Opinion

COLUMN: Canada's approach to Math education doesn’t add up

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Canada has slipped from the top 10 in Math scores worldwide.

But let’s not fret and blame. Let’s just work harder and longer at Math.

A great deal of Math teaching and learning comes done before a child reaches kindergarten.

But children arrive in Grade 1 with differing levels of Math skills. Some can count to 100 and some cannot count to 10. Some understand ordinal numbers (first, second, third) and some do not speak English.

A few have no idea of what those squiggles on a paper mean.

And of course children learn at differing rates, and retain learning to differing degrees.

Confident students who started the school year ahead in Math continue to learn. The classroom teacher tries to provide extensions to the curriculum as a challenge for them.

And the teacher must split herself and her Math period between two or three learning groups at different levels. She must create seatwork and hands-on activities for two or three levels of competence. And she must do all this while keeping her special needs children and “behaviour” children learning too. It could be a 45-minute period depending on school scheduling.

How much time are they getting? You do the Math.

It’s possible.

But it needs more time than we currently provide.

Problem is, the primary curriculum is too broad. It contains too many learning outcomes that are not as important as the basic skills.

Of course we can teach probability in Grade 2, but do we need to? What about the third of the class still counting on fingers or number lines? They could do with some extra time on basic operations. Cut some of the 24 learning outcomes for Fine Arts.

Cut some of the Personal Planning curriculum: career exploration and substance abuse prevention, for example.

Do seven and eight year olds need to spend valuable classroom time learning Economy and Technology, or Politics and Law?

The last one is a kicker, “Describe the function of local government.”

Really?

While all these subjects are important, none is as crucial as proficiency in Math and Language Arts. A seven-year-old who feels unsuccessful at Math is a travesty. He may say, “I don’t like Math,” when in truth he doesn’t like feeling incompetent in Math.

When parents cry out for back to basics they may mean arithmetic: number facts.

Students need the confidence of memorized facts when they go on to tackle measurement, fractions, or geometry.

Some students in high school count out answers to simple operations or rely on a calculator. They don’t feel confident; they feel embarrassed.

And they don’t feel like persevering with Math.

I think we need 90 minutes of Math a day. Make the lessons exciting, hands-on, and open-ended. Let the lessons include drill (repetitive practice) for those who need it. Let children find success.

What about extending the school day or the school year?

Or, if that is just too radical to consider, then reduce curriculum.

Even without the panic about falling Math scores we need more time in school or less course material in the early grades. Curriculum continues to expand while the school day is still five hours, and the school year is still 190 days. 365 – 190  = 175 days not in school.

Would two more weeks in class be so onerous?

Concentrated classroom time can be raided by assemblies, prep time scheduling,

neighbourhood clean-up, and daily gym time.

It takes 45 minutes for a 30-minute gym period with seven year olds. Fortunately, most primary teachers are sensible people who know the basics are necessary for young children.

They fight to protect time for core subjects.

And then there’s concentrated time at home.

Games, flashcards, apps, and help with homework.

It’s worth it—you do the Math.

• Anne Hopkinson is a former elementary school teacher.

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