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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)
Each Thursday, I would like to be able to interview a kid.
I love getting a child’s perspective on the stories making headlines today.
I sat down with a 14 year old boy and asked him a few questions about one of the current news items on everyone’s mind…Rob Ford!
TS: Have you been following the Rob Ford saga?
14 yr old: Ya. Sometimes I talk about it at school with my friends.
TS: What do you think about the most recent news in which City Council further reduced him of his power?
14 yr old:I think it’s bullying and I don’t think it’s fair. I think he’s been making good choices for the city as mayor. I think his personal life and his public life should remain separate. He has made some dumb choices as a person. He’s human. People make mistakes.
TS: Do you think he should step down as mayor?
14 yr old:I think the people of Toronto should make that decision at next year’s election, not City Council.
TS: What would you like to see happen next?
14 yr old:I would like him to go away for a while, get the help he needs and then come back stronger.
Why do we throw around the term “bad at math?” We toss off this statement all the time as adults, but it sends a negative message to our kids. (And yes, there is such a legitimate thing as bad at math, it’s called dyscalculia.) I’m guilty of this myself, getting flustered when I have to figure out anything harder than addition and subtraction. “I’m just bad at math, heh heh. That’s why I’m a writer and editor, heh heh.” It’s lazy and wrong. And the crazy thing is it’s very socially acceptable to say you’re bad at math, no one judges you.
Here’s the thing though, you can always get better at math, it’s not fixed. We can get better at playing the piano, handwriting, typing, sewing, playing softball, running. Why is math any different? I believe that “bad at math” is false thing we’ve been conditioned to believe.
1. We don’t bring math into our family lives the way we do reading. I remember that my younger cousins, whose mom was born abroad, would have an abacus with them to do fun math stuff on the road, the way some of us might bring books and colouring pages.
2. We need to believe we can get better at math. It’s not a fixed skill. Quark.com has this amazing article that you need to read called “There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t.”
3. We have to also invest the time to get better at math. Practice makes perfect, but not for math? That doesn’t hold with anything we know about getting better at anything. Just because something doesn’t come easy doesn’t mean you’re bad at it. So what if math makes you cry? Difficult things are frustrating. Frustration is part of life. There is also a ridiculous, lazy and racist notion out there that kids of certain ethnicities are better at math. Do you know how idiotic that sounds? Maybe it’s that their parents value math more in their home and they spend five times longer honing these skills than the rest of us.
4. We don’t want to openly acknowledge that not everyone is great at teaching math. I’ve heard a teacher complain about how another entire school board teaches math. I’m not saying she’s right, but why the difference of opinion? I’ve heard a fellow parent say that her kid’s school doesn’t teach math properly. So maybe there is something not quite right with how elementary level math — the most important math — is taught, that we’ve produced generations of people that say they suck at math. So why are we so complacent about it? What do you think? You’re welcome to yell at me.
(Photo credit: Collections École Polytechnique / Jérémy Barande via Wikimedia Commons)
Watch this: and here’s what happens when you invest lots of time into improving your kid’s math skills…
One of the things lighting up my Facebook feed right now is how a school in Aldergrove, B.C. has banned “hands-on” play for kindergarten students. (The other is Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s admission that he smoked crack.) So that would mean tag. Pushing each other on swings. Not allowed.
At other schools, I have also heard about bans on running tag (walking tag is allowed), and just plain old running.
This is all just so ridiculous that I honestly want to scream. One online story that we’re working on bringing you is how we adults contribute to our kids lack of exercise. Kindergarten kids love physical play, and it should be encouraged. There are respectful ways to play “hands-on” with each other. Instead of a ban, why not impart some life skills they can use?
Oh, and did you think this is an isolated school? Banning cartwheels, tag and other schoolyard fun is a trend. It’s happening in American schools. Watch this:
I don’t know about you, but having a school-age son, I want him to be running when it’s playtime outside! As much as he can! And if he’s playing games with other kids, isn’t that what childhood and school is all about? The fun parts of it, anyway? Sheesh.
How long do you think the school’s ban will last until it’s overturned?
Photo credit: Photomorphic/Istock.
So I’m supposed to be at We Day today, but a snag has hit and I can’t be there.
