Opinion: Missing the point of teaching math

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I have taught math for many years and read the suggestions put forth by Anna Stokke with great interest (Focus on improving math education, Jan. 6).

At the outset, let me stress that her perspective as a mathematician is far different than that of a math educator. Many of the statements she makes are a reflection of her lack of knowledge regarding effective practice.

Her primary concern, that of declining scores in PISA baseline tests, warrants some consideration.

However, as I have pointed out numerous times, the very high rate of child poverty and children in care in Manitoba must be taken into account. To expect that children will succeed to a high rate on such an instrument is not reasonable when one considers that they are coming from situations which would cause many adults difficulty.

Her comments show that she has missed the very intent of PISA and other international assessments. As Alfie Kohn, noted education pundit, points out, what began as a method of benchmarking has become a case of bench-pressing.

In other words, the original intent was to see how other countries perform in math, allowing us to investigate further and possibly emulate what is being done. Stokke’s position is one of comparison only. Unfortunately, this is a widely held stance, and one taken a few years ago by the education minister at the time, James Allum when, after a fairly low showing by Manitoba, he made the cringeworthy statement that such a performance would not be repeated because henceforth we would “teach to the test.”

Her statements regarding classroom practice are not only woefully out of date, they are harmful — because they appeal to a public that is generally suspicious of change in math. Cathy Seeley, past president of NCTM, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, had this to say, “People don’t like change and they don’t like math. Put those together and you have a problem.”

I have worked in public school classrooms for decades and for the past 10 years, I have taught at the University of Manitoba. The latter has been very illuminating in that my students have completed years in school and their reactions to math range from very suspicious to terrified. The type of teaching advocated by Stokke has not served them well.

She bemoans such things as multiple ways to solve a single problem. Real problems, not the Suzie-has-two-apples-and her-brother-gives-her-two-more type but the kinds of problems children will face in years to come, demand multiple ways. As an example, look no further than climate change.

Stokke also decries the use of manipulatives in the math classroom. Research abounds as to the worth and value of these. You can teach math, but certainly not well, without the use of manipulatives. To cast doubt on their use is akin to a doctor still doing blood-letting. When you know better, you do better.

Perhaps the scariest position Stokke suggests is the one most likely to fly under the radar: governmental reporting of student achievement in numeracy.

Let me state emphatically that I think teachers are accountable to various stakeholders. There is no question in that regard. The issue becomes one of measurement.

If reporting on numeracy is the focus throughout schools, that will mean the establishment of some sort of standardized test. There are two huge issues with this.

The first is the more obvious and that is how can we compare the progress of school A to school B? Classrooms are very dynamic places with clientele that differs drastically from one school to another. In other words, how can we compare the progress of students at a very low socioeconomic and disadvantaged school to one found in a much wealthier area? Hmm… shades of the PISA conundrum here.

Also, when I think of standardized tests, I think of Gordon Campbell, a sociologist in the United States. He formulated what has come to be known as Campbell’s Law, which basically states that a high-stakes test invites fraud. This has been shown to be the case in a number of instances in the U.S., most notably Atlanta and Philadelphia. In the case of numeracy monitoring and reporting by the government, the phrase “immense pressure on teachers” which came up in the Atlanta case seems very appropriate here.

This intense pressure can manifest itself in ways we can’t imagine.

In short, yes. We can boost the numeracy of children in the province, but not in a way as one researcher put it, “Defied by evidence and contradicted by experience.” It will be by teaching in ways that reflect the lived reality of the kids and ways that work. We see it daily in classrooms. To blame any shortfall on teaching that doesn’t reflect pedagogy from decades ago is misguided.

If it works so well, why do we continue to see these issues?

Neil Dempsey has had a long career working in classrooms, at the divisional level, and administration. He currently teaches at the University of Manitoba and was the 2021 recipient of the Murray McPherson award in mathematics.