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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 ...

What they teach is also worth thinking about: top-performing Asian countries typically cover fewer subjects more deeply, especially in the early grades. A 2004 study found that Grade 1 teachers in Canada were expected to cover 18 topics versus just five in Hong Kong, where even textbooks may be hundreds of pages shorter.

Some math educators also propose revamping the high-school curriculum, expanding courses that align with the future needs of the country – subject areas such as modelling, visualization, statistics and finance – and challenging the value of calculus for university-bound students.

We should also take a serious look at the role of calculators and computers in math class – and try to capitalize on our strong showing in the technology-assisted math component of PISA, which has been virtually ignored. (This was the first time PISA tested students in computer-based math; Canada placed eighth in the world.)

While teaching and curricula are easy targets, however, the problem with math education goes beyond classrooms: studies show that students in places such as Shanghai are also more likely than North American students to believe that math ability is the result of effort, not inherent talent. And even with their relative advantages, Canada teens born to two professional parents don’t match the scores of the the children of Shanghai’s least educated families.

We can design the best curriculum, create great textbooks and give keen teachers good training, but if those newly inspired students don’t go home to families enthusiastic about math, who see it not as an arduous necessity but a positive, essential intellectual exercise, what is the point? We are right back in 1957, watching Sputnik’s twinkly light zip across the sky, feeling a dull sense of missed opportunity.

“If we want math to be the thing that we are good at, then we have to strive for it,” says Egan Chernoff, who teaches math education at the University Saskatchewan, “We have known for a long time that people wear their lack of school mathematics on their sleeves, and so now it’s being thrown in our faces.”

Canada has never been particularly great at creating math-literate, number-loving citizens, as the current generation of math-phobic adults demonstrates: Would you ever say that you “suck at reading”?

That’s why, toward the end of her presentation to the Bayview parents, Marian Small gives her most forceful piece of advice, one that would certainly find favour in every mathematical school of thought.

“If you don’t like math, keep it to yourself.” Don’t tell your kids, you were bad at algebra or hated fractions, she explains, cause you’re giving them permission to be the same way.

“Do you get that?” she asks, no longer smiling. “It’s really bad.”

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