Math education in Canada: What it looks like at our kitchen table

This week, the fall in Canada’s ranking to 13th overall in the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment has set off a national discussion about math education in Canada. (Link: Globe and Mail)

From our house we are cheering the discussion on. This morning I caught most of CBC’s The Current‘s segment on math this morning and it mirrored my frustration.

The first guest, Edmonton mom Sue Buhler, talked about how her sons are required to show two strategies in arriving at their answers – which has resulted, she believes, in them not knowing which strategy to apply and sticking to it until they master it. In other words (this is my interpretation), they get so mired in the process they lose sight of the answer.

She also said her sons don’t know basic math facts like their times tables.

Then Paul Alves, President Elect of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education, came on the show and talked about how important problem-solving is and how kids need to learn critical thinking and really understand all the reasoning behind their work. But I came away feeling like he never really answered any questions about how this impacts on kids being able to actually do the math directly. And that is exactly the problem I have with how my son seems to be experiencing his learning about math.

It’s all very fuzzy.

I think the international score is a concern — and shows something isn’t working
If our kids’ test scores are falling against other countries’ results, wouldn’t that be an indication that this multiple-strategy, theory-over-answers approach is not working? Because frankly: This is math. Out of any standardized, international testing, math should be one of the areas where it is clear students can either arrive at the correct answer (regardless of which strategies they choose to apply) or not.

I agree it would be fantastic if at the end of every unit, my son was secure in his multiple problem-solving strategies and had a deep-level understanding of whatever the unit was about. I’d also like him to have one strategy that is efficient and which he can apply consistently. It’s this last piece that doesn’t seem to happen. He muddles through having to write out all his thinking (not easy in grade two or three!) and then the unit ends.

And for my kid, that negates the rest. All he remembers, really, is that he explained and explained what he was doing or thinking or noticing about things like patterns and place value…but not whether or not he can actually do it. I can see that over the last couple of years, the idea of getting a right answer on his worksheet has become less important to him. And that worries me. He’s eight. Sometimes eight-year-olds just need things to be broken down, or simpler. I don’t think if he learned 8×3=24 that would make him unable to also add 8 three times, or add 3 8 times, or write out a pattern of threes.

Elementary school math: Master the basics
And it’s not just me: In the Globe and Mail piece I linked to above, there’s this quote from Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg: “The education culture needs to change. Educators need to recognize the importance of practice, hard work and mastering basic skills early on.”


I am sure with an ideal classroom environment and a superstar math teacher, my son would flourish under new math. But here in the real world, as far as I can tell, it’s just not happening. We’ve been so concerned that he has been learning not to worry about the right answer and losing confidence, that we have enrolled him in an extra-curricular math programme.

How have you been finding your kid’s math homework and math programme at school? Do you support the new approach in schools? Do you do extra drills and learning at home?

We’ve got more discussion about math here at Canadian Living: Helen discusses attitudes to math, and we’ve got Top 10 math books for kids. Also, take our homework survey! We want to know what it’s like at your kitchen table.

(Photo: The Smithsonian, via Flickr Creative Commons)