*Record screech* *Freeze frame* Yup – that’s us. You’re probably wondering how we got here. Well, let’s start from the beginning.
Okay, we’ll start in 2009 instead, when math assessment results from the EQAO began trending downwards for our elementary students, and people — educators, parents, and anyone who cares about the future of society — are getting frustrated. There’s a lot of mudslinging, finger-pointing, and general crankiness. Understandable, but let’s take a deep breath. There’s not one single reason why this is happening, but rather there are a lot of contributing factors.
Discovery vs. back-to-basics
There’s this never-ending (and often misrepresented) saga between “discovery math” and “back-to-basics” approaches to teaching. Many experts agree that there needs to be a combination of individual sense-making and skill practicing to best support students’ conceptual understanding and fluency in math facts. Using one approach over the other exclusively will produce incomplete thinkers. This discourse on the false dichotomy between the two approaches only hurts our students and puts them in the cross-fire.
Teachers’ confidence in math
Many elementary teachers are struggling to teach math. That’s not their fault. Their job descriptions ask them to be generalists and able to teach pretty much everything. School boards, however, have not emphasized the need for incoming teachers to be specifically skilled in teaching math. According to Dr. Mary Reid, assistant professor at OISE, four out of five elementary teachers do not have post-secondary mathematics education (of course, having that doesn’t automatically make you a stellar math teacher, either). I don’t have an answer to what amount of formal math education is needed for teachers, but there is something to be said for knowing the math well enough to teach it; otherwise, teacher anxiety kicks in, and that doesn’t bode well for students. Again, that’s not teachers’ fault. It’s just what the education system has allowed to happen.
Students’ confidence in math
Students aren’t overly confident about their math skills, either, especially females. According to the EQAO, there’s a noticeable drop in female students’ self-efficacy about math compared to reading and writing — 45% of grade 6 females think they’re good at math versus 71% and 51% for reading and writing, respectively — and their assessment results reflect that drop. Having said that, male students don’t see themselves as good writers — only 35% of grade 6 males think they are — but nonetheless seem to be meeting writing expectations at a decent rate (73%). So, confidence is part of the equation, but not all of it.
Struggling students aren’t better off separated
Generally, how we treat struggling learners is only making things worse. What typically happens when students don’t meet math learning expectations is they are given below-grade level questions, exposed to more structured and rote learning of the “basics,” and separated from students (either to a different table, classroom or course altogether) that are doing fine. Time and time again this type of ability grouping has been shown not to benefit struggling students. On top of that, these practices further marginalize students from racialized groups and lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those perceived to have a disability. Organizations in the United States, including the National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists, as well as People for Education in Ontario, have called for an end to these types of practices. Many studies conclude that heterogeneous groupings benefit struggling learners without disadvantaging advanced learners. Finally, there’s also a great deal of evidence to show that struggling students benefit most from complex problem solving, open-ended questions and focusing on the big ideas, rather than burying them in repetitive worksheets.
The math curriculum could use a freshening up
The last time Ontario’s math curriculum was reviewed, Paul Martin was the Prime Minister of Canada, Twitter was still just an idea, and We Belong Together was Mariah Carey’s gift to humankind. The overall philosophy of the curriculum still works, but the details need some calibration after twelve years. For instance, I feel there should be a greater emphasis in and support with connecting mathematical concepts and teaching as many with a cross-curricular approach (this is already in the front matter of the curriculum documents, but how many people read that, really?). Making math relevant and creating interconnections between ideas are essential for lasting learning. Digressing a bit to high school, statistical literacy and critical thinking need to be emphasized in the world of “fake news” (SAD!). However, many students’ explicit exposure to statistics will end in grade 8 — students can navigate through high school math courses without seeing a bar graph (and then they’ll get fooled by shenanigans like this). Finally, financial math doesn’t really play a big role in senior university preparation courses, which is taken by the majority of students in grades 11 and 12. Is that why more and more young Canadians are going bankrupt?
So what’s there to do?
We all have a hand in making things better. IMHO:
Ministry, school board, and policy folks could…
- Adjust the curriculum so teachers can focus on big ideas and connections between concepts and subjects. Also, emphasize skills that are needed for an informed citizenry, including statistical and financial literacy.
- Promote inclusive education and monitor implementation so that struggling students learn in environments and ways that actually support them.
- Support teachers with math knowledge for teaching, effective math pedagogy, a balanced math program that emphasizes both understanding and fluency, and differentiated instruction so high-fliers can become the next Srinivasa Ramanujan or Katherine Johnson, while others can continue to develop their math understanding to become knowledgeable adults.
- Continue with the Renewed Math Strategy, particularly its focus on supporting students identified with special education needs and developing math knowledge for teaching. These investments take time to pay off, so let’s not pump the breaks.
School-based folks could…
- Build students’ confidence in math: give high-fives for trying hard and not for the right answer, value process and not speed, find something genuine to praise when a student works on math.
- Make math so freakin’ cool: Play math games, do math puzzles, make math jokes, sing math songs, do math handshakes (okay, they’re nothing to do with math, but you get the point), link math genuinely to students’ lives as much as possible.
- Continue to learn math as part of professional learning, either formally or informally. Get a staff math group going, and have an administrator participate to show that it’s okay for teachers not to know the math yet but can work on it.
- Resist the temptation to separate students that seem to be able to do math from those that seem to be struggling. Use alternate strategies so they can be engaged and receive support while also learning with and from their higher-achieving peers.
- Find the math in everything we already do with our kids (e.g. walking down the street, cooking, shopping, playing board games). Get kids wondering mathematically about as many things as possible, and then praise the heck out of them for being math wizards.
This math problem we got ourselves into has many moving parts, and hence many actions from a variety of stakeholders are needed to dig our kids out of this hole. Let’s stand up, do a Walmart-like cheer, and get on with it.