How effective is math education in Canada?

Canadian organisation WISEMath is critical of the way math is taught in our schools

Feature 2 - Nicole Kwit

(Nicole Kwit)

According to a movement of parents and educators around the country, the way math has commonly been taught in Canada in recent years is fundamentally flawed.

“We have concerns about the math curriculum across western Canada,” says Anna Stokke, professor at University of Winnipeg and one of the founders of WISEMath. “Basically, the curriculum deteriorated quite a lot over the past several years.”

WISEMath—short for Western Initiative for Strengthening Mathematics—is an initiative founded by several Manitoba academics in 2011 with a goal of improving education from kindergarten to grade twelve in Western Canada. WISEMath advocates for an overhaul of the math curriculums in favor of a greater emphasis on fundamental skills that, according to Stokke, are in many cases being neglected.

In recent years, math curriculums in Western Canada have often taken a “creative education” approach. The idea behind this approach is that kids are better at learning when they are allowed to work out their own method for solving a given problem. Following this logic, a greater emphasis on open-ended questions with multiple strategies for solutions is given, with less focus lent to overall content knowledge. This approach became common in the United States in the early 90s and was gradually adopted by Canadian provinces in the late 90s. Creative education has been a fixture in Canada ever since.

“Instead of giving a student two numbers to add you might ask them to make up their own problem. [Creative education is] that sort of thing, or asking students to come up with their own method for adding or division.”

The problem with this approach to teaching, according to WISEMath, is that it doesn’t provide a strong foundation in some of the more fundamental skills. They argue that many of the most basic skills—addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc—are simply not up to interpretation. Some important concepts are particularly neglected and often left out altogether, such as learning to add and subtract in columns and long division. WISEMath points to declining math test scores nationwide as evidence that this approach to learning is not working.

“The problem with this type of thing is you’re talking about novice learners. They’ve never done this before and it just doesn’t work,” says Stokke. “So what you end up with are kids without basic skills, and if you don’t have basic skills, you can’t solve more difficult problems.”

“Math is like a ladder,” Stokke continues. “It’s really cumulative, so if someone takes you to the the middle rung of the ladder and you haven’t learned the steps before, it’s impossible to succeed. And that’s what being missed.”

WISEMath calls for a culture change in Canadian school systems to emphasize certain core concepts earlier. Some progress has already been made on this front, such as the return of a focus on multiplication tables in early grades. Other concepts such as fraction arithmetic—currently covered in grades seven to eight—need to be covered earlier, according to WISEMath.

“It’s really important. In fact, it’s predictive of how well a student is going to do in algebra or later math in highschool, how well they can actually do fractions, addition, and subtraction by grades four and five,” says Stokke.

WISEMath is also concerned about the level of mathematical knowledge of many Canadian teachers, calling for teachers to be required to have a mathematical expertise that extends beyond what they are required to teach. This would require a mathematical background that many Canadian teachers currently do not have. Recognizing this fact, WISEMath advocates for elementary schools to have dedicated math specialists as part of the faculty to come into each class for math education rather than leaving it up to generalized classroom teachers. This would be similar to how French is currently taught. Stokke admits that WISEMath has made little headway on this front, possibly because school boards are reluctant to go forward with such a radical and potentially expensive change.

“I don’t see that happening any time soon, although I think it would be a wonderful thing to have,” says Stokke.

WISEMath advises parents who are concerned about the quality of their kids’ math education to work with their children personally on basic foundational skills such as multiplication tables and fractions early on.

“Usually I say to parents, ‘Teach your kids traditional methods for arithmetic. That’s the best thing you can do.’ They may not be learning the things that you did when you were in school, so just teach it to them,” says Stokke.

The Ministry of Education for BC did not agree to an interview.

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