Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Brave New Math

Some days ago, Kate at SDA linked to, a site set up to challenge the new elementary school math curriculum in western Canada. The new approach to teaching math in elementary schools does away with the standard algorithms that we all know, and presumably, love, in favour of letting students "discover strategies" for solving mathematical problems. There's a lot of good material on the WISEMath site, and I won't rehash all of the reasons why this latest experiment being perpetrated on a generation of kids is a disaster. Suffice to say that the literary equivalent would be teaching kids to read by handing them a bag of Scrabble tiles. It's like teaching them to drive by just handing them the car keys.

I read this article two days after Doggerelle and I had met with my daughter's grade 2 teacher. We were concerned that she was coming home with problems such as adding together two or three two digit numbers but seemed to have little clue about how to approach the problem. Reluctant to teach her 'our' way, we wanted to clarify what the teacher expected. Almost word for word, we were told the same thing as the new western curriculum spells out. "We don't give the children a procedure," says teacher. "We expose them to different strategies for solving the problem." She's seven years old, for crying out loud. "Expose them to different strategies"???

The good news is, this means we can teach our children to do math properly, and it will be OK, because when it comes to marking math homework, anything goes. That's fine for my kids. Both have great aptitude for math, both love numbers. Dogerelle Jr. plays a mean game of Monopoly already at age 7, happily doubling rents, making change and building movie studios (it's the Muppets edition!). Both Doggerelle and I are good with numbers and completely confident in teaching arithmetic. But what about the kids who don't have parents with the skills to teach at home? What about the kids who couldn't choose a strategy to do arithmetic if their lives depended on it? Which, in a sense, they do.

In a world where very little is analog any longer, where everything, absolutely everything is digital, everything is, by definition, represented by numbers, this bizarre and ideologically driven experiment will strip an entire generation of the foundations they need to make sense of their world. It's madness, or worse. It's almost criminally negligent.

Any readers have any horror stories? Is there any group like WISEMath for Ontario? Because we surely need one.

And finally, while we're on the topic, the great Mr. Tom Lehrer is here to remind us that educators have been messing around with this stuff for 40 years - 40 years of continual decline in numeracy.