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.