It’s all hands on deck for math education in Ontario. In response to Grade 3 & 6 math scores not changing for the past two years the media and “education chicken littles” have declared that the sky is falling and our system is in crisis. Never mind that reading and writing scores have also flatlined for the past two years, what we care about now is math. Just math (I think this is how we got into this problem in the first place btw. Ten years focussed on literacy and ignoring math).

This presumably prompted Premier Kathleen Wynne to announce a “curriculum revamp” of math in the province, which has apparently already started with ministry thinkers discussing math education with educators a week after the announcement. We’ve had a flurry of Op-Ed pieces (1) about math education (2) (both of those are good) and even I got pulled into a podcast where we tried to pull apart what was really going on here:

CBC show The Current even discussed the topic of Math Anxiety, and how parents can deal better deal with it, suggesting that maybe this isn’t exclusively all about curriculum and teaching. Maybe families and our society in general has a role to play here.

The topic of math anxiety is an interesting entry into considering how we, as a culture, value math. This, in turn, affects how our students progress in math.

Several years ago then Alberta Minister of Education Jeff Johnson was addressing the question of why Alberta students lagged behind some Asian countries in international math test scores. Johnson indicated that part of the issue was that these countries simply value math much more than we do. He pointed out that over three-quarters of Chinese families have their children enrolled in after-school tutoring in math (2 hours/night), and provocatively asked parents if they were prepared to take their kids to math class every night instead of hockey practice.

Further, students in China must complete five math courses in order to graduate high school, whereas here in Ontario the requirement is three.

Are we prepared to require students to become proficient at math in order to graduate from high school? Do we see math as an essential basic skill for citizenship in the province?

The fact that there is even a discussion about math anxiety is interesting. What this means is there are adults who will publicly admit that they aren’t very good at basic math. As a teacher I’ve seen this at curriculum nights and parent teacher interviews. Parents who admit they aren’t good at math, with a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders, and seem to suggest that therefore, their children can’t be expected to learn math.

Contrast this attitude with adults who aren’t very good at literacy. Illiteracy as an adult is seen as shameful and something to be hidden. There are all kinds of programs available to help illiterate adults overcome this problem and social support to encourage them to do that. And yet no such support exists for innumeracy.

Part of the problem is that reading is seen as a gateway skill while math is an end unto itself. First you learn how to read and then you use that skill to become educated in whatever way you choose. Reading unlocks all kinds of other learning. Math, however, is seen and taught as a skill unto itself. You learn it, find out how to get “the answer” and then you’re done unless you enter a profession that uses math. People read throughout their lives but think that they stop using math as soon as they leave school. Even trades that depend on math (e.g. carpentry) don’t really think of that as “using math”.

The essential nature of reading is reflected in our parenting. Every parent knows to sit down and share reading with their child. But what about math? How many parents do math with their infants every night? How many babies get gifts of math manipulatives instead of board books?

There’s been some suggestion that it’s good that people freely admit their math anxiety, because this allows us to be aware and address it. I disagree.

If we really believe that math is an essential skill, we have to start valuing it just as much as reading. We have to get to a place where innumeracy is as shameful as illiteracy. A place where we all have to admit, as a culture, that if you can’t do basic math, you’re missing a fundamental skill that’s required to be an engaged citizen.