Sunday, December 2, 2012

New Math > Old Math?

I just saw this story air on CBC's The National tonight.  Having been away from the system for quite a few years now, I was surprised and dismayed to learn about the new math curriculum.

I experienced the math curriculum in western Canada both as a student and later as a tutor with my own business.  As a young student I always did well in math until I reached the middle school years, when I unfortunately had a less than stellar math teacher.  If I had had rock-solid basic numeracy skills (i.e. the ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide multiple digit numbers in my head with very lower error rates and without needing to write down carries etc), I could have overcome this, but being weighed down by minor errors held me back.  Luckily when I went from an A to B student in math, my parents enrolled me in Kumon (a system of math drilling and rote learning originally from Asia), where I was able to develop those solid basic math skills.  This freed up my concentration for the actual problem solving required in high school math.  My grades went back up and here I am today as an engineer.  

During my college years I had the privilege to tutor many students at various levels, from early elementary all the way up to first year university.  I saw two problems over and over throughout my time as a tutor.  First, many students lacked excellent basic math skills - and when they acquired them their grades went up significantly.  Second, the students were not encouraged to practice the theories, techniques, and problem solving skills they were learning on a day-to-day basis.  Students were sent home with perhaps five homework problems, if any.  I would always encourage my students to do every problem that had an answer (so they could check their progress/success) for every section in the text book they studied in class.  As students practiced their confidence increased, which usually negated any reluctance to do extra homework.

In my experience the curriculum that I and many of my students learned was already lacking in the necessary drills and rote learning many students need to gain great numeracy skills.  But from what I can see the new curriculum does away with this kind of learning altogether.  It focuses on multiple ways of doing basic math problems like adding two numbers with multiple digits.  It worries me that we are spending so much time on basic skills, time we could and should be spending on problems with more complex critical thinking required.  These are the kinds of problems students need to work on in order to become the great engineers, scientists, and technologists we are increasingly going to need to solve the world's problems.  And while students with a natural gift for math will probably be fine in either system, it worries me that there are many others with high potential who without the right training will be left behind, shut out from amazing careers in STEM as a result.

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