New math isn’t working

Published on October 9, 2013

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.