The reason why your kids are bad at math

Emma Waverman believes that the school curriculum is failing our kids when it comes to math.

1Math-December2013-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Canada’s rankings in math education slipped out of the top 10 to 15th place worldwide. Quebec (is my geography bad, too? I thought it was part of Canada), Lichtenstein and Estonia all placed higher than Canadian students in a global comparison of math scores.

Shanghai ranked number one in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-olds’ abilities in math, reading and science every three years. Canada ranked 9th the last time the OECD did the study in 2010 and even higher in 2007.

Of course, the requisite hand-wringing has started. Our kids are falling behind!

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I didn’t need this national study to tell me that the way math is being taught stinks. Have you checked out your kids’ homework lately?

Their math doesn’t make sense. My fifth grade son still doesn’t understand multiplication and the constant discussion of strategies of how to tackle a problem takes up precious time and mental energy. I don’t want to discuss number groupings, I want to yell at them, “Just memorize it!”

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The thing is, I am philosophically against rote learning and memorizing. It doesn’t teach kids to learn, so I would have thought that I would love the “new math” and yet, I hate it. It takes away the best parts of math which is the clarity. Not that I am advocating a return to the “drill and kill” methods of my childhood either. But does it have to be one or the other — can the smart people who run our education system not come up with a curriculum that takes the best parts of each method?

Four writers from the Globe and Mail attempted to do their kids’ homework last week, and they found the same thing. The math isn’t clear and the homework is busy work that takes away from extracurriculars, and in the case of high school students, precious sleep.

A group in Alberta argues that the new math generates a dangerous two-tier system — some families can afford the extra tutoring or Kumon, or have the time, and the skills, to sit down and do the math; but some parents don’t have the money, or are working two jobs, and/or don’t have the language or math skills to help their kids. Those kids suffer the most under the new system. Not to mention that few elementary math teachers have extra training in math, so they are making it up as they go.

My skills are, sadly, not up to the job of helping my kids out with their homework — I think they outpaced me around the fourth grade. I grew up thinking that I was just bad at math — but maybe I could have been taught in a way that would have made me feel more confident when faced with a page of numbers. I don’t want my son who says “I am just bad at math” to feel the same way.

But it seems that in the decades that I left public school they haven’t figured out what that system looks like.

I don’t really care what an international test has to say about the kids in this country. I am unconvinced that those exams really tell us anything about our kids, or our future economic prospects. What I do know is that my kids don’t understand simple math, and I don’t want to send them to a boring, repetitive tutoring program to pick up the pieces that the curriculum is leaving behind.

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