What’s wrong with the way we learned math?

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By Sabrina Almeida

Nothing as far as I can tell. All this hullabaloo about ‘discovery math’ and little to show for it… except for falling scores. This is strictly my parental perspective. And it matters! Because any academician’s view point about the benefits of a certain way of learning does not count when my child (and 50% of kids in his grade as per numbers) struggles to make the grade. Right?

It’s not just about meeting provincial standards but losing out on a life learning skill and shrinking career opportunities. To me the news that half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students don’t meet the curriculum standard in math means that their chances of pursuing STEM learning and careers are negligible. The push to increase literacy in science, technology and engineering and all the financial encouragement provided by tech giants like Microsoft is almost redundant without a good foundation in “math”. Moreover, with tests results showing an increasing number falling behind from Grade 3 to Grade 6, nothing short of a miracle (or expensive private tutoring) can reverse the trend in higher grades. After all, it is natural for most humans to develop a negative attitude to tasks they are not good at. This doubles the effort and is likely to make the work even harder.

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Why is math important? For one, putting aside math cuts post-secondary options virtually in half as most science, technology and engineering programs involve mathematics. That’s unfair when the main reason for giving it up can be traced back to a poor learning experience.

I remember my father quizzing me on times tables frequently and at random times. Fearful of having to write them over and over, I learned them well enough to provide the correct answer even when half asleep. I continued the tradition with my children. One of their elementary teachers admitted to me that it was the best if not the only way to learn them. Yes, it is important for children to understand what multiplication involves but they can’t be counting tiles and blocks when complex numbers are involved. Rote learning rules in this case.

I also recall doing minute math drills every morning right through elementary school in Kolkata. My 22-year-old was subjected to the same during his schooling stateside. He swears by it. However, his younger brother missed out. There was no such thing as mental math during his elementary years. Moreover, our whole family would struggle over the little homework he got every time the math curriculum changed. If we couldn’t figure it out, how could the kids?

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One year the focus was on language. Yes, in math. And we’d all go nuts trying to formulate the right sentence for every step of solving the problem. I never understood the point of it. The teachers knew the kids were struggling and didn’t approve of the learning method either but they had no choice. Most were relieved when the curriculum changed. But what about its impact on the math skills and confidence of the kids.

Some academicians say that there is no set formula for everything. It’s true. But you must have a solid understanding before you can get creative with problem solving. A child who is struggling with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of whole numbers is almost doomed to fail when it comes to fractions, mixed numbers and decimals.

It’s also true what they say about practice! But the move to curtail homework is a step in the opposite direction. One high school teacher told me that her students needn’t do the entire exercise, just the difficult problems. I was dumbfounded! I couldn’t figure how they’d be able the distinguish between them without doing it all.

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If you’ve been wondering about Kumon, Learna, Oxford and all the other coaching classes springing up in your neighbourhood—the struggle with math might have something to do with them mushrooming in to a flourishing business. All they are doing is what the school is not—providing tons of worksheets for practice.

Academicians are also of the opinion that parents are unqualified to pass judgements on the math curriculum. Theoretically, they are right. But we’re not all unschooled, are proficient in at least elementary level math and above all, know when our kids are struggling. And when it’s more than 50%, something must be broken. More importantly, until the time officials and academicians figure out what needs to be done, it is us lesser-knowing parents who must jump in to rescue math and our kids.

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