But the question I keep asking (and if you’re reading, you must be too) is what exactly is We Day and why should I care?
Aside from the fact Canadian Living is a media sponsor (insert plug here), the We Day website tells me :“We Day is an educational event and the movement of our time—a movement of young people leading local and global change. We Day is tied to the yearlong We Act program, which offers curricular resources, campaigns and materials to help turn the day’s inspiration into sustained activation.”
What kind of marketing goop is that? Am I supposed to distill a message from that? And am I supposed to care?
And then I scroll further down and get to this:
“We Day is part of a family of organizations, including Free The Children and Me to We, that has a shared goal: to empower a generation to shift the world from ‘me’ to ‘we’—through how we act, how we give, the choices we make on what to buy and what to wear, the media we consume and the experiences with which we choose to engage.”
Bang! They won me over.
Because as I see our society sinking further down into a self-obsorbed, self-obsessed, insular, material-centric mess, I long for the good ol’ days of Free To Be You and Me. The messages of folk singers on The Muppet Show like Harry Belafonte reminding us that we are all one and we can make a difference.
I still think David Suzuki must be sitting somewhere shaking his head saying “I told you so…”
So go their site, look at the presenters, read why they’ve chosen to take part, watch the youtube clips, and start the discussion.
Even though it is almost the end of July, it is not too late to squeeze in some summer reading with your kids. A number of studies have shown that children’s reading skills decline during the summer months, but that doesn’t mean we (as parents) are powerless to do anything about it. Here are a few ways to get kids excited about reading during their summer vacation.
One of my favorite ways to keep my boys reading and writing during the summer months is giving them each a “Mommy and Me Journal“. I buy inexpensive journals and give them to my 6 year old and my 7 year old. We spend all summer writing secret notes back and forth about our summer adventures.
Another great way to ensure everyone keeps reading is to put it in the schedule. Summer can be a busy time, so setting aside a specific time for reading is helpful. In our house, the boys get to read for half an hour past their bedtime each night.
It is also important to make sure there are always a variety of books available to read. Visit the library often and choose books that are at the right level for the child. (Canadian Living has a great list of 10 Great Canadian Summer Books for Kids that you can find here.) Choose books that include topics, themes or characters that interest them, and mix it up by reading different types of literature (e.g. books, magazines, comic books, cookbooks, ebooks, etc.)
Another fun idea is to take reading outside. Lay a blanket in the backyard, take a book to the beach, sit in a lawn chair or build a simple outdoor reading tent/fort. Reading a book outside can be a fun summer activity.
Don’t forget, it is also important to set an example for your children. Read in front of your kids, and curl up on the couch and spend some time reading to them.
Gina (aka East Coast Mommy)
Thank you so much everyone for your advice on my post about my son’s school project. It was a great discussion! I wanted to let you know what we did.
I talked to Noah about his feelings about the presentations. We talked about what might make him feel proud of his own work (doing his own work, finishing it with care and on time) and about how much work he had already done on his booklet. I was pretty careful not to talk a lot about his friend’s project except to say that I thought for our family to do that, I would end up doing a lot of the work and I wasn’t okay with that.
I don’t know what Noah’s takeaway was, but I hope it was what I intended.
My son is in grade two, and this week he turned in a classic school project: Pick a country and create a booklet about it, then present what you have learned to the class. He worked really hard on his booklet, and was pretty proud to hand it in.
On Tuesday, he brought the following home (click through on the title if you can’t see the picture):
Yes, that is a boarding pass with my son’s name on it. He also received a copy of a newspaper in Greek, and a recipe for cookies…and the cookies were served during the presentation. He really liked them.
Then he came home and cried because his project wasn’t good enough any more.
I realize that in school, as in life, the kids who have collaborators who want to go the extra mile (or in this case, the extra 8138 kilometers) and who have great ideas and execution, will have the best projects. And theoretically, it’s really neat to think of a family working together on a really amazing presentation.
At the same time, I kind of just want to scream. I made my 7-year-old do his own work. I actually believe overall that it is my job to get my child to do his own work. I carefully did not do the lettering on his cover page. And when we practiced his presentation, I confined most of my remarks to the correct way to pronounce “Caribbean.”
