New math isn’t working

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By Trevor Sooley

We’re into another school year which means, for me, months of sitting around the kitchen table trying to interpret the provincial math curriculum.

Our top educators have managed to over-complicate one of the most fundamental subjects, and in doing so, jeopardize the academic future of an entire generation. What has happened to elementary school math?

Our province has adopted the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) Common Curriculum Framework for  Mathematics, continuing the new approach to math started in the 1990s. “New math” focuses on discovery-based instructional techniques and written problem solving. It advocates a conceptual understanding of math and places much less focus on performing the accurate calculation. It has been heavily criticized for being overly complicated and not providing students with the basic math skills needed for post-secondary study.

Here’s an example. In Grade 5, my daughter was introduced to two-digit multiplication. The textbook, “Math Focus 5,” presented this example:

If we wish to multiply 23 × 11, the student should first graphically model an array of 23 rows and 11 columns.

The book suggests segmenting the array by using the fewest number of base 10 blocks and thinking of 23 as 20 + 3 and 11 as 10 + 1. In the second step, you write out the products and in the third step, you add the four products to get the final answer: 253.

A problem on the next page asks students to create a two-digit multiplication problem on their own, show it graphically, and then solve it using the above method. Then, explain the strategy in two or three sentences and describe any other strategies that would have also helped to solve this problem.

Is this necessary? In order to really answer this question, you need to draw on more than just math skills, but the problem is, many young students have not yet developed these skills. So students who find it difficult to think abstractly and show things visually now have more problems with math. Students who have early issues with reading and writing now struggle with math because many of the solutions involve a written explanation.

The traditional method for solving two-digit multiplication instructs students to write 11 under 23, then multiply one digit at a time, writing a zero on the next line to keep the 10s place — simple and easy to follow.

The main criticism of this traditional method is that it does not promote conceptual understanding of the process. However, I  believe it’s more beneficial to first equip students with the basic skills to arrive at the correct solution. Then the more abstract portion can be introduced.

How many planes would be in the sky if pilots only had a conceptual understanding of flight without having the basic skills required to actually fly a plane?

And don’t take my word for it. All you need to do is look at nationwide testing  results.

The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program in 2010 released results of a nationwide testing program of math skills in elementary and high school students. As in previous years, only two provinces, Ontario and Quebec, scored above the national average. All other provinces, except for Alberta, placed below the national average. Provinces with the lower scores have one thing in common: they all follow the WNCP, Common Curriculum Framework for Mathematics. Ontario and Quebec are the only provinces that have not adopted it.

Are we to believe the link between test scores and the WNCP is a coincidence?

This WNCP curriculum was heavily criticized by parents and teachers in the early 2000s for being overly complicated and for not teaching  basic math skills. This eventually led to an independent review by the Department of Education in summer 2007. The results were released in March 2008 and the recommendations  centred around these key points: the need for new textbooks, additional professional development for teachers and the return to a basic math skills agenda by reducing the total number of topics. Obviously these recommendations are useless since they ignore the core issues associated with a conceptual, discovery-based math curriculum. The confusion and frustration continues and so do the consequences.

University professors are finding that students beginning post-secondary study lack the basic skills required to succeed in first-year calculus programs.

This is a serious issue. Studies have shown that students with lower than average math skill become discouraged early on and avoid pursuing careers in the sciences and  engineering. In an economy that continues to be technologically driven, the implications to industry and society will affect us all.

I call on the education minister to revisit this curriculum. Please have the courage to admit that we have made a mistake and that the current approach to teaching math is severely flawed. Inaction will result in the loss of opportunity and a failure of an entire generation to realize their full potential.

Trevor Sooley writes from Paradise.

