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Anna Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, with three degrees, including a PhD in the subject, a husband who is also a mathematician, is photographed at the University in Winnipeg Thursday, Feb. 27. After seeing first hand that the basic math needs of students were not being met in the current elementary curriculum she co-founded the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education. (John Woods/The Globe and Mail)

Anna Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, with three degrees, including a PhD in the subject, a husband who is also a mathematician, is photographed at the University in Winnipeg Thursday, Feb. 27. After seeing first hand that the basic math needs of students were not being met in the current elementary curriculum she co-founded the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education.

(John Woods/The Globe and Mail)

Why the war over math is distracting and futile Add to ...

Fifty parents and a handful of teachers have gathered in the library at Bayview Public School in Ottawa to hear Marian Small tell them how to change their children’s math fortunes.

Dr. Small is a lively speaker with the firm “eyes on me” tone of a teacher. She lobs math questions at the hesitant audience (some things never change) although she promises not “to call on anyone who doesn’t want me to.” Her talk is also peppered with practised catchphrases: “You can Google answers,” she recites. “You can’t Google thinking.”

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Flicking through her PowerPoint presentation, she explains, “There was a day when people thought the only way a kid could understand something is when we show it to them. Now, teachers know that. if we give kids a little space, they can figure it out for themselves.”

More than a few parents in the audience are scribbling notes.

If you have children between Grade 1 and 8, there’s a fair chance you’ve actually seen a textbook penned by Dr. Small, the former dean of education at the University of New Brunswick and now a professor emeritus and private consultant. She has written, or co-written, more than 85 books about math and is in demand for professional development days with school boards from coast to coast.

“If Marian Small was deciding math curriculum in this country,” one math-education researcher gushes, “we’d all be happy.”

Well, not everyone.

In the latest – arguably fiercest – of the “math wars” to break out in Canada, she would be Public Enemy No. 1 for those who think kids are fast losing their number sense because of the “fuzzy-math, basic-skills-lite” teaching Dr. Small and many of her contemporaries promote.

In December, this group got its proof: The latest international rankings revealed that 15-year-olds in Canada had finally slipped out of the top 10, after a slow, decade-long slide, and were now far behind their peers in such math powerhouses as Japan and South Korea. (The trend in provincial scores, Quebec excepted, has been equally deflating.)

The poor showing led to grassroots petitions in Alberta and Ontario to abandon the “progressive” practices that, purportedly, leave Grade 9 students still using their fingers to calculate six times seven. An advocacy group founded by mathematicians became a champion of the bring-back-the-basics movement, after persuading Manitoba to add more rote learning to its curriculum.

Math anxiety spiked to such a fever pitch that former federal minister John Manley, now president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, declared to The Globe that the results – Canada placed 13th among 65 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA – were “on the scale of a national emergency.”

We should worry: Canada is stumbling just as research shows that student performance in math matters more than reading, both for academic success and future job prospects, two goals that loom ever larger for parents alarmed by bleak job predictions for the next generation. Meanwhile, the country is producing too few engineers for its high-tech economy and nowhere near enough mathematicians and scientists to leap ahead on the Next Big Thing.

But go easy on the teenagers.

Math may be the the backbone of our greatest achievements – supersonic flight, quantum computing, finding the Higgs boson – but the debate over how to teach it has been flaring up with the certainty of a repeating decimal since at least the launch of Sputnik, which pushed the Soviet Union to the front of the space race and sent North America’s math panic into the stratosphere.

A swinging pendulum, however, goes nowhere. What Canada needs is to calculate what Grade 3 kids now will actually need to know by the time they graduate high school in 2026 – to say nothing of their children a half-century from now.

By then, technology will have advanced exponentially, giving everyone a Siri in their pockets (or glasses or who knows where) to tell them in a millisecond the answer to 4,235 times 7,935.

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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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