict “new” or “old” math. There are many variables that may be responsible for the score changes. One factor is class sizes are growing. Since 2009, Alberta has added 41,000 new students and only 106 teachers.

Too many people confuse causation and correlation in an attempt to draw convenient conclusions that they simply can’t prove. No one can prove that the change in PISA scores were because of teacher instruction. For example, we know that the strongest predictor of student performance on achievement tests is socio-economic status.

By idolizing PISA rankings, we risk chasing after Asian countries who achieve high scores with very different priorities and questionable means. PISA envy can lead us to aspire to be more like top-ranking Asian education systems even though those same Asian countries are desperate to reform their schools to look more like ours.

The math wars, like all wars, are ultimately destructive. Let’s keep in mind that too many of us merely endured math or flat out hated it. Either way, it’s safe to say that not enough of us loved it.

And we aren’t going to get more children to love math by pretending that school already doesn’t have enough lectures, direct instruction, worksheets, textbooks, tests and memorization.

Joe Bower

Red Deer

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta’s budget promises more help for COVID-19 with a hard deficit

EDMONTON — Alberta’s COVID-19-era budget made a hard landing Thursday with an… Continue reading

The expansion of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre has been discussed for over a decade. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital expansion gets about $6 million in 2021 provincial budget

According to the government’s three-year plan, the project will get $59 million by 2024.

The Town of Sylvan Lake has launched a new contest to attract a new business. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Sylvan Lake offering rent-free storefront space to lure new businesses

Winning business proposal will get a storefront space rent-free for a year

Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell is hoping to pick up where he left off last season as the 2020-21 WHL season kicks off Friday in Red Deer against the Medicine Hat Tigers. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Rebels set to host Tigers in WHL season opener

24-game WHL Alberta only season kicks off night Friday at the Centrium

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy Vice-Admiral Art McDonald is seen during an interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Military reeling as new defence chief steps aside amid allegations of misconduct

Military reeling as new defence chief steps aside amid allegations of misconduct

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta’s budget promises more help for COVID-19 with a hard deficit

Alberta’s budget promises more help for COVID-19 with a hard deficit

‘Black box’ in Woods SUV could yield clues to cause of wreck

‘Black box’ in Woods SUV could yield clues to cause of wreck

Team Saskatchewan skip Sherry Anderson reacts to her shot against Team Quebec at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Peterson’s wild-card team edges N.W.T. skip Galusha to qualify for championship pool

Peterson’s wild-card team edges N.W.T. skip Galusha to qualify for championship pool

No-size-fits-all residence approach a reality for Canadian Hockey League teams

No-size-fits-all residence approach a reality for Canadian Hockey League teams

FILE - New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist reacts after a save during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in New York, in this Sunday, March 1, 2020, file photo. The Flyers defeated the Rangers 5-3. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist will sit out the upcoming NHL season because of a heart condition, announcing the news a little more than two months after joining the Washington Capitals. Lundqvist posted a written statement and a videotaped one on social media Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, saying it was a "pretty tough and emotional day." The 38-year-old from Sweden was bought out by the New York Rangers after 15 seasons and signed a $1.5 million, one-year deal with Washington in October. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Lundqvist back on ice, ‘months’ away from deciding future

Lundqvist back on ice, ‘months’ away from deciding future

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa holds up water collected from Neskantaga First Nation, where residents were evacuated over tainted water in October, during a rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

Feds didn’t supply enough resources to end water advisories on First Nations: auditor

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

Quebec starts COVID-19 vaccination bookings for seniors; those in Ontario must wait

Most Read