Test results from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) show that Grade 3 and Grade 6 math scores in Ontario have been dropping over five years. If we look at studies from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), where Canada is fairing well on an international scale, the number of Ontario Grade 8 students meeting the centre-point score of 500 has increased significantly, from 65 per cent to 71 per cent between 1995 and 2011, but with these increases occurring mostly before 2003. The recent study by Let's Talk Science reported that 50 per cent of high school graduates in Canada don't have the math and science credits they need to pursue STEM careers.
These data may be telling different stories, and oversimplification can lead to poor policy and decisions. The downward trend in math scores is perplexing and there is not one simple band-aid. Here are some suggestions for the hard work that lies ahead:
Invest in math learning for our youngest students. Research shows that young children are far more capable of "deep mathematics" thinking and work than we expect. In our Math For Young Children research, Kindergarten students are finding all the combinations of two numbers that equal 10; Grade 1 students are understanding that two figures can have the same area, but look different; Grade 2s are composing and decomposing 3-D figures based on diagrams and images; Grade 3s are representing and graphing linear growth. The math education research clearly demonstrates that explicit and engaging math learning at a young age is not only appropriate – it is essential to future success. In fact, early math is one of the very best predictors of later overall school success.
Ask the hard questions. What do we mean by "back to basics?" Why do approaches to math teaching and learning such as focusing on procedural skills get pitted against a focus on creative problem solving? Consider the following question: Your dog Cody needs a pen. You have 52 metres of fencing. What might Cody's pen look like? Draw diagrams to show three solutions. This question is problem-based and has multiple solutions. What is interesting is that it also involves many calculations and requires students to demonstrate their understanding of perimeter. It is also more creative and engaging (one of the key features of math programs of countries where students score the highest on TIMSS tests) than typical "basic skills questions". We do not need to sacrifice skills for problem solving; nor should we sacrifice problem solving for basic skills. It starts with treating students as capable mathematics thinkers.
Provide teachers with high quality mathematics professional learning opportunities. Our educators need to really enjoy math and pass that on to their students. Elementary and secondary educators need support, mentorship, strategies and tools to implement high-yield mathematics programs that promote deep understanding. This means we need a systematic, long-term strategy and investment in mathematics teaching as a province.
Help parents and the wider community see students as capable math learners. Everyone can learn math, and we all use math daily in our lives. It's really not OK to say, "Oh I wasn't good at math either, so don't worry," or "You just don't have the math gene." We need to prioritize math as not only important but interesting, and something that everyone can get better at. Practising through games like cards at home is fun and builds number fluency. Estimating the distance and time it will take on trips builds estimation and computation skills. Try a family challenge at: www.figurethis.org. Parent involvement that focuses on student learning in mathematics has a tremendously positive effect.
The moral imperative of my research and teaching is to help build a generation of problem solvers, of producers of knowledge – not unquestioning consumers. Creativity, innovation and mathematics are interrelated and essential skills for our times. Spotlight on math? Bring it on.
Dr. Cathy Bruce is a Professor at Trent University School of Education and Professional Learning. She was presented with the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations OCUFA Award for Teaching this September for her outstanding teaching in mathematics education.