What direction are we heading in regards to Math with our students in North America? Trends at the high school and university level tend to show that the Math reform which happened in the North American education system about 25 years ago, which focused more on large concepts rather than mathematical techniques, has improved our students grasp of concepts, but has in turn there has been a decline in numeracy and mathematical techniques. As Robert Mann, a professor of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo, put it, “Now, they know what to do but they don’t know how to do it,”. In an age of computers and calculators, this concern has grown even more. Sherry Mantyka, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Memorial University, has also found that this is a problem with students working memory was not sufficient and they make constant mistakes. She states over the last few years, hundreds of their undergraduate students were in need of remedial math to get their basic math skills to where they should be.
This is not strictly an issue that is being faced in North America. In Canada we have placed in the top five for math scores on PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment), but are seeing these issues with our students. The country which has placed number one on these tests in recent past has been Finland, but they have also been seeking help with their students having issues with numeracy and computational skills. The PISA tests seem to focus mostly on applying Math to the real world (Math Literacy) and not as much on Math fluency. We have recently debated the Pros and Cons of standardized testing (specifically EQAO), and there are valid points on both sides of the argument. The debate on this issue is contentious, with people stating that Math fluency, and compensating for this with calculators and technology, is not an issue as long as they understand the broader concepts. Others, such as Dr. Mantyka, believe these issues may have even attributed somewhat to mortgage crises because of individuals lack of basic Math knowledge and computation skills (Although I think this may be somewhat of a stretch to relate).
I am a firm believer and advocate of using technology and implementing its use with our students to create a better learning environment. But, I also do believe the need for the basic understanding and application of math techniques should be had by students before they start to use devices, such as calculators, to aid them. I think we need to find a balance in our teaching between Math Literacy and Math Fluency, so our students are not only able to ‘know what to do’ but also know ‘how to do it’. I do think we need to promote and have our students learn the ‘Big Ideas’, and concepts of Math in our curriculum, but I do think we must not neglect the basic Math skills and techniques for which those big ideas and concepts are built upon. As teachers we also need to dispel ‘Math Anxiety’ as Jo Boaler (Professor of Math Education at Stanford University) has said this to be one of the major reasons for decline in the math proficiency of our youth in North America. I read a book years ago called ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell, where in one chapter he discussed English speaking’s non-sensical (or at least more difficult) way of counting compared to other languages, and why that affects young students counting and computational development compared to other ethnic groups. It creates some ‘disenchantment’ or anxiety with students at a young age when learning math. So why can’t we attempt to make this more efficient or better for our students? (I understand that would be a massive undertaking but may be something to look at). As teachers, we ourselves are constantly changing, learning new things, and trying to adapt to our ever-changing teaching environment. We should strive for reform on more constant basis to do our best to give our students the best education possible. What do you think? Where should we head next in our math development as North Americans? Is Math Literacy more important than Math Fluency, or should we strive for a better balance between the two?