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Balancing the Basics

Contrary to the stories of doom and gloom that we are hearing, our mathematics education system is not broken. Can we improve what we do? Certainly. Should we throw out the whole thing and go totally back to basics? Absolutely not. There are three key things that can improve what we have – balance, balance, and balance.                        ~Ian VanderBurgh~

I understand the concerns and restless anxieties that parents feel about the performance of our students; I’m the father to 3 high school students who happens to also be an elementary school principal. I also understand the reasons why our media outlets would raise and amplify these concerns- they play a valuable role in shining a light on our democratic, public schools.  It’s a good thing that we are having conversations about these concerns; in our communities, face to face, through the mass media and our social networks.  In that context, I’d like to share some of my concerns…

  • I’m concerned that people are starting to believe that, based upon recent standardized test results, our children are sorely lacking in their mathematical knowledge, when compared with previous generations.
  • I’m concerned that people are starting to see private or commercial tutoring groups  like JUMP Math or Kumon as sustainable solutions to these perceived concerns and beliefs.
  • I’m concerned that people are forming opinions based upon opinions, and not upon what is actually the state of affairs in elementary math education.

This is why I appreciated the perspective that the University of Waterloo’s Ian VanderBurgh shared in a recent op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail.  As a school principal and elementary mathematics specialist teacher I could relate to Ian’s point that community engagement, collaboration between parents, teachers and ‘balance, balance, balance’ are keys to supporting improved student learning in mathematics.

You see, our kids are not the dullards some would have us believe. It would have been great if those of us who occupied classrooms in the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s had been asked to complete the most recent PISA or EQAO math assessments; it could have provided some baseline data and certainly add some context (and modesty) to the opinions we hold of this generation of children.  I’m certain that the rote learning and memorization that formed the  foundation of my ’70’s era mathematics learning experience would not have prepared me to face the adaptive, open ended tasks that form the core of our current tests. Not sure? Check out some of the questions on the recent PISA assessment.

Nor can we really count on private foundations and organizations to ‘solve’ this crisis. What makes our public schools essential is that they are public; accessible and accountable to all. Not all students and families can access the often costly programs and resources that are touted, which makes it even more important that we ensure that the teachers in our public schools have the knowledge and capacities to teach mathematics effectively to all students. Of course, as one who works in public education, my bias and my beliefs draw me to this stance (just as those who operate private tutoring services are drawn to theirs).

Opinions being what they are, for the most part, instruction in ‘the basics’ is alive and well at our school and this ‘discovery learning’ thing is not the evil, Birkenstock-clad conspiracy that some have opined. We don’t even use the term discovery learning-it’s seems like a rather redundant term- doesn’t all learning require discovery? We recognize that when we involve our students in posing questions and contexts we see greater participation, deeper thinking and more connections to the ‘real’ world. And we recognize that our students need direct instruction on ways to use mathematical models and strategies to help them make sense of numbers and solve problems.

For us, the basics include more than memorization of facts, they include different ways of showing number relationships and arming our students with multiple strategies and tools for solving problems. And we are learning how to better use a balance of direct instruction (teachers teaching) and problem solving (students learning) to do this.

 

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  1. March 26, 2014 at 7:43 pm

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