How to make math education worse in Nova Scotia

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax) on October 3, 2012. Link.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about the state of math education in this province. According to the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, Nova Scotia students score significantly below the Canadian average in mathematics.

Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia government pledged to improve math instruction by adopting the Alberta math curriculum. Presumably, this means the purchase of new textbooks and lots of professional development seminars for teachers. Many of these training sessions will likely be co-ordinated by the Mathematics Teachers Association, an affiliate of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

However, the cure may be worse than the disease. Consider the decision of the Mathematics Teachers Association to have Dr. Marian Small give the keynote address at its upcoming conference on Oct. 25.

Dr. Small is the former dean of education at the University of New Brunswick and one of the foremost proponents of the “new math” approach in Canada. We can only assume that the Mathematics Teachers Association shares her perspective since it chose her as its keynote speaker.

Math Focus, the textbook series authored by Dr. Small, reflects her random abstract approach. For example, the standard algorithms for arithmetic, such as long division and vertical addition with a carry, are almost entirely absent. In their place, we find convoluted word problems, confusing instructions, and complicated diagrams. No wonder many parents find it difficult to help their kids with their math homework.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Small for myself. On Sept. 24, she gave an evening presentation to approximately 80 parents at an elementary school in Winnipeg, Man. Because of her prominence in the field of math education, I assumed she would be able to make an intelligent case for her position. I was wrong.

During her presentation, Dr. Small emphasized that there was more than one way to get the correct answer, and encouraged teachers to assign more open-ended and ambiguous math questions to their students. This way, she argued, all students would be more likely to get a correct answer on their questions. She added that all ways of solving math problems were equally valid and teachers should not make a student feel bad for using a different method.

At this point, I put up my hand and asked Dr. Small whether she felt teachers should include the standard algorithms as a component of math instruction. She replied that she did not. When I asked how she reconciled this with her earlier statement that all ways of solving math questions were equally valid, she insisted that the new math techniques were still better. The message I took from that exchange was that all methods are equally valid unless she didn’t personally agree with them.

I wasn’t the only audience member frustrated by the obvious logical inconsistencies in her presentation. Several math professors in the audience challenged some of Dr. Small’s claims about math instruction. At this point, Dr. Small shut down the questions and said that she was simply going to proceed with her presentation.

It was ironic that Dr. Small emphasized the importance of acknowledging the validity of other perspectives, but did exactly the opposite with her own presentation. She gave a one-sided lecture and refused to seriously dialogue with anyone who expressed an opposing view. This is what Nova Scotia math teachers have to look forward to on Oct. 25.

As for the much-vaunted decision of Nova Scotia’s Department of Education to adopt the Alberta math curriculum, there is much less to this change than meets the eye. Alberta actually has the same math curriculum as the other Western provinces, as evidenced by their shared Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP). Throughout the implementation of this new curriculum, Alberta has actually seen its math test scores decline.

The WNCP is heavily influenced by Dr. Small, as evidenced by the fact that her textbook series, Math Focus, is a recommended resource for teachers. In fact, the Mathematics Teachers Association proudly trumpets Dr. Small’s experience with the WNCP on its conference website.

Largely in response to the inadequacies of the WNCP curriculum, a group of math professors recently formed the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math). Their website contains links to peer-reviewed research studies that provide solid evidence for a more traditional approach to math instruction.

If the Nova Scotia government is serious about improving math instruction, it needs to move away from a nebulous, feel-good curriculum and adopt a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes the necessary knowledge and skills.

Until then, we can expect math education to get worse in Nova Scotia.

Saskatchewan math curriculum still doesn’t add up

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on May 23, 2012          Original Link

Five times five equals twenty-five. You may already know that, but many Saskatchewan students need a calculator to figure it out. That’s because the math curriculum in this province does not require students to memorize their multiplication facts. Also missing are the standard algorithms for solving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division questions.

Instead the curriculum encourages students to construct their own ways of doing math. As a result, students spend hours working on open-ended word problems with no obvious solution. When faced with basic arithmetic, elementary students regularly pull out their calculators to solve the simplest of questions.

Current math textbooks reflect this bias against traditional knowledge and skills. A prime example is Pearson Education’s Math Makes Sense, a textbook series used in a variety of grade levels across the province. As many parents and students can attest, the textbook’s name is a misnomer. The math in it doesn’t make sense and simple math problems are presented in confusing and convoluted ways.

Last year, a group of math professors from Saskatchewan and Manitoba decided to take action. They formed an organization called the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math). Largely in response to WISE Math, Saskatchewan Education Minister Donna Harpauer organized a series of consultation meetings across the province with the intent of improving math education in schools. This initiative gave mathematicians hope that things would change for the better.

That hope quickly faded when the education department issued a news release last week informing the public that it intends to make no changes to the new math curriculum. Instead Harpauer announced that teachers would be provided with more professional development opportunities to help them implement the curriculum more effectively. She also encouraged schools to hold more information sessions for parents about the new curriculum.

Of course, the new directives make about as much sense as holding professional development sessions about the unsinkability of the Titanic immediately after it hit the iceberg. Like the doomed Titanic, the math curriculum sinks under its own weight and providing more information about it will not be of much help to students or their parents. The problem is a faulty curriculum, not a lack of information about its contents.

Harpauer defends her directives by arguing that Saskatchewan only began to implement the new curriculum in 2007 and has not had sufficient time to evaluate its effectiveness. However, the philosophy behind the new curriculum is not really new at all.

In fact, many of the “new approaches” to teaching math have been in schools for years. Many math textbooks published in the 1990s and used across Western Canada already reflected elements of the new math approach. For example, Addison Wesley’s Quest 2000 series of math textbooks contained virtually no standard algorithms and encouraged students to use calculators when answering simple arithmetic questions. Like the current math curriculum, students spent much of their time on convoluted word problems rather than on straightforward math questions.

Thus, the Saskatchewan new curriculum simply formalized a longstanding shift away from traditional methods of teaching mathematics. Prospective teachers were already indoctrinated for years by education professors who disparaged any form of drill and practice. As a result, many schools implemented elements of the new curriculum long before the most recent iteration was published in 2007. There has been plenty of time to evaluate this approach.

In the backgrounder provided with the news release, the education minister emphasized that Saskatchewan has essentially the same math curriculum as other Western provinces. The implication is that it is pointless to question the new curriculum when it is already used in many other jurisdictions.

The questions should not stop.  Education has a long history of failed fads that once received universal praise. For many years, schools across the country forced teachers to use the whole language method to teach reading instead of the demonstrably superior phonics approach. Open area classrooms (classrooms without walls) were common in most elementary schools in the 1970’s but proved to be such a disaster that schools hastily constructed permanent partitions for these classrooms.

Saskatchewan’s education minister needs to look past the edu-babble produced by her department and seriously consider how to make meaningful changes to the math curriculum. Right now, the math curriculum simply doesn’t add up.