Just before the start of school, the Ontario government released the outrageously disappointing results of the Grade 6 provincial math testing. Over the years there have been many good discussions within the Spirit of Math community about the mathematics education in North America. Because the results of these tests are a reflection of our education system as a whole, I thought it to be a good time to share my thoughts. Please find below an article written for the media. Also, please feel free to distribute it as you wish.
The results of the Ontario mathematics testing showed that half of grade 6 students failed to meet the provincial standards. In other words, 50% of Ontario students failed. This statistic may not illustrate a proper picture of the ineffectiveness of Ontario’s mathematics education: the situation may be even worse than this number suggests. How many of those students who passed are enrolled in an after-school program? Was it the after-school program or tutoring that enabled them to pass? Tens of thousands of parents have identified that supplemental mathematics education is needed outside school time, and therefore, the true effectiveness of our mathematics education may be even worse than 50% pass. Having run an after-school mathematics program for over 20 years, with close to 7000 Canadian students now enrolled in this program, I can say with outmost confidence that educated parents are fed up, frightened for their children, and have already given up on the education system for teaching mathematics. In fact, it was just last Saturday that a parent, (who is also a teacher), said to me that “this isn’t just bad, it is a travesty for our children”. This isn’t just in Ontario. In Calgary a frustrated grade 2 parent exploded with frustration: “What the ---- are the kids doing all day at school?”
Many university professors are at a loss as to what to do, as students coming into university have very little mathematics understanding, and there are now rumours that professors are hesitant to retire because of the lack of mathematics talent in those who will replace them. Elementary school teachers are confused, frustrated with what they have been “mandated” to do in the classroom, and many of them are now frightened of mathematics.
The discussion/debate regarding whether the constructivist approach or the traditional methods work is only a small piece of the troubled puzzle. A much bigger issue now is that the public, and our educators on the front lines have lost trust in the bulky education machines at the provincial levels. We also have teachers who don’t know the math themselves.
During the past 5 years I have travelled around the world to conferences with people making decisions for mathematics and science education at national levels. In each case, there is a debate between those young adults new to the field of mathematics education and those who have seen a cycle or two flow by. Those who have been in the field for more than 20 years are exasperated. Worldwide they have seen a decrease in mathematical ability, due mainly to a loss of discipline and rigor. In contrast, this last spring I was in China for the 21st Century Education Reform as a keynote speaker on mathematics education in North America. They are looking to the west to bring in the “new” ideas of mathematics education. The Chinese government is putting a lot of money into this to change their philosophies of education. What is it that they are intrigued with? It is the creative process and the cooperative group work. My warning to them was to not leave behind the discipline and rigor that is required in mathematics.
It is the development of the skills, mathematical language and logical thinking that makes disciplined discovery possible and effective. True discovery comes from having such a background, and creativity is only possibly if you have the tools. A combination of a great mathematics teacher, and an effective mathematics program will accomplish this. The real problem is that very few teachers know how to accomplish this successfully, and many more have missed the opportunity to develop these skills because they have been so attached to their one-sided philosophies of teaching mathematics.
The Winnipeg School Division has taken a huge bold and courageous step to address this situation. They have integrated a brand new program in which teachers from grades 4 to 8 are mandated to take a year-long Spirit of Math mathematics course on numeracy and have several years to choose when to take it. They also complement this course with monthly half-day or full-day pedagogy workshops for teachers and principals. In addition, a standard for developing a fluency and automaticity of number facts using Spirit of Math drills and a system for problem solving has been integrated into the classrooms, along with a variety of other resources. I am working side-by-side with them on this massive project, and there have been huge changes even in the inner city schools. The astounding improvement that the students experienced has positively affected their belief in themselves, and has allowed them to take greater risks in mathematics. Teachers’ belief in the students also rose. This is an outstanding story and should be known to all school divisions and boards throughout Canada. But still, some teachers in Winnipeg have pressured the union to stop the initiative, and very little has been told in the media.
The seriousness of the lack of good mathematics education cannot be stressed enough. We should not be hearing “I was never any good in math” as if that is okay from any adult in this day and age. The future of this world is dependent on our children being able to do the math – not just the arithmetic – not just exploring and creating – but taking the risks to think mathematically. No other programme has matched the success that Spirit of Math has achieved in these areas in the classroom.
Kim Langen, CEO and Co-Founder
Spirit of Math Schools