Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A letter to my cousin

Hi Barb,

Thanks for the link.

I have thought a lot about this controversy (the Canadian Math Wars). It’s a horrible state of affairs, and it should stop.

I'm afraid that I'm going to have to play "Blame the messenger," because articles like this one
pit the general public and some academics against the teachers and our education systems. I think the fault lies with the laziness of news columnists who reflexively go to the easiest sources. Whenever something is written about math education in Canada you can almost guarantee that the most prominent position in the article will be given to Robert Craigen or Anna Stokke deriding the current state of affairs. Controversy sells newspapers and TV programs.

In my opinion, the math wars stem from two things. First, new students entering university are ill-prepared for their math courses (upsetting the math profs because the students do not know the fundamentals). Second, teaching methods have changed since the students' parents went to school (upsetting the parents because they cannot help their children with their homework).

This gives rise to the sentiment that math education was better in the past, and that it is currently in decline. This is bolstered by the fact that Canada’s scores are slipping in international math tests such as PISA. [ PISA = Programme for International Student Assessment. ] The result is a desire to go "back-to-basics" and to confine teaching to the "traditional" ways.

Here is my take:

When I first started teaching at U of A forty years ago, I also found the students to be ill-prepared, so this is not a new perception.

It is true that changes have been made in the way math is being taught, but I don't think it's a bad thing. Just ask a few of your friends about how they did in math at school. I’ll wager almost every one of them will say "I was no good at it!" In other words, we were pretty bad at teaching math in the past, so changes in our teaching methods had to be made. And I cannot understand why someone who says they are bad at math would want things to revert to the way they were taught.

As far as PISA goes, I have doubts that the results are a reliable measure of math education. But even if they are, I don't think we have slipped that much. Canada is still among the better performing countries. Finland is perennially cited as one of the best, and in the 2012 PISA round of tests, Canada was merely one step below Finland. Incidentally, Pasi Sahlberg, a highly respected Finnish educator, recently tweeted "The world needs more Canada."

And by the way, newspaper columnists almost always use the term "discovery math" when talking about some of the more up-to-date teaching methods. It's a very loosey-goosey term that implies that current teaching methods forbid direct or explicit instruction thereby leaving students to flounder helplessly on their own.

I don't believe that this is really happening, especially the part about forbidding direct/explicit instruction. In the past three years I must have read hundreds of blog posts by teachers describing how they taught one or another topic in mathematics. Most of them presented thoughtful routes through the lesson. They all involved direct or explicit instruction at some point, 'though not the way you and I experienced it. 

I guess I can sum up my feelings this way:

I agree that there is room and need for improvement in our math education, and I have opinions about that, but "Forward To The Past" should not be an option.



PS. Somewhat off-topic: A few years ago, the doll with your namesake caused quite a stir when it was programmed to say "Math is hard!" A school teacher told me Barbie should have said: "Math is hard, and teaching math is even harder."

PPS. You can read about my biases against PISA here and here.