Better math teachers needed to help math students

Published on March 7, 2014

To the editor,
I read with interest the Ron Marks “Education Matters” column of Feb. 21 concerning the latest OECD math test results and Canada’s 13th place showing. I wholeheartedly agree that the adoption of new curricula is essential.

Nova Scotia’s spirally sequenced math curricula are abysmal; best characterized as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There can be no mastery when so many topics are covered. One can only hope that the WNCP curricula are an improvement.

Perhaps discouragingly, however, Alberta’s math test results declined under this framework, B.C. and Manitoba are abandoning the WNCP, and Newfoundland and Labrador, who implemented this curriculum in 2008, are discovering that students are not developing efficiency in the use of skills-based algorithms in favour of conceptual models and problem solving. This leads to much slower reasoning when students are presented with straight-forward problems that should be solved quickly and efficiently through the use of ingrained skills and algorithms. Constructivism has its place, but basic number facts and mathematical procedures need to be drilled and practised so as to become second nature, thereby allowing the student to progress at a reasonable pace.

Curricular matters aside, I feel your column completely missed the single greatest contributing factor to the success of math students – the quality of their teachers. There are too many teachers of mathematics, particularly and especially at the elementary level, who are frankly not expert enough at mathematics to properly instruct our students. I have a deep respect for elementary school teachers – they bear an incredible burden in shaping the lives of our children. It’s a job that most of society greatly under-appreciates.

However, the vast majority of our elementary teachers have university degrees (either majors or minors) in content areas other than mathematics or sciences. The last time many of them took a math course was in high school, and perhaps they didn’t understand it well back then. If the teacher doesn’t enjoy math and was never particularly skilled at it, then our students don’t stand a chance. Hence, the unending chorus heard from high school math students that they can’t do fractions or per cents and that they hate word problems. If, by Grade 8, half of them are failing, what are high schools to do to close this huge achievement gap?

In your column, you hold up Finland as an example of a country that has enjoyed considerable success in mathematics education. In Finland, teaching is an esteemed profession, held in higher regard than physicians, lawyers, and architects. Becoming a teacher in Finland is as competitive as getting into an Ivy league school in the U.S. – only 10 per cent of applicants to Finnish education programs are accepted. Every teacher in the country has a master’s degree. They are experts in both pedagogy and the content they are teaching. Additionally, they are in front of students less than teachers in Canada, spending a portion of each day preparing lessons and collaborating with colleagues. Nova Scotia’s math students are not dumber than students anywhere else in the world. Better math teachers will yield better results.

Tim Bennett

RR1 New Glasgow