Parents across Canada fight for return to traditional math lessons

Video: Some parents and teachers say the numbers aren’t adding up when it comes to the way we teach our kids math. Now there’s a movement to go back to the basics. Jennifer Tryon reports.

VANCOUVER – Parent groups in several provinces say it’s time for math teachers to go back to the basics and say goodbye to so-called “new math.”

Canadians students aren’t doing nearly as well in math as other nations, despite going to school in one of the better-ranked countries in the world.

A survey of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nations released last month placed Canada sixth among 65 countries, when it came to overall performance in key subject areas.

READ MORE: Canadian students are high-level achievers but math, science scores dip: OECD

When it came to math, the average score of the 21,000 15-year-old students tested — among 500,000 worldwide — showed a 14 per cent slip in the past nine years.

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Grassroots movements based in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta believe the problem is starting early, in elementary school, and are now lobbying their provincial leaders to rethink how teachers are instructing math.

Parents such as Tara Houle feel the creative methodologies that were used at her daughter’s elementary school did nothing to help the girl understand fundamentals such as multiplication.

“As an example they’re being given math Sudoku puzzles in Grade 4 in order to understand multiplication tables. They have computer games in the classroom where they shoot monsters in order to solve 3 x 4,” she said in a phone interview from her home in North Saanich, B.C.

She said that it led to a lot of tears and frustration at homework time.

Houle explained her daughter at one point said, “Mommy, I can’t learn it that way because we don’t do it that way in class anymore. That’s the old way. It’s not the right way.”

“I was the mom, she was my child and she had her teachers. She wanted to do right by her teachers by following the methodology she was learning in school,” she said.

“They’re being allowed to explore these different methodologies to solve math problems, but when all they need to do, for a lot of them, is just go back and practice math the way it’s already been taught,” she said, adding some kids go into middle school and are taught multiplication all over again using traditional methods.

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Out with the new and in with the old

Houle is among a group of concerned parents and educators who are a part of the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (or WISE Math).

WISE Math — started by professors at the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg and University of Regina — says its “ultimate goal is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential in math so that they may enjoy lives free of innumeracy, may experience the beauty in math, and so that they may have a wide range of career opportunities.”

READ MORE: Manitoban students’ international test scores sag

Houle said when her daughter moved into Grade 5, two years ago, she got “glowing reviews” on report cards, but didn’t have any confidence in the subject.

She explained her daughter’s Grade 5 teacher made a difference by teaching the kids through daily practice.

But Houle said it also took shelling out money for after-school tutoring to help her daughter really understand the concepts she couldn’t grasp, something she said shouldn’t be necessary for a parent to do.

And it wasn’t just her child, she added.

She said several other families were in the exact same situation.

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“The reality is, there [are] hundreds of parents spending $150 a month, of their own food budget money, so their kids can learn the basics of math,” she said.

But the quest to go back to a past style of math instruction isn’t the best option in everyone’s eyes.

“We need to actually get people thinking more, more problem solving in mathematics,” said Dr. Krista Francis, an assistant professor in the Education Dept. at the University of Calgary.

Francis said the traditional way of teaching math was “effective 100 years ago” and memorization isn’t the only method needed to understand the subject.

“The world has changed dramatically,” she said. “We need people who can think for themselves. The teacher no longer has all the knowledge.”

“Problem solving [and] novel approaches [are] how we improve in mathematics,” she told Global News.
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Houle disagreed.

“It seems that these experts are fond of saying memorization doesn’t work… But, in reality how else do you get good at any other subject,” she said. ” How did Wayne Gretzky get good at playing hockey without practicing?”

Houle has been actively following the work of Alberta physician (and mother of three) Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies in Alberta and retired teacher and mother Theresa Murray in Ontario — both of whom have launched similar campaigns in their respective provinces.

The government of Manitoba has promised to address the issue and Alberta is in the process of revamping its approach to math instruction and Ontario wants to follow suit.

The concern over math scores in Ontario prompted that province’s education minister, Liz Sandals, to announce a $4-million boost for training.

That will go towards paying for training that will help people teach math better, and to find a balance between the basic math comprehension skills and the problem-solving style she said are necessary to understand why and how math works.

Sandals said teachers don’t need to have a degree in math, but many do need to learn how to become better at teaching it.

She pointed out that despite the slide in Canada’s math scores, Ontario still ranks among the top jurisdictions in the world.

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But recent results from Ontario’s Education and Accountability Office indicated 57 per cent of Grade 6 students in the province and 67 per cent of Grade 3 students do not have math abilities that meet provincial standards.

*With files form Global’s Francis Silvaggio and The Canadian Press

PLEASE NOTE: This story has been revised to include clarifications regarding Houle’s daughter. Her daughter is now a Grade 7 student, not Grade 6 as previously stated. Her daughter’s trouble with the math program began in Grade 4, but began to change in Grade 5 with the help of different teaching methods and enrolment in an extracurricular learning centre.