Angus Gale enrolled his daughter in an after-school math tutoring program when she was in Grade 3. At the time, his daughter was two years behind her class, and having difficulty with adding and subtracting single digits. Now, in Grade 7, she still receives extra help once a week, and her grades are on par with many of her classmates.
“[The schools] have such a broad concept of what they want to teach without nailing down the fundamentals of arithmetic. They’re trying to create mathematicians, but you can’t do that without teaching arithmetic,” said Gale, who lives in Kitchener, Ont. “Teach them what 14 times 12 is. You have to be able to do that in your head.”
Parents’ frustration with the new approach to math – also known as discovery learning, where students use their own learning styles to explore math problems – has reached a tipping point. Parents who can’t make sense of homework assignments and see their children struggling are spending hundreds of dollars on tutors, logging hours online looking up math tutorials and attending math nights at the local school to understand the new style of teaching. Kumon, a wildly popular after-school math tutoring service that has seen a 23 per cent enrolment increase over three years.
Changes to the curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, were motivated by researchers’ findings that kids can learn math more effectively when they are given opportunities to investigate ideas and concepts through problem solving rather than when they memorized equations, otherwise known as rote learning. As with all education research, the studies on how students learn best are mixed. Cognitive scientists are now showing that without the basic foundations, discovery-based learning does not benefit young learners. Nationally, math scores have been slipping. While Canada continues to outperform other OECD countries, a 2009 report found math performance decreased in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. Ontario’s standardized math test result recently revealed that students are losing ground for the fifth year in a row.
Robert Craigen, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Manitoba, has been pushing for a return to basics. He helped form WISE Math – the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math – and has garnered online signatures from more than 1,000 parents across the country pleading for reform. “I kept on hearing this dichotomy between skills and understanding that made me uncomfortable, because as far as I’m concerned they’re two wings on a bird. A bird can’t fly if it doesn’t have both,” he said. The new way of teaching math “is an anti-basics movement.”
“I’m not opposed to discovery-based learning as sort of the icing on the cake. But students are expected to deal with material that they’ve haven’t properly been scaffolded for. It comes at them without any structure,” he said.
John Mighton, a mathematician and founder of the popular JUMP Math, a charity that tutors, trains teachers and produces free teaching guides, said kids need to know the basics in order to recognize patterns, and that discovery needs structure and guidance. “Kids need to know basic number facts so they can work conceptually,” he said.
Part of the problem with the new math curriculum is that parents are utterly unfamiliar with it. Trina Wiegers, a parent in Prince Albert, Sask., remembers helping her daughter with a homework assignment and solving the problem “mom’s way.” Her daughter understood the method she had not been able to grasp at school. The next day, the assignment was sent back home to be redone the new way. It was at that point that Wiegers enrolled her daughter in a tutoring service.
Even parents who graduated from math-related fields are having issues with homework assignments. Paul O’Hara, an engineer in Saskatoon, struggled with his Grade 7 daughter’s math homework despite his profession. He and his wife used to spend two hours a night helping their daughter, who is now in high school, with her math homework. “I am an engineer and math has always been my strongest subject, and I struggled to figure out some of what they were teaching,” O’Hara said. “The new program uses a lot of models that are very confusing.”
Despite the chorus of parents demanding change, Saskatchewan has left its curriculum alone after it conducted a review last year. Asked about any changes to Ontario’s curriculum, Education Minister Liz Sandals said in a statement that all curriculum documents are subject to a periodic review “to ensure that they remain current, relevant and age-appropriate.”
So far, Manitoba is the only province that has responded to the push from parents. Education Minister Nancy Allan announced a revised curriculum this fall where by the end of Grade 4, for example, students will need to know the conventional ways of doing math and perform basic equations without a calculator.
Parents in other provinces say governments should respond to the improvements kids enrolled in tutoring experience and reassess the curriculum.
Rinat Begaliyev, for instance, plans on keeping his son enrolled in Kumon. Timur’s math marks have gone from B- to As, and Begaliyev said his 11-year-old son no longer shies away from complex math problems because he has a deep understanding of the basic math facts.
“I noticed in Canada, students are not encouraged to do a lot of mathematical drills, and I think Timur was missing this element in his education,” said Begaliyev, a Toronto parent. “He knew some facts in general, but he couldn’t count well without a calculator.” As for the added $100 a month in tutoring, Begaliyev responded: “This is an investment in Timur’s future.”