Thursday, March 27, 2014

Petition around Math

I am fearful that people who have signed the recent "Back to Basics" Math petition truly don't understand the devil they are asking for.  In our current math curriculum you will see objectives such as

Demonstrate an understanding of addition of numbers with answers to 10 000 and their corresponding subtractions (limited to 3- and 4-digit numerals) by:
• using personal strategies for adding and
• estimating sums and differences
• solving problems involving addition and
Also similar objectives around multiplication and division.  The petition, and other critics, are upset that "memorization" is not needed and "discovery learning" is forced.  This is completely, and utterly, incorrect.  I have searched the Alberta's Math Curriculum for the word "discovery" and not one incident of the word exists.  What does exist is: Personal strategies.  Meaning the strategy of one child could be vastly different than the next child.  This curriculum is simply not forcing discovery in the classroom.

The curriculum simply tells all Alberta Educators what they must teach, but it does not, and hopefully never will, tell teachers how to teach these outcomes.  The petition, on the other hand, wants to do just that.  It wants to invade our classrooms and mandate to the professional teacher that every child must memorize.

Imagine if we did this for all outcomes.  Students cannot move a grade forward until they memorize the following facts.....  We would have most graduates who are simply "Siri" clones, and also students who truly hate the idea of learning.  Of course some, the ones who strive on memorization tasks, would get a great education.

I am not claiming that no student should memorize basic math facts at a young age, nor should every child be forced to discover the facts.  All I want is to keep the autonomy to the professional; the teacher.  I trust our Alberta teachers to know which students should use manipulatives, flash cards, centers, collaborative, or independent learning tasks.  I trust that some students will memorize, some will discover, and some will complete activities which are a hybrid of both.

What I do not want is to force all students to memorize.  Are there some people who loved mad minutes?  Sure.  Are there some students who learn best through discovery? Also yes.  To force every student to learn the same way is alienating some.

This is why the petition is causing alarm to me.  They want a culture where the individuality of the student, the teacher, and the lesson is abolished.

There are lots of pictures out there around how horrible the new math worksheets are, or how horrible the lessons are, but I want to remind you that the "how" part is up to the teacher not the government. Also, we should be aware that the context, in which the photo is taken, most likely is lost in the photo.

The problem is that not everyone completes addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division the same.  There are algorithmic ways, and many mental strategies.  It is ludicrous that a child should be told "Don't do it the way you understand, you must memorize another way".  People can solve "82-19" multiple ways. Does this mean that one way should be norm? How you solved that problem should be the exact way the next person does?

At the root of the new math curriculum is simply "Differentiated Instruction".  Each student is taught using more than just pencil and paper, but also tying into their passions and interests.  Which do you want for your child?  To be formed into a clone, or to be allowed to blossom into their own character?

Lastly, here is a link to what the new math curriculum looks like in my class.  Let me know if you have a problem with me allowing students to solve the same problems, in different fashions.


  1. Sounds like you're fighting the same stupidity in Canada that we're facing in the US. Your take is correct, but it's a tough row to hoe when dealing with "back to basics" fanatics. I wish you all the best in successfully doing so.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In my 25 years of teaching I rarely had kids say math was their favorite subject. Now I often hear it. And, I finally love teaching it!

  3. The workload of our teachers is insane. Huge classes, inclusive setting with a few special needs kids in class and an equal number of high maintenance students which are not coded and teachers having often very little support or training regards special needs and no budgets for EAs. The teachers now are told to teach to each individual learning style.
    From my personal experience I can say it is totally unrealistic to ask this from a teacher. I have a kid with straight A's and another one who is special needs, both are taught under the WNCP, no traditional methods or drills. It was shocking that both kids were not able to spontaneously solve a simple arithmetic problem, even the neurotypical one. Only after lots of parental drilling after school they are doing well now in school math. However as a result they do not have a lot of time to be a child and it is very hurtful for the child parent relationship. Not very romantic or child appropriate. No it is not the fault of the teachers, they do their very best but they are up to an impossible task..
    Also, I never heard any explanations about the Kumon and tutoring epidemic and why many of those kids are doing extremely well. But maybe you do not have children or have not experienced life after school as we do and many of the other parents who signed the petition and therefore you can hang on to your romantic views of how learning in schools happens today.

  4. It is not that we reach too far, it is that we do not reach effectively. Until a student understands a symbol, such as 1 or 8, can stand for a quantity, we can not expect him to learn that a symbol, such as x or y, can stand for an unknown quantity. Racing ahead can not cement these ideas in the mind, calculators can not replace cemented ideas.