After spending close to 40 years in the math education game as a secondary teacher, mathematics consultant and teacher educator in Ontario and Singapore I regard the various solutions to the supposed mathematics “crisis” with detached bemusement. It is a little like watching a long running Broadway musical where the cast members have changed over the years: The actors change but all the songs and dance routines stay the same. They do so because they are what the audience wants to see. So it is with the teaching and learning of mathematics (and education in general); despite what various people say, we end up with the education system that we want.
In last year’s labour unrest with Ontario teachers I did not read any articles in the media about parents being upset by the fact that children might not be getting the best math instruction; rather, the concern was exclusively about extra-curricular activities. Although it is rarely stated, our educational system is shaped more by our societal values and norms than by curriculum, teacher education programs, or teaching methods. This is the reason that the various solutions proposed to solve the math “crisis” won’t work: They are not addressing the real reasons why Canadian students are so handily beaten by Singaporeans.
Singapore is an island nation of approximately the size and population of the GTA. It is a thriving and successful country despite having no natural resources other than its population. All children are required to write examinations at the end of grade 6 and their results have a significant impact on which secondary schools they can and cannot attend and the opportunities that are open to them. There is a lot of parental pressure on the students to do well and they study for these exams for months. No one worries about equality or the fact that poor children have fewer opportunities, it is believed that if they do well on the exam they have the same chances as anyone else.
If a child is not doing well in math it is not assumed to be a problem of the teacher, the school or the curriculum; rather, it is assumed to be a problem for the student and his or her parents to resolve. They may do this by hiring a tutor – tutoring is a huge business in Singapore with many teachers tutoring for a living rather than teaching in a school.
Alternatively, they may go to a local bookstore and buy a couple of books of extra practice questions from the thousands available covering all subjects and grade levels and then sit with their child to ensure that they actually do all the practice problems.
The result of this kind of behaviour is clear every time there is an international comparison of educational performance in mathematics and Singapore scores close to the top. Funnily enough, they also worry if they slip a position or two in the rankings! After spending many hours observing in Singaporean classrooms I can tell you that the performance of their students is not a result of teaching methods, curriculum or school facilities. It is a result of cultural norms and societal expectations. Trying to make subtle changes in the way we teach math or give teachers a couple of workshops is unlikely to make our Canadian children perform as well as they do in Singapore.
We need to ask ourselves whether the results on international comparisons are sufficiently important to us as a society to make us willing to behave like Singaporeans. After all, despite what the doom merchants would have us believe, there is absolutely no credible evidence that rankings in these kinds of tests have any correlation with workplace productivity or competitiveness in the marketplace. They do correlate strongly with students’ success in further math courses – and that is something that is very important to parents in Singapore.
Eric Wood is a former associate professor at the National Institute of Education in Singapore with responsibility for preparing secondary mathematics teachers.