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?

Resources:

http://gladwell.com/outliers/rice-paddies-and-math-tests/

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