Better math teachers needed to help math students

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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

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba Newfoundland and Labrador Finland U.S. Canada New Glasgow

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  • Tim Bennett
    Tim Bennett
    March 13, 2014 - 11:01

    Congratulations, JacobG. How fortunate you are to have been taught by teachers who instilled in you their passion for mathematics. I, too, count myself among those fortunate few. As you suggest, the study of mathematics is the search for, and study, of patterns in the universe around us. The point of my letter was to suggest that many math teachers do not have a deep, conceptual understanding of mathematics, i.e. they are unable to see the patterns, and therefore are unable to expose their students to the purity and beauty of mathematics. Good luck with your studies. Perhaps one day you will consider becoming a teacher and 'lighting the fire' for our children.

  • JacobG
    March 08, 2014 - 16:07

    In my opinion, better math teachers will not result in better math scores or better math students. A teacher that has studied math, loves math, and loves teaching will not solve the problem. The real problem is the way that mathematics is taught in the classroom. Mathematics is meant to be taught, and needs to be taught, in a certain way, with a specific and poetic style and grace. Math is not just about interpreting problems, plugging in numbers, and outputting answers. Math is about seeing the patterns, similarities, and differences in the world around us. Unfortunately, throughout grades primary to twelve, the public school system teaches mathematics in a “plug and chug” style of learning- here are some numbers and formulas, find the answer. The math taught at the high school level in particular focuses on getting answers and not formulating solutions. I saw first-hand that it is not until university that most students get experience with “real math”- math the way it needs to be taught. I believe this is why Canada’s math scores are low and why post-secondary students are failing or disappointing themselves in math courses. I do not think that the teaching problem can be solved until teachers can demonstrate to their students how the beauty of mathematics surrounds us every day. I attended A.G.Ballie, NGJHS, and NNEC, and the teachers at these three schools instilled a passion for mathematics in me, which is the main reason why I am now halfway through an undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics/Statistics.

    • Fritz
      March 09, 2014 - 09:20

      Its great to see some students furthering their education in math. This student obviously loves math. Fortunatly, he was taught by passionate teaches. Not all all students are so lucky.I wish you well in obtaining your degree. By any chance, have you thought of teaching???