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Jim Arthur on the value of learning basic math skills

University Professor James Arthur. Photo: John Guatto.

University Professor James Arthur. Photo: John Guatto.

Last week, the Alberta government announced that memorizing multiplication tables will come back as a focus of the math curriculum for students in elementary and high schools.

Alberta, along with other Canadian provinces, faced pressure from parents who argued that the current curriculum with its emphasis on “discovery” mathematics was not supported as well as it could be in the absence of traditional formulas and memorization.

The news, spurred in part by a recent drop in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s ranking of Canada in math ability among 15-years-olds, has put math education under the lens. Jim Arthur, University Professor in mathematics at the University of Toronto and Ted Mossman Chair in Mathematics, is pleased that the math curriculum is being discussed in the public forum.

We spoke with Arthur about the debate.

Why do you think that the Alberta government is responding to parents’ requests to change the math curriculum?

The parents appear to have a good deal of common sense, and are often seeing their children graduate from school without a good grounding in mathematics.

What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of memorization vs. discovery math teaching techniques?

To me, discovery math as it is often practiced in Canadian schools seems to defy common sense. While it might appear reasonable to someone whose background is more in education theory than mathematics, I do not think that discovery math is something to fire the imagination of students. Both students and parents are often perplexed by it, and can be intimidated into thinking that it represents more than it actually is. In truth, discovery math often seems to lack real content.

According to the OECD, Canada’s 15-year-olds have dropped out of the top 10 and now place 13th out of 65 countries. Why do you think that is?

It is certainly a concern. The problems we are seeing in Canada appear to be widespread throughout the world. The only exceptions I see are in Asia, where students still learn math by working hard and perfecting their skills, and are consequently doing much better. There are many dedicated and talented teachers of mathematics in Canada. But I suspect they often feel constrained by illogical and rigid requirements from school boards and ministries of education.

The problem is magnified when, because of a shortage of strong math teachers, the job falls to someone who is not comfortable with the subject. It is then that the deficiencies of discovery math without any practice of skills really stand out.

Are teachers uncomfortable with mathematics because they don’t like it?

If teachers are not comfortable with math and do not really understand it, they are not going to like it. And if children don’t like it, they will certainly not want to think about it. Thinking about math is extremely important for students, not just in the half hour or hour of a math class but at other times as well, just because it is interesting.

We need teachers who love math, and who are free to communicate it in their own way. In my opinion, this is by far the most important thing. Students love to be taught by someone with a passion for a subject. Mathematics can seem beautiful and mysterious and powerful to anyone, but especially to impressionable children. They might laugh at an eccentric teacher with a passion for something as arcane as mathematics, but that is part of the deal. Once students plug in, they will start thinking about math out of curiosity, and that is how they become strong.

Private tutoring services seem to be almost a regular “extra” for many elementary and high school students. Is this the case and if so, why is it happening?

If parents sense that their children are not learning the math they should in school, they will try to deal with the situation as best they can. Tutors are not substitutes for good teachers, but if they are the only way parents can have their children learn basic skills in mathematics, they are a pretty good investment. Parents understand that it is very important for children to grow up with quantitative skills and mathematical understanding if they are to do well in our increasingly tech-based economy, or even if they are to make informed choices as citizens, voters, and consumers.