Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it

Recently Margaret Wente wrote an editorial, titled “Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it,” on the lack of basic math skills in Canada’s elementary school teachers. In my professional life I have had the privilege of working with highly skilled and motivated professionals such as Black Belts and many equally skilled and motivated frontline workers and staff. In many ways I worked in somewhat of an exceptional situation because I saw some people struggle with basic math but it was relatively rare experience. But as I now interact with younger people I am taken aback at the low-level of math and writing skills of many and also of the uneven skill level among the wider population of adults. You may or may not agree with Wente’s editorial. It is certainly a valid perspective, although I would like to see more facts and data to support her thesis.

Some of the readers’ comments to Wente’s piece were as interesting/amusing as the story itself. For example:

Yesterday I was at my local supermarket (this is not a Horwath story) and I paid cash. I tried to help the cashier, a young person, by giving her change that would have allowed her to give me back a $5.00 bill. The poor cashier became confused and was not able to comprehend the basic arithmetic operation needed.

In response to this comment, someone else wrote:

I bought some cheap sunglass, $15, on a display case that said “One third off!” I had three fives in my wallet, and gave her two. She got out a calculator, punched in 0.3 x $15 = $4.50, wrote that on a piece of paper.

Then she calculated $15.00 – $4.50 = $10.50, looked at the two fives and said, “You owe another 50 cents.”

Another case. I was at the bank to deposit a cheque, and I also brought along some change, $5.00 in quarters. The cashier was busy with something, so to while away the time, I arranged the quarters into 5 groups of 4, to make it easy.

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She came back, gave me this look like I was trying to fool her, mashed them all together again and used two fingers to count them by 2’s, then multiplied 20 x $0.25 on a calculator.

I was so shocked, I just paid it. Not laughing at the dumb, but just flabbergasted.

Lastly, a reader by the name of Cathy Fried commented most perceptively:

She sure got that wrong. Instead of just using fractions she decided to work out the percent. But one-third off translates to around 33.33%. That would be 0.3333 X 15 = 4.9995 or rounded to 5$. Not 0.3 X 15 which gives you $4.50.

The girl just doesn’t know how to translate percent into decimals. If she had divided the bottom into the top (or 1 divided by 3) she would have got the decimal 0.33333 etc. She rounded too soon at 0.3 not 0.33 so she tried, but ended up making it way too complicated. Teaching math facts doesn’t always translate into mathematical thinking which she would have been doing if she had noticed that logically all she had to do was divide 15 by 3.

I think this last comment is important because this person clearly understands the difference between mechanical thinking and what I like to call “first principles” reasoning, the kind of reasoning that looks at things in their simplest and most reduced form. Frankly, it is something even the best Black Belts often forget.

On the topic of education, I also point out that the most recent OECD assessment of reading, math and science among students places Canada at a respectable 7th out of 65 countries.

Sidebar: Test your Grade 6 math skills

Wente’s editorial:

Is your kid struggling with math? Is she flustered by fractions and laid low by long division? Here’s a secret: Her teacher may be struggling, too. An alarming number of elementary-school teachers are so uncomfortable with math, they can’t teach it properly. This means that more and more students are arriving at university without having grasped the basics.

Across the country, university math professors report that the math skills of students who are studying to become teachers are generally abysmal. Basic skills such as adding fractions or calculating percentages are frequently beyond them. “If you don’t know math, you can’t teach math,” says Anne Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg who has launched a petition to raise the standards.

In Manitoba, education students often arrive at university with no more than what’s called “consumer math,” which is what you take in high school if you can’t do real math. To qualify as teachers, they need only one university-level math course – not nearly enough to make up for years of neglect. Even teachers who aim to specialize in high-school math only need to take a few basic courses. “As it stands, I don’t think they come out of university with the proper background to teach mathematics to kids either in elementary school or in high school,” Fernando Szechtman, a math professor at the University of Regina, told the CBC.

You might think that the nation’s faculties of education – the institutions that teach the teachers – would be concerned about this problem. After all, their job is to ensure that teachers know their stuff by the time they’re unleashed on the classroom.

But this concept of teacher training is pathetically behind the times. Today’s faculties of education have much loftier goals in mind. According to them, their main job is to sensitize our future teachers to issues of social justice and global inequality.

“Classes in elementary schools have complex human interactions that involve political, racial, economic and gender issues,” writes Cecilia Reynolds, the dean of education at the University of Saskatchewan. Her faculty is now considering whether to make the math course an elective – meaning that future teachers wouldn’t have to demonstrate any proficiency at all. She thinks math training should be more child-focused, “taking into consideration if that child is aboriginal, if that child has autism, whether that child ate a breakfast that morning.” Her own professional interests are in gender relations, equity and social justice.

Dr. Reynolds is a product of the OISE school of pedagogy, by far the most influential in Canada. And improving student achievement through effective teaching methods is not a priority for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It has a research and advocacy arm, the Centre for Urban Schooling, that’s designed to connect it with schools in inner cities. As part of its commitment to “social justice and equity for all students,” the centre “works collaboratively on education projects that challenge power relations based on class, race, gender language, sexuality, religion, ethnicity and ability in all aspects of education both formal and informal.” If only it were interested in math.

Unfortunately, the people who educate the educators sound like the wacky wing of the NDP. Here’s Fern Snart, the dean of education at the University of Alberta: “To educate students beyond the superficial,” she writes, “we must engage them in transformational processes and deep thinking such that they understand the Western position of privilege that is often reflected in issues of diversity, power, and justice, and that they move to an internalization of responsibility related to this privilege.”

No wonder little Emma doesn’t know her times tables. She’s way too busy learning how her Western position of privilege entrenches gender relations. Or something like that.

Of course, the current math curriculum is no help, either. It’s long on “discovery” and short on practice and problem-solving. “They don’t seem to want the kids to practice anymore,” says Prof. Stokke, who runs an after-school math club for 12-year-olds. But the biggest problem is that too many teachers simply don’t know the subject. “You wouldn’t send your child for piano lessons to somebody who can’t play the piano,” she says. It’s so obvious – to everyone but the people who educate the educators.

One Comment on “Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it”

  1. geosco says:

    I think that the problem is if you don’t have the strong content background you will teach it as a “basic fact” and NOT as number sence, sence making and problem solving. Research shows that when teachers lack math content they teach math very algorithmically commonly using tricks and short cuts. This leads to gaps and misconceptions. One of the worst is folks who teach order of operations using the old PEMDAS (which causes students to think multiplication comes before division, etc.

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