His presentation is on Monday, and as a family we have to decide if we are going to try to compete with the personalized boarding pass or not. And I honestly don’t know which way to jump. Because despite my lofty ideals, and lack of desire to go back to grade two, I do remember how the science fair projects that won almost always looked better than mine, and part of the reason was that other kids’ parents would help make them look really great.
Do you work hard on your child’s school projects, or do you pretty much just help with time management, spelling and supplies? Let me know what you think I should do, too.
When I first went back to work full-time after having my eldest son, I was a wreck. It was absolutely the right choice for me, hands down. I love my kids, so very much. But I also love my job and I was really not enjoying trying to do it part-time with cobbled-together daycare. (The nadir was doing a last-minute interview on my cell phone, from a Sears changeroom because I could lock my toddler in with me and he could look in the mirror. And we could both learn there were some pins in the carpet.)
But I’d also bought into the idea that leaving my son with a stranger was basically going to almost-ruin his life — at best, a not-soul-destroying evil necessity. And if you’ve read the New Republic article on “The Hell of American Daycare” (caution: don’t) you’ll know that there is substandard care and it can be really scary. So there certainly were horror stories out there.
However, graced by the ability to fund higher-quality care, the time to do a search, and a friend who referred me to my final choice, I found a really great group care situation, which also happens to be a Montessori environment. This is not for everyone and I am not trying to talk anyone into anything! But I did want to share that it hasn’t been just a compromise for us — it’s been a bonus. Here are 5 things I am so, so happy about with my decision, 5 and a half years later.
1. My son got more people to care about him
Yes, the teachers at my son’s daycare are paid and it is true that unlike his relatives, they would not want to look after him for free. However, they are a warm and caring bunch who really do care about, and even — in the most professional sense of the word — love him. The language around “leaving your child to be cared for by strangers” only rang true for me for about a month. After that, they weren’t strangers. I realize nanny-cam stories abound but…it’s just not our experience.
What my son seemed to learn from the experience is that the world has more people to make sure he’s not hungry or unhappy than just our immediate family. His sense of security, over time, increased rather than decreased.
2. Daycare staff — all different kinds — have really great ideas for my child
One thing our particular daycare is great at is food. They serve a healthy international menu. But the way the catering company does it is interesting – they do a ton of assemble-your-own meals so that the kids have control, putting together tacos and choosing toppings for rice. I was able to take that idea back to our house for some really nice dinners. Not a must-have but really nice to have.
3. My son was ready to learn things I didn’t think of
When my son was three, his daycare did a unit on the human body that included making a huge paper tracing of his body and then sticking construction paper organs on it – stomach, intestines and so forth. I admit that I rolled my eyes a little bit. I thought it was a fun art activity but the idea that my child was learning all the inner workings of the human body seemed just a little overblown to me.
When he came down with appendicitis over a year later, he discussed with the nurses how food is digested and was able to understand why he had to pass gas and so on. I was kind of stunned that he had remembered. At home, I freely admit, I would never, ever have introduced this information into his life at that time.
4. I got a team of consultants about childhood development
I’m an information junkie and I love kids, and had worked with them at camps and even in the public school board, so I really thought that I had a handle on childhood development. But I learned pretty quickly that when it’s your own kid developing, suddenly a lot of experience and information can seem overwhelming if not downright useless.
So when my son hit a roadblock with learning to write, I was so glad to be able to ask his teachers what a normal learning path was, what they’d observed with other kids — and more to the point, what was up with my particular child, whom they had seen learn for the past 2 years. And then I could take their advice and breathe. (At 7, writing is still not his favourite thing, but he is doing just fine in second grade.)
5. Yes, daycare really can be a community
Okay we’ve all heard that daycare helps kids socialize. In our case I’d done a pretty good job at playgroups, but it was different having my child in contact with the same kids every day for weeks. He did learn to do things like take turns a little bit better than he had been at home. What’s more though — our whole family got a group of families at similar stages to get to know through playdates and birthday parties and all the rest. We have been really happy to have that in our lives.
What choices have you made for your kids that have delighted you beyond what you originally expected?