With luck, maybe we can have a different conversation about mathematics education in Ontario
Well, all of the signs point to the fact that “back-to-school” season is in full swing. Our retail environments are putting pressure on parents to ensure that kids go back with the latest and greatest of everything. Skateboards and scooters are having to wind their way around school parking lots a little more carefully as teachers, administrators and other staff start making their way back into offices and classrooms. And traditional media outlets are pulling out the traditional “back-to-school” topics: healthy lunch options, the latest fashion trends and how to prepare our children—young and old—for those first days back.
But, here in Ontario, the one sure sign that we are just days away from a return to class is the annual round of proclamations about the state of mathematics education in the our public schools. This week, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente was first out of the gate with an opinion piece designed to stir up emotions by building a rather simple (and simplistic) argument along very familiar fault lines. The argument goes something like this: Provincial test scores prove (and at least one college professor confirms the fact) that our kids can’t do math anymore. A 20-year detour into the world of project-based learning and discovery math is to blame. We need to get back to the basics. We need to start doing what we know works. We need to give new teachers more training in math. We need to start listening to the research, especially the research that favours direct instruction at early stages of the education journey.
Emily Brown sees the fruits of Ontario’s school system every day. She’s a math professor at Sheridan College in Toronto. “My students have huge gaps in the fundamentals,” she told me. “I’m teaching business calculus and algebra to students who have no understanding of fractions.
Difficult to argue with common sense. Right?
And even more difficult not to get emotionally involved with the issue, especially when you realize that we’re dealing with a situation that is much more complex than the usual arguments lead us to believe. Per
Perhaps more than any other curriculum area, mathematics education has always been steeped in ideology, politics and passion. Consider this not-so-recent title from a paper presented at an education conference held in Ontario: Has Mathematics Education Declined in The Province Declined in Recent Years? The year was 1902, almost half a century before we would start to talk about education research, per se. Canada’s public education system was still in its infancy, yet the conversation around curriculum and teaching approaches was vibrant. Today, we likely wouldn’t accept the paper’s thesis that the decrease in the number of men teaching mathematics in Ontario was to blame for the decline in the quality of instruction and rate of success, but trying dropping the paper’s title into Google and see what arrives on your computer screen.
My point is not that we should be eliminating these conversations. Quite the opposite in fact. We should be having more of them. But we need to begin to frame them differently. A few suggestions, if I may.
First, the timing is important. Usually, the conversation about mathematics aligns with the annual release of the province’s EQAO results, one or two days before school begins. Perfect timing for a media outlet, but not so good for a profession that is hours away from beginning another school year. But it’s not just the fact that the conversation has become part of the back to school narrative. It’s that the conversation is never really sustained. We open up the debate on a summer day in August but, by the time we settle into a new school year, we’re on to something else. Timing is about when we begin the public discourse, but it’s also about how we sustain that discourse.
My second suggestion has to do with depth. We never seem to get beyond the either/or look at math education. Instead, the discussion skittles along the surface until proponents of this and opponents of that have spent so much time firing across the bows of the other that they run out of steam—and ammunition. And then we retreat until next year. We need to have the discussions and they need to be passionate. But we also need to be prepared to take the deeper dive into what is actually happening in today’s classrooms, what the research is actually saying (and not saying) and how we are meant to measure success.
My third and final suggestion (for now) is that we need to listen to each other. I mean really listen. We need to be willing to put down our ideological baggage for a bit and really try to understand why mathematics education is such a knotty issue and why opinion pieces like the one referenced here stir up so much emotion. We spend way too much time re-acting and not enough time inter-acting. The whole thing becomes too predictable and sigh-inducing, don’t you think?
Actually, agree or disagree with the opinion, Margaret Wente’s opinion piece can act as a call to action. And are a couple of suggestions that might be helpful. Let’s work to engage the voices of parents, educators (many of whom are also parents) and students. Let’s take a close look at what the research community is saying (and not saying) about mathematics education. Let’s talk to policy folks that represent a variety of stances. And, please, let’s keep the conversation going beyond back-to-school season.
If this is something that engages your imagination, we would love to hear from you. We’ll give you the space to share your views in writing. We’ll include you in one of our upcoming panel discussions on voicEd Radio. We’ll even help support you in creating your own podcast series on the topic.
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Let’s work together to create a critical, dynamic and respectful space for deeper and broader conversations about math education, in Ontario—and beyond!