As regular readers of this blog know, I have been supporting two “bring back math fundamentals in public schools” petitions, one organized by Dr. Tran-Davies in Alberta (see here and here), and one put forward for Ontario parents by retired teacher Teresa Murray (see here).
Yet, all I hear and read from the politicians and educrats in response is that the parents and professionals who are complaining don’t understand that curriculum developers are preparing children for the future, a future that will not require the same basic skills as in the past.
As the Globe and Mail link shows, in Ontario the government thinks all they need to do is re-train teachers.
Pardon me? What absolute poppycock! I mean, if you have to re-train teachers, something is very wrong with the math curriculum.
We are aware that there is new technology. We are also aware employees of the future will need to know how to think creatively, often referred to as thinking outside the box. However, that creative thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality that they will only be able to do that effectively if they have all their necessary pre-requisite reading, writing and math skills.
Yes, this is 2014, but adding is still adding. Subtracting is still subtracting and multiplying is still multiplying using the old fashioned times tables. In fact, as far as I know, how you add and subtract has not changed in decades or even millennia. And, the skills required in solving problems builds on those pre-requisite skills. Meaning, children should not be using calculators before they know how to calculate manually.
The reality is that I know hogwash when I hear or read it. I know it because I am a learning and curriculum specialist. I not only used to teach graduate and undergraduate curriculum design and development courses, I also taught “the psychology of teaching and learning” courses. Plus, I actually designed curriculum for private schools and colleges.
Meaning, even though I have been out of the “system” for a few years, I know that teaching math fundamentals is not about preparing our children for the past or the future. It is simply about preparing our children for life. Period. It doesn’t matter whether you learned your basic math skills in 1955 or 2005 or 2014. They are the same now as they were then.
Yet, note the quote about Manitoba in the above Globe and Mail link. It is to weep!
“After a movement led by math professors, Manitoba implemented changes this fall. Students are now taught all four standard methods for arithmetic – addition with a carry, subtraction with a borrow, long multiplication and long division. The recent OECD results suggest that jurisdictions that teach math in a more traditional way had more success than those such as Ontario that use “discovery learning,” a method that allows for open-ended student investigations and problem-solving.”
Can you imagine? The Manitoba government is admitting that for how long, we don’t know, its children were not being taught how to add with a carry, how to subtract with a borrow, long multiplication and long division. One can assume then, that the other nine Canadian provinces and three territories are not doing so either at the moment.
Nevertheless, in spite of Manitoba’s concrete action, Alberta’s Education Minister, Jeff Johnson wrote on March 5th:
“I wish to assure parents that these basic skills will serve as the foundation and starting point of every change made to the curriculum. What they won’t be is the end point. Through inquiry-based learning, we’ll build upon these basic, foundational skills while developing additional skills that the business community and parents tell us are so critical. The conventional method of teaching fundamentals, whereby students rely heavily on memorization, versus a more engaged, inquiry-based method, are not mutually exclusive approaches to education. In fact, I believe it is crucial that we develop a curriculum that uses the best of both methods.” [My italics.]
Remember, Johnson is a politician and obviously a good one given how accomplished he is at edu-babble and spin. All that was missing in his final statement was: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
My reaction? Johnson is trying to defend the indefensible. No one is asking him to put the success of Alberta’s children second. That is what is called a non-sequitur.
Rather, what parents are asking him to do is what they have already had to do in Manitoba — revise the math curriculum to separate the basic skills from inquiry and discovery-based methods because contrary to what he claims — that Alberta is using the best of both methods — there is no concrete evidence that is actually happening in elementary classrooms.
So, the crux of the matter is that Minister Johnson, and all those in the background who are advising him, are wrong. Curriculum decisions have to be deliberate. Meaning, arithmetic should not be taught incidentally but discrete and separate from the inquiry-based methods he espouses.
Make no mistake about it, just as in Manitoba, the math specialists, retired educators and parents who are demanding changes to their provincial math curriculum guidelines, will get them eventually, because to not do so would not only be a dereliction of duty but a breach of the public trust!