Organizations: Department of Education

Geographic location: Ontario, Quebec, Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Mary Keats
    October 24, 2013 - 11:52

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. You could not have written it better. We have a child in grade 6 and grade 4. Math is a struggle every day for them and us. I will be sharing this post wherever I can and lets hope that this is the beginning of a positive change. Hats off to you

  • Rebecca
    October 13, 2013 - 20:31

    This is basically the same math that we did in elementary school and now beginning Post Secondary education I find the math excruciatingly difficult, even after finishing Grade 12 with a high math average. They expect you to enter post secondary and not be able to use your calculator and rely on mental math, which I had not done since grade 7 or 8 and I was NEVER good at because of these ridiculous ways of learning. I would never ever be able to pursue a career in science because of this, and it is so disappointing. To this day, I do not know my multiplication table.. and trust me, I have tried.

  • Cate
    October 11, 2013 - 15:20

    Old math has gotten us pretty far... The iPhone I'm typing on is proof that the old methods work.... Why change for the sake of change??

  • Jennifer
    October 11, 2013 - 12:08

    I agree 100%. My son is only scraping by in his math and that is with a tutor that I have to pay for twice a week. In grade 5 I realized that I could no longer help him with the math and that he needed help. It makes no sense to me that now in grade 8 that he can't do some of the basic math skills that I feel will be important in everyday life. Why did we have to adopt this new curriculum? What was wrong with the old one? I think kids today who have dreams for their futures will be greatly disappointed when it comes time to do their post secondary education and are turned down because they just don't have the marks to get in.

  • Frank
    October 11, 2013 - 09:50

    "University professors are finding that students beginning post-secondary study lack the basic skills required to succeed in first-year calculus programs." I felt that I should point out that this issue, and the "math placement test" and remedial math courses instituted by MUN in response, is from the days of the "old math". Student performance in first-year math at the university level was pitiful long before you folks had a scapegoat.

  • kathleen simms
    October 11, 2013 - 06:52

    I totally agree with this article. I have a son in grade 3 and it scares me to think that as a parent we are not going to be able to help my child with homework. The way the schools are teaching our kids compared to when we were kids is so completely different. This new math is so out there that it don't even make sense. Math is suppose to be about numbers.

  • Joanne
    October 10, 2013 - 22:55

    Very well said, Trevor. Now if we could only get the proper people to listen and do something about this major problem. We have young adults coming out of high school today who have a very difficult time doing basic math, cannot spell and know very little about grammar. These things should have been taught at the elementary school level, not in post-secondary institutions. I understand the dependence on technology for the future, but we must be able to work with the basics first.

  • Concerned Parent
    October 10, 2013 - 14:09

    This article is absolutley spot on. I have 2 boys that struggle with these stupid concepts yet when I show them my methods as taught in school 20 years ago they have no problem understanding. My oldest son wrote a long division test in grade 5 and got 0 because he did not use the methods taught in class. It didn't matter that all his answers were correct and that he understood how he arrived at those answers. I did advanced math in high school and I can tell you that I sometimes struggle helping my youngest son with elementary math. I have to hire tutors for my grade 11 student. It's insane not all kids are abstract thinkers and forcing this math program down their throats instead of focusing on the basics is setting them up for serious consequences when they get to the university phase. Not to mention limiting their career choices because they think they are no good in math!!

  • Lost
    October 10, 2013 - 07:42

    I have a child in grade six, and they can come up with the answers most of the time in Math but having to explain how they reached the answer is a problem and as a result of this has lost marks. When I explained how I got the answer with a simple way like I was taught in school some 32 yrs ago, the look on their face was "OMG that is so easy". Maybe there should be more in school for spelling, grammer and less on how to draw to figure out your math answer. Really if these children go on the become builders and have to know math to cut lumber say....will they have to draw boxes on the 2x4's? The education system need to help our children, not mess them up.

  • julie ferrlett
    October 10, 2013 - 07:08

    we need a change in the math program here. math is math and english is english it seems that the math program is trying to be an english program.

  • Bev
    October 09, 2013 - 18:54

    I agree 100% with this article. We just scraped through grade 5 math last year. My own mind was boggled trying to help my child understand the concept after concept of long division. It had me so frazzled that I temporarily forgot how to do long division correctly - the old fashioned way! Things really do need to change.

