Students lagging in math basics: instructor

In everything from sport to art and architecture, the most creative and revolutionary first had to have some grasp of the fundamentals of their craft before they could flourish.

In everything from sport to art and architecture, the most creative and revolutionary first had to have some grasp of the fundamentals of their craft before they could flourish.

Basketball virtuoso Michael Jordan, as Red Deer College math instructor Manny Estabrooks likes to say, was able to dazzle on the court because his mastery of the basics allowed him to put his thoughts to conceiving greater things.

“He doesn’t stop to think ‘How do I do this?’ It’s instinctive, it’s just there. In math education, if we don’t have people that know the basic skills, they’re not going to get anywhere,” says Estabrooks.

The problem, he says, is that more and more students are entering his classes without those basic skills — some pupils have to count out simple equations using their fingers because they cannot do basic addition or subtraction.

Teaching them to be creative with math and to devise their own techniques for solving problems is a good thing, he says, but if they are not being taught the fundamentals first, they will only get so far.

Since 2008, the provincial math grade school curriculum has put an emphasis on so-called “discovery” math techniques, which de-emphasize traditional learning methods for basic math functions and encourage the use of varied, open-ended methods of solving equations.

The province and “new math” proponents say the approach allows children to develop problem-solving skills more useful in everyday life and engenders more enjoyment and inspiration than simple rote solving of math problems.

But in recent months, opposition to the approach has galvanized behind an online petition started by a Calmar mom calling for a return to more traditional methods.

Over 12,000 signatures have been gathered for the petition, and with international metrics showing Alberta student performance falling in the subject, some see the province’s system in a crisis.

In a reversal of the 2008 curriculum directives, Education Minister Jeff Johnson called on Alberta Education to ensure that basic math facts are “more front and centre” and that students can recall multiplication tables from memory.

A department spokesperson said Johnson gave the instruction in November in response to parental concerns, but before the petition started up.

The change will be made for the 2014/15 school year.

Johnson and others, though, say that the directive will not change much.

While “discovery” math has been emphasized in recent years, teaching the fundamentals has not been abandoned, says Notre Dame High School teacher and education innovator David Martin.

“We’ve given students, and actually more importantly we’ve given teachers choice on strategies on how to teach math to kids,” he says.

Whereas many adults are not shy to say they hate or are not good at math, Martin says new methods allow students “to literally play” with math, allowing them to enjoy and become passionate about the material.

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