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The news this week that Canada no longer ranks in the world's Top 10 in math is seen by some as nothing short of a national emergency, by others as a bad case of the-sky-is-falling syndrome. Readers, print and digital, do the calculation

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Math and students aren't changing, curriculums are: If student performance is falling, look there for the problem. Two rules should be paramount. First, do no harm. Do not adopt changes based on education fashion; require evidence-based testing before modifying curriculums.

Second, math cannot be learned without basic skills in mental arithmetic. Stop calling it "rote learning" and start calling it "practice."

Would we expect our Olympians to excel without investing time practising basic skills?

Cliff Burgess, Hamilton

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China, Singapore and Korea, where rote learning is the main approach, top the PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement) lists.

A telling thought experiment is to try to imagine what differentiates an education in a democracy, as opposed to one in a heavily state-controlled regime.

The attributes we value most in a democratic education system are things like critical and creative thinking, knowledge of current events, engaged citizenship and individual agency, in a learning environment that places importance on teachable moments and self-directed, co-operative and inquiry learning.

These important characteristics upon which we place great value are not measured at all by PISA tests – or any currently employed standardized tests in Canada for that matter.

Of course, math, reading and science are very important, but they are not the only lessons we value in a democratic educational system. To paraphrase the educational theorist Alfie Kohn: Your test scores went up? Oh no! What did you have to sacrifice from my child's education to get that?

Marc Spooner, Regina

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Sad, but we shouldn't be surprised. Take a close look at the curriculum and ask yourself: What type of people are we trying to produce? We need more out-of-the-box thinkers and math theory helps.

Will Facey, Streetsville, Ont.

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I have seen what children in China, Japan and Korea go through to earn their superior math scores and I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Basically, they have no home life, no social life and no personal life; every waking minute is devoted to studying and this starts at age 6. The result may be superior academic performance but at the cost of stunted development in all other areas.

I am happy with our existing system that produces well-rounded young adults with good academic performance.

Garth Evans, Vancouver

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The fact that students in Singapore rank near the top in math is not news to me.

During the three years my sons were enrolled in that nation's public schools, they regularly spent hours on repetitive math homework, but they, like many Singaporean students, understood the value of mastering the subject and have found good employment as a result.

The Singapore system streams students after Primary 6, but the habit of working hard is instilled early by parents who want children to "make the cut" and by staff anxious to bump up their school's rankings.

In telling contrast, a math consultant in the Halifax public system once told me that students were no longer taught the terms "numerator" and "denominator," as these words are deemed difficult and intimidating. "Upper number" and "lower number" are used with students who, strangely, seem to have no trouble learning and remembering the word "terminator."

Mark DeWolf, Halifax

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Oh geez, this foolish panic again. It is what it is. If it's the result of an underfunded, overworked system, then fund it, change it. If the kids are somehow lazy underachievers (which I doubt), then accept it – that's the way it is. Otherwise, to quote Pink Floyd: "Leave them kids alone."

Michael Martin, Melbourne, Australia

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As a parent to three school-aged children, I've noticed firsthand the shift in curriculum to "discovery learning" – theoretical math concepts, estimation and problem-solving.

We fare poorly in math because we expect children to progress year-over-year and learn complex math strategies when we don't teach them the basics.

Learning their multiplication tables provides a foundational math that will serve them well – for life.

I am fortunate that I am able to send my children to after-school tutoring where they have learned their tables – and they sit back and watch while others in the class struggle to answer 5 x 8. This is in Grades 5 and 3.

The current method of learning won't help them into adulthood. What am I missing?

Arlette Edmunds, Oakville, Ont.

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This is what happens when no one fails.

Brenda Johnson, Toronto

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ON REFLECTION More letters to the editor

We need a Mandella

Re Nelson Mandela 1918-2013 (Dec. 6): As we see the tributes to Nelson Mandela, and reflect on his decency, compassion and generous spirit, it's hard to escape comparisons with our own politicians.

Almost daily, we witness sleaze, thuggish behaviour and denial in the office of the mayor of our largest city, while partisanship, paranoia, secrecy, and contempt for other political parties are the norm in the office of our Prime Minister.

We need a Nelson Mandela.

John Foster, Madoc, Ont.

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Derailed railway politics

Re Derailed (A Globe Investigation, Nov. 30-Dec. 5): Many years ago, there was a cry for government to be run "more like a business." After reading your series on rail safety in Canada and following the antics of politicians at all three levels of government, I have come to the conclusion that this wish has been met.

The lack of integrity, and disregard and disdain for the public shows that politicians have listened, learned and delivered.

Gary Beemer, Caledonia, Ont.

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Hogtown's football charms

Re Bills To Review Benefits Of Playing In Toronto (Sports, Dec. 5): So the the Buffalo Bills' brass think playing in T.O. has a detrimental effect on the team's performance? The Bills are the undisputed champions, week after week, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

They can lose anywhere: This past Sunday's comic fiasco was merely typical.

To blame this on playing in Toronto is delusional. They do it on a weekly basis no matter where they are. Attending a game in Buffalo in the winter is like a descent into hell.

Hugh Heibein, Kitchener, Ont.

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North Pole? Already taken

Re Ottawa Seeks To Strengthen Claim To North Pole (Dec. 6): It's all well and good that Canada seeks to solidify its claim to the North Pole.

Unfortunately, however, that venue has been claimed for a long time by a jolly old man who spends 364 days on site. This is known as adverse possession.

Canada doesn't stand a chance.

Geoff Smith, Kingston