Although I am neither a teacher nor a mathematician, as a mother of three young children who are entering the primary education system, I am calling our ministry of education in Alberta to task with a petition to urgently stem the systematic breakdown of our children’s education.
As with most parents, we send our children to school with the blind faith that the system will help nurture our children’s education through strengthening of fundamental skills – reading, writing, arithmetic – and inspiring further learning and understanding of the intricate workings of this complicated yet beautiful world. And like most parents, we have ourselves been through the system and can attest to the valuable role the schools have in our acquisition and mastering of the fundamentals from which we forge our own path to success.
It was not until the recent reports on Canada’s failing math scores on the PISA testing that I was awakened to my naiveté regarding the state of the new math curriculum. This epiphany permitted a retrospective appreciation of why my own 8-year-old daughter, who had enjoyed math previous to entering the system, admitted how she now dislikes math because she finds it hard to understand, despite earning an A in the subject. From hearing the mounting, passionate voices of parents, teachers and mathematicians on the petition, one can not deny that these sentiments are echoed amongst countless children and reverberates across all jurisdictions engaged by the new curriculum.
When a trail of bright-minded children full of wonder, potentials, and abilities are left lacking confidence and uninspired in the shadows of the “new math,” then we as parents must no longer be silent and complicit to the new math fallacy. As you may know, the premise of the “new math” is alluring because it promises to help students acquire problem-solving skills from discovering and developing their own “personal strategies” applicable to everyday life. These strategies would, in theory, allow the students to acquire a deeper understanding of how calculations work.
According to the Alberta Education’s “Inspire Education” dialogue, this approach is promulgated as a reflection of what parents, teachers, business representatives, and postsecondary institution envisioned for students to become “Engaged,” “Ethical,” and “Entrepreneurial.”
The reality, however, is that this new math curriculum, focusing not on what we know, but on how, is faltering and failing its students for precisely this reason: its neglect of the most essential E-factor, “Empowerment.”
We all know that knowledge is power, and it is indeed what the children know that empowers them with the spirit of innovation and creativity. It is that strong grasp and mastery of the basic fundamental skills (eg. algorithms, times tables, long divisions, vertical additions) of mathematics that equips children with the ability to understand and develop their own strategies to reconfigure equations, problem-solve and think critically. Mathematics, a discipline defined by precision, gaining efficiency and proficiency through emphasis, memory work, and repeated practice empowers our children to truly appreciate the beauty of numbers in everyday life.
Right now, there is frustration and repulsion to math, for students intuitively know that the curriculum is entangled in overly-complicated and convoluted strategies. Every year that goes by with children lost to this new math curriculum is another graduating class with doors closed, choices limited, and dreams unfulfilled. In research, when the measured outcome proves detrimental, the experiment ceases. When the laws of physics and mathematics are unyielding, so should mastering the fundamentals. Otherwise, a generation of children are left uninspired.
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is a physician and author in Calmar, Alta. Her petition to Alberta’s Ministry of Education asking for changes to how math is taught has gathered 1,500 signatures.
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