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Angelina Chapin

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Math Programs Should Be More Like Tiger Moms

Posted: 12/15/2013 11:58 pm

My earliest memory of math class involves bunnies. I was around seven and attending an alternative school. A couple of classmates and I spent a few weeks in the hall cutting little Foo Foos from pink paper and gluing them to the wall in a triangular shape. We were supposed to be learning Pythagoras' theorem.

This memory sticks with me because it was fun and totally ridiculous. My teacher thought I would memorize a math formula but instead I just learned how to make a super good cardboard rabbit.

Math lessons that felt more like fairytales didn't last long. By Grade 3, my mom had started drills on our walks to school: "9X5. 7X8. 12X4." In high school, I spent Saturday mornings memorizing algebra formulas.

I worked really hard to be good at math, because nothing about it came naturally to me. Through memorization and practice, I did well on my tests. In my adult life I have achieved what I think the system was grooming me for all along: the ability to ballpark a tip on a restaurant bill.

Though I was never going to have a career in numbers (I promptly focused on the arts in university), the process of succeeding in a subject that wasn't intuitive did wonders for my self-confidence.

If recent test results are any indication, each year, more Canadian students aren't feeling the same triumph. That's a problem we need to solve.

For the past five years, fewer Ontario students in Grades 3 and 6 have met the provincial standard in math (the latter have dipped six percentage points since 2009). And the big picture is also worrisome. Last week's OECD assessment of 15-year-olds revealed that for the first time in at least seven years, Canada has dropped out of the top 10 in international math education.

Is this generation simply full of decimal duds? No. The kids are all right. It's the new-agey math curriculum with its focus on "discovery learning" and "multiple strategies" that has students thinking of rabbits when they should be thinking about fractions.

While more sophisticated math concepts and subjects such as computer programming demand more creative approaches, the fundamentals are best learned through good ol' fashioned repetition -- a method tiger moms everywhere know and love. And as kids grow up, they will naturally learn to apply their math skills to the real world.

Parents with young kids, you probably already know this, but for the rest of you who haven't poked your heads into an elementary school classroom for a few decades, there's something you need to know: kids are learning math by making a quilt. Yes, you read that right. Math quilts.

Anna Stokke, a University of Winnipeg associate math professor who successfully lobbied to reform Manitoba's curriculum, has heard stories from parents about how their kids spent class drawing pictures of math concepts that they then attach together in quilt form. Sir Isaac Newton, I am so, so sorry.

"New math" was introduced to Canadian teachers about seven years ago. The Western and Atlantic provinces, as well as the territories all got on board with the revised curriculum in 2006 (called the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol or WNCP). Around the same time, Ontario adopted two new math programs that prize creative teaching methods over rote learning. The math drills that characterized math education in the '80s and '90s were considered anxiety-breathing monsters by many consultants. What could be more antithetical to stress than knitting a quilt?

With "discovery math," calculations are often replaced with real-life experiences: "While walking with your class, stop when you think you have travelled one kilometre." Problems are solved with descriptive writing instead of formulas and scary numbers are swapped with relatable objects such as paper cups.

Then there's the "multiple strategies" approach. Instead of teaching standard arithmetic such as long division or column addition, kids are given options. Don't just memorize 9X6, break it up into way more complicated parts so you can better "understand" them. Six is a double of three, and 9X3 is 27. If you double 27, you get 54. Is it recess yet?

Since the introduction of discovery-based math in Ontario, scores have dipped. After an initial success rate, students started doing worse in higher grades because they didn't have a solid foundation to build on. Every jurisdiction using the WNCP math curriculum has seen declining student results.

Why is this method still taught? Stokke's hypothesis seems as likely as any: "You come up with a new approach every 10 years and it sells a lot of textbooks and gets people papers published that they can present at conferences. But if you just stick with the same old method, no one makes any money."

But the same old method has stuck around for a reason: it works pretty well and mathematicians spent a lot of time figuring out the most effective formulas. The proof is in the province of Quebec.

La Belle Province outperforms the rest of Canada in math because it's all about the basics. Like the Asian countries that top international math rankings, the curriculum is rooted in memorization and repetition that begins early. In Singapore, for example, students must memorize multiplication tables by the end of Grade 3. The original WNCP curriculum had no such requirement, in any grade.

There will always be kids who get anxious over math despite loads of practice, and for them other teaching methods can be useful. But for most students, anxiety comes from not knowing the fundamentals, a problem rote learning can solve. The technique built a self-assuredness in me that I carried into the job market.

During an interview, a deli manager asked if I'd be okay counting change for customers in my head since the cash register was extremely basic. I nodded. If in high school I had figured out trigonometry, surely I could learn to quickly calculate what I owed the woman who gave me $20 for 500 grams of prosciutto. I was confident of that.

*This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

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