So, What’s the Deal with Math?

It’s been all over the news of late: Ontario students are struggling with math.  Many are blaming the ‘new style’ of teaching math.  But what exactly is that?  Let’s break it down.

Inquiry/Discovery/Problem-Based Math is a system of learning that is meant to:

  • Help students actually understand what they are doing with numbers
  • Make connections between math and the real world
  • Promote problem solving skills by encouraging students to develop their own strategies and approaches
  • Encourage students to think about why and how something works, thus creating a deeper understanding of what they are doing

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?  Inquiry-based learning has a tremendous amount of research behind it, and experts everywhere jumped on board very quickly.  It became the central tenant not just of the Ontario Curriculum, but of many curricula worldwide, including the Common Core Curriculum in the US.  But we’re now many years and a couple of revamps to the curriculum in, and Ontario students’ EQAO scores in math continue to decline.  Why?

As any parent who’s sat and struggled with their child over math homework can tell you, this is very different than what we learned in school.  So much so that many parents feel incapable or poorly-equipped to support their child’s learning at home.  And after all, what’s wrong with teaching kids the rules or rote memorization?  We all learned this way and turned out just fine, right?

This is a reflexive argument: people tend to revert to what’s familiar for them, even if we know better.  One just has to consider the other places where similar “I turned out fine” arguments are applied—like looser safety rules or corporal punishment—to see that danger of this logic.  The problem is not in inquiry-based math itself: it’s in the application.

Our shift to inquiry-based math has to be applied by teachers who may not necessarily be all that comfortable with math in the first place.  Elementary teachers in Ontario are not required to have math beyond the secondary school level, and for many, math was a struggle, and now they have to teach it.  If they don’t understand the math at that level, how do we expect them to apply this new system?  As professional educators, most teachers have worked hard and engaged in professional development and reflective practice to learn how to teach their students in this style.  But it’s not familiar for them either, and if they are working with limited understanding in the first place it can be tremendously difficult. This makes the application of this system imperfect at best, which makes it harder for students to learn.

Compounding this problem is the fact that many parents feel incapable of supporting their child at home.  We are placing increased demand on students to complete work outside of school hours, and inquiry-based learning is often a collaborative process, which means that students end up relying on parents to support them even when they do not feel comfortable doing so.  This leads to mixed messages (parents teaching different methods than students learned in class) and frustration, which only reinforces the message for students that math is hard.  Again, this is not anyone’s fault, but the system is designed to fail.

So what do we do?  How do we improve our math scores in Ontario?  This is a loaded question in itself, and the Ministry has put out an official strategy on their website.  But official policies aside, to many educators and parents, the answer is pretty clear: adapt the system to work with the people meant to administer it. This means:

  • Support teachers in every way possible in their professional development as mathematics educators. Give them confidence in their skills and the tools they need to help their students succeed.
  • Support parents by making sure they are set up for success at home. If teachers have to assign homework (even though research suggests it’s not valuable for them to do so), make it approachable, and give examples so parents can follow models.
  • Encourage students and be positive! We all underestimate the power of negative talk.  If kids hear us say things like “I’m not a math person” or “this is ridiculous”, they begin to think that they might not have intrinsic skill and can just give up too.  Teachers focus on promoting growth mindset – showing students that even though things are tough, they can and should keep working to find a solution.  We know growth mindset is incredibly powerful, so keep it in mind as you work around and with your student.
  • Help students develop their root mathematical knowledge. Yes, I’m talking about helping them to memorize their basic sums, multiplication tables, and skip counting.  Knowing that they might not get as much of that as we did in the classroom, you might consider supplementing that on your own.  There are thousands of low-cost or free programs out there to help you achieve this.  These skills will only compliment what they are learning in the classroom, so it’s energy well-spent.  It’s not to say that children can’t get by purely on inquiry-based methods, but my professional experience is that a blend of the best of both worlds can create really capable and confident young mathematicians.

What do you think of the math situation in Ontario?  What else should we be doing to make improve our students’ math scores?