Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New challenges, new thinking, new math

This was written by Jonathan Teghtmeyer who is with the Alberta Teachers` Association. Jonathan tweets here. This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website.

by Jonathan Teghtmeyer

I’m a self-confessed math geek and proud of it!

In Grade 4, Mark and I would challenge each other to solve long division questions that stretched across the entire blackboard. In junior high and high school, when we were allowed to use calculators for math, I’d often forget or lose mine. Rather than borrow a calculator from a classmate, I got into the habit of doing arithmetic calculations by hand. When I was in high school, in the years before graphing calculators were mandatory, I begged my father to buy me one of the $100+ behemoths. When he refused, I used my hockey referee money to purchase one.

I understand, appreciate and value the importance of strong computation skills in mathematics. Yet at the same time, I’m dismayed by growing calls for a back-to-basics revolution in math instruction, simply because of Canada’s backslide in one international test.

Alberta physician and parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies has launched a petition calling on the minister of education to abandon immediately the “new math” curriculum and to embrace the basics “so that our children can be empowered by mastering the fundamentals of mathematics.”

Let’s be clear: no crisis exists. In 2000, Alberta’s raw score in math on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) was 550 and placed third in the world; in 2012, it was 518. We’re still statistically tied for 10th best in the world; a 6 per cent decline over 12 years is a reason to take notice, but it isn’t a disaster.

Countries that bettered Canada’s students on PISA tests have a culture of rigid and regimental skill-and-drill instruction in large schoolhouse factories; when students leave school for the day, many head straight to large-scale tutoring boot camps. We shouldn’t be surprised or concerned, therefore, that these countries outperform us on simplistic international standardized tests that aren’t designed to measure the outcomes that we desire for our education system.

I recognize the frustration that Dr. Tran-Davies must be experiencing as a parent when she sees children being taught new and unfamiliar mathematical operations with which to compute and reason. Many students will have difficulty with mathematics and will inevitably ask their parents for help. Parents likely find these new techniques and algorithms daunting and wonder why we don’t teach math the old-fashioned way.

It’s not that the old ways aren’t taught; it’s that they are included as one of many strategies that can be used. The emphasis today is on the idea that it’s more important that students understand what information they are gleaning from an operation and how to apply the right operation in a situation than simply arriving at the right answer.

This approach makes sense to me. In my time as an academic high school math teacher, I had students who could perform an algorithm and obtain the right answer to a clear question, but they struggled to explain what that answer was telling them. Similarly, they struggled with determining which algorithm to use or how to apply it when faced with a new problem-solving situation.

The new challenge facing many is the plethora of innovative tools students have at their disposal for answering questions (spreadsheets, the Internet and powerful calculators). Students are adept at using various tools to find the information they need and applying that knowledge.

Our public education system needs, therefore, to set its sights higher on the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy. Number sense and numeracy are more important than number operations and computation. Don’t get me wrong—as I said earlier, I understand how fluency in mental math and strong fundamentals support good mathematical thinking, but we need to find a balance, and it seems the new curriculum provides that.

Standardized tests like PISA focus only on narrow assessments that measure what an international economic organization wants our school systems to achieve. Let’s push back and focus on what we want our own public education system to achieve. I want students who think critically, work collaboratively and solve meaningful problems. To achieve that, they need tools that allow them to think about problems in a variety of unique ways.

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