  • Colin
    October 09, 2013 - 18:46

    I look forward to the day when our mathematical education is so strong that every province can score above the national average.

  • Tanya
    October 09, 2013 - 18:41

    A+ article. I completely agree with everything that was said. God help us if changes are not made.

  • Linda
    October 09, 2013 - 16:59

    I totally agree!!!

  • Mike
    October 09, 2013 - 16:23

    Excellent commentary. Congrats to the teachers and folks at the Dept. of Education for wasting our money! They are more concerned with making sure they get home early and have no extra duties to perform after 3pm. This article emphasizes on only one aspect of change that has had a negative affect on our children's education. There are plenty more where this came from.

    • Miss
      November 14, 2013 - 17:42

      Mike, teachers did not create this math. Most teachers I know do not agree with this Math. I have children of my own and worry about the impact this Math will have on their understanding. And if you know any teachers that do not have any work associated with our profession after 3 o'clock please point them in my direction so I can ask them what the secret is. Many teachers volunteer our lunches and evenings for sports, tutoring and extra-curricular activities.

  • Laura
    October 09, 2013 - 15:35

    As a teacher, I agree that changes in curriculum are frustrating for students and parents, but please don't assume as Neil said that "virtually all focus is on keeping the teachers happy." Curriculum changes are equally just as frustrating for us. We're the ones who have to learn the new, confusing and seemingly nonsensical methods, and then try to teach it to students. Despite what people may think, teachers don't get to simply pick and choose what we want to teach. Everything is given to us and we're told "teach it." The people who decide on the new curriculum will never have to teach it, which makes matters worse. Us classroom teachers make NONE of these decisions, and all of the anger and frustration from students and parents is taken out on us, unfairly.

  • Neil
    October 09, 2013 - 13:44

    Excellent article. Our education is failing students because virtually all focus in on keeping the teachers happy and not what matters most, the quality of education.

  • Gord
    October 09, 2013 - 11:31

    Remember when we could do many problems on one sheet of paper. Seems like you can only get one problem per sheet now. So much for saving trees.

  • SayWhat
    October 09, 2013 - 10:47

    This new math is a fiasco and we should be taking a page of the Japanese. The BBC reported back in August that schools in Japan are bringing back the abacus. The old math instrument makes students use their brains, eyes, ears and fingertips. Response has been very favourable.

  • Melissa
    October 09, 2013 - 08:16

    Having taught hundreds of students in Memorials Foundation Math program I can attest that there are many 18 year olds smart enough to have entered MUN who can not subtract 7 from 200. Imagine the embarrassment of a first year student at Memorial when they try to defend how they managed to get it wrong. As you move through life if you need to sit there and draw out blocks to figure out simple multiplication of two digit numbers how do you have working mental space to compute the actual problem!

    • Kimberly
      October 09, 2013 - 18:04

      I totally agree with this article! The math curriculum has changed so much even from when I went to school! It is so hard to sit down with your children and not know how to explain a simple math problem if they ask you a question about it!

  • Joanne
    October 09, 2013 - 06:28

    I totally agree with this assessment of the current Math. My daughter had a substitute teacher the other day in grade 9 who had no idea how to teach the math to the kids and he is a new younger teacher! These kids cannot do long division or even figure out how much tax is on a bought item without using a calculator! Kindergarten to grade six should concentrate on memorization and know how! And then as they get older explain your answer would be easier to explain! With all the complaints from teachers and parents the higher ups need to do their own math!

    • Byron
      October 13, 2013 - 14:41

      Have to agree. Grade 12 math seems more geared towards teaching a student to be a 'bookie" in life rather than preparing them for real life, let alone University calculus. Pages full of ‘possibility’ questions, card game models, etc. What real job wants to know possibilities? If you are an accountant or business or engineer person you better give the exact number. As we over complicate math and turn it into a guessing game we are turning students off from math all together.