The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in December released the results for the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment results (PISA), which showed that while Canadian students rank 10th among their international peers in mathematics, Manitoba is once again lagging far behind, ranking above only Newfoundland and Saskatchewan. With Canada scoring an average of 492 in math, Manitoba is 30 points behind the nation’s provincial leader of British Columbia which scored an average of 522. With any provincial ranking system, there is always a first place and a last place. The issue here is the gap. A 30-point gap is big: Manitoba still has a problem.
These results are sounding like a broken record, as are the commentaries regarding the reasons for the results. Over the last 10 years, the debate over mathematics education in Manitoba has resulted in an all-out war with people blaming others. Those in mathematics education are citing the problem as a problem with educational practices that don’t align with their own one-sided educational philosophies, while those who have not had a direct contribution to mathematics education are pointing to the problem with curriculum, teaching practices and child poverty. This debate has been very black and white: it is either because of “this” or “that”. It is time to stop pointing fingers, and to start looking at what is working, using evidenced-based results. It is also time to look a little deeper.
Changing the scores of mathematics does not mean that you must simply change to a different type of learning: it requires a huge overhaul. Teaching mathematics is not the same as any other subject, and therefore, must be treated very differently. The discussion/debate regarding whether the constructivist approach or the traditional methods work is only a small piece of the troubled puzzle. A much bigger issue now is that the public, and our educators on the front lines have lost trust in the bulky education machines at the provincial levels. We also have teachers who don’t know the math themselves.
The Winnipeg School Division has taken a huge bold and courageous step to address this situation. They have teamed-up with an independent Canadian organization, Spirit of Math, to initiate a brand new program in which teachers from grades 4 to 8 are strongly encouraged to take a year-long mathematics course on numeracy and have had several years to choose when to take it. They also complement this course with monthly half-day or full-day pedagogy workshops for teachers and principals. In addition, a standard for developing a fluency and automaticity of number facts using Spirit of Math drills and a system for problem solving has been integrated into the classrooms, along with a variety of other resources. This is a massive project, and there have been changes even in the inner city schools. The improvement that the students experienced has positively affected their belief in themselves, and has allowed them to take greater risks in mathematics. The superintendents, directors, consultants, principals and teachers have put forth an extraordinary effort to make this possible. This is an outstanding story and should be known to all school divisions and boards throughout Canada. But still, some teachers in Winnipeg have pressured the union to stop the initiative, and very little has been told in the media.
The seriousness of the lack of good mathematics education cannot be stressed enough. We should not be hearing “I was never any good in math” as if that is okay from any adult in this day and age. The future of this world is dependent on our children being able to do the math – not just the arithmetic – not just exploring and creating – but taking the risks to think mathematically. The solution does not just rest with just changing the way math is taught, but because of the intense discipline and rigor, a strong commitment to helping children must be made by their parents. This will take a whole community working together looking to help, not to blame.