Confidence = Competence: Investigating Ontario's Math Crisis

Inside The Math Guru, a math and science tutoring studio in Toronto. Lately it seems as though Septembers are plagued with a flurry of dramatic crisis-alerts regarding the fact that math education in this province is in some sort of horrendous state and that Ontario's children are two seconds away from being rendered innumerate for life. It's always the same story: elementary school teachers are unqualified, discovery learning has replaced rote learning, kids don't know the basics, math is taught too abstractly and kids are disconnected from real life applications and well, the culmination of all of these facts which is essentially that Ontario's education system simply isn't serving its population.

On August 27th, 2014, we heard the same story, AGAIN, courtesy of the latest EQAO results which came in, proclaiming:

"Literacy success rates are high in Ontario elementary schools; math achievement drops again in Grade 6 and shows steady improvement in the Grade 9 applied course."

Everyone freaked right out. After all, if kids are learning less and less math in their formative years, they're going to have a pretty tough time in high school, and an even harder time getting into the university program of their choice. The fact is that math at the elementary level has gotten a little confusing given the change in curriculum and the advocacy of teaching methods that many find questionable and potentially ineffective. The truth is that math has always been a subject that a large percentage of students have struggled with. However, there is more to our declining math scores than simply our shift in pedagogy.

Most math-haters-turned-lovers (I being one of them) can tell you that the biggest factor in their shift in emotional and intellectual affinity for the subject was, in some capacity, due to an awesome teacher. We all remember that teacher who changed our lives, who instilled in us passion for a subject where there once may have been none. A teacher who is well-versed in his or her teachable and who is determined to help transform young minds, doesn't need to be told HOW to teach - they don't! A good teacher can read his or her students, and knows their subject well enough to understand what is needed in order for students to fully grasp what needs grasping. I have a feeling that if we looked at math classrooms before discovery learning was officially implemented, we would have seem many passionate math teachers USING discovery teaching of their own volition. Why? Because a teacher who is confident in their math abilities wants to share with students the many beautiful intricacies of math. They want to show kids that math applies to their lives. They want kids to understand that math is EVERYWHERE, not simply confined to the pages of their potentially outdated math textbook. The problem is, that in order to teach kids how to discover something, in order to teach them the many intricacies of anything -  you need to feel confident in the fact that you have the knowledge that you're responsible for imparting. THAT, I believe, is where the real problem lies. The day after the EQAO results came in, I made a cameo on Global Television's "The Morning Show" and suggested that perhaps the real problem with the way math is taught lies in teacher confidence. After all, teacher candidates aren't required to have ANY mathematical credentials - not one! Imagine trying to teach a Grade 6 class how to understand fractions when you haven't seen one in ten years!

The good news? There IS hope! There ARE schools whose teachers LOVE math and are committed to instilling that love for math in their students. There are schools who are taking initiative to make math a priority and to debunk the notion that kids simply default to hating math because, well, who doesn't? Malvern Collegiate is one of those schools. Their Grade 9 math scores have soared over the past two years - the reason? Real life examples, teachers who offer support to all of their students, a math department that works as a team, classrooms where pressure isn't an issue, the use of the abstract AND tangible, and above all, teachers who KNOW their course content and how it fits into the grand scheme of the entire math curriculum.  As one student explains, "No one fell behind because we knew what we were doing … she was a very good math teacher and easy to learn from." Simple, isn't it? For those of us stressing out about the fact that math at the junior level is suffering, schools like Joyce Public School kick to the curb the stereotype that elementary teachers can't teach math! Teachers make math a priority, going so far as to host an innovative and accessible math games night for parents and their children in order to equip parents with the tools they need to get their kids doing math outside of the classroom!

I think we need to stop focusing on the red tape and instead concentrate on what seems obvious: training and hiring teachers who truly know and understand what they are being qualified to teach. Why isn't this a given? Why are we allowing teachers to graduate and teach course content that they self-admittedly claim not to be comfortable with? Why are we even admitting these potential teachers INTO our education programs in the first place?!

The fact that our math scores are declining is a product of many reasons - we need to stop pointing the finger at 'new math' and take a look at ALL of the factors involved in order to begin to reverse this trend (a LOT of math words in that sentence!). Unfortunately, our kids don't ALL go to schools like Malvern Collegiate and the onus is on us to find ways to augment what they may or may not be learning in the classroom. So, what can you do if your child's teacher simply isn't making math make sense?

Toolkit: How to fall in love with math when you're falling behind

1) Get a math tutor! Seriously - individualized help can make a huge difference, and some kids really are too anxious to ask for the help they need in front of a giant classroom. Having a personal math mentor can make all the difference in falling in love with a subject you've been struggling with.

2) Enroll your child in an extracurricular program that teaches the skills that their teacher might...not be so familiar with. Kids lives are packed with fun after school programs - why shouldn't math be one of them?! Programs like Spirit of Math take classroom learning to the next level by providing a fun and specialized learning environment while still in a group setting.

3) Make math a part of your everyday. Okay so fine: classroom learning seems too abstract. What can you do? There are SO many ways to integrate math into daily activities. In fact, once you take a look at your day to day, you'll realize that you're DOING math when you don't even know it! I spoke about this on Global's The Morning Show and CBC just released a great article outlining ways that parents can take a more active role in their child's math education - and enhance their own while they're at it!

4) Invest in some awesome math games and workbooks. There are a TON of math related apps and online games available. My personal favourites are IXL and Coolmath. Of course - to me, nothing beats the good old fashioned board game. Take a family trip to one of the many board game cafes in our city - problem solving at its finest!

Have a thought on this topic or an idea for mathematically frustrated parents or teens? Comment below and let's get the math party started!