What our kids aren’t learning at school

Tracy Chappell is worried that the current curriculum is hurting kids’ chances of success — and their self-esteem.

1KidsAndMath-January2014-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

I was disheartened to read that despite the national movement for a more back-to-basics approach to teaching math, many provinces reiterated this week that they’re sticking with “discovery” math approaches in the curriculum, which they say help kids to better problem solve in the real world.

Read more: The reason why your kids are bad at math >

I remember a woman I know lamenting over her grandson’s math skills. It wasn’t just once, when he was in primary grades, but all through his elementary schooling. “He doesn’t know his times tables,” she said to me incredulously. “He’s never been taught them.”

Because he didn’t know his times tables, he got further and further behind, eventually needing expensive tutoring to help him catch up. In the meantime, he grew frustrated with school, thought himself stupid, and just stopped caring altogether.

I’ve heard those kinds of stories from parents of kids older than mine. I thought they were one-offs — schools who had for some reason gone a different direction in their teaching methods. It wasn’t until my daughter entered school that I realized this wasn’t a blip — it was a very, very common trend.

I already knew they didn’t teach phonics anymore. I thought it strange, but my daughter seemed to pick up reading and writing relatively easily, so I didn’t worry about it (though I did realize I had to spend time teaching her to sound things out instead of guessing). But the next year, I had an interesting conversation with her grade one teacher, who told me that she was doing spelling tests in her class, but the marks could not be recorded for the children’s grades, because she wasn’t actually supposed to do spelling tests anymore. I asked her why on earth spelling tests were taboo, and she said that every few years some new theory of teaching comes to the forefront, and everyone has to adopt it. The current theory? Spelling tests don’t help kids learn how to spell.

Huh?

Read more: The end of cursive writing in schools? > 

I appreciated that she continued to see their value to do them in her class, but realized then that I was going to have to keep a close eye on how — and how much — my kids are learning, especially when it comes to the basics. Now in grade two, my daughter is doing lots of great stuff, but she no longer has spelling tests. She has “words of the week” that they are supposed to learn, but there’s no test. (Just to be clear, I love my kids’ school and their teachers past and present; my issue is with the curriculum.)

My biggest concern, like the friend I spoke of above, is for my kids learning good math skills. When I found out that drilling times tables into kids heads wasn’t happening anymore on a country-wide (even continent-wide) scale, it scared me. I know that kids learn in different ways, but we can’t just skip over the basics to move kids into hypotheticals and “creative” learning. Maybe drilling times tables and doing spelling dictation aren’t the fun parts, but they set a foundation that our kids need in order to get through life. It baffles me that those in charge can’t see that, and at least recognize that some combination of both is better than ditching one strategy for the other. You should be able to figure out in your head the approximate cost of something you want to buy with the tax, and be able to write a note to your mom on a piece of paper without relying on spell check.

I hear it’s the same with long division. I know many schools have dropped teaching cursive writing too, which just makes me sad (how will my kids read the journals I kept during their pregnancies?). I feel like we’re slowly crippling kids’ immense potential to learn, forcing them into a future where they’ll have to rely on calculators and computers, instead of their incredible brains.

The truth is, I was never taught grammar. Our parents were told that the latest research showed that knowing grammar didn’t make people better readers or writers, so they dropped it from our school’s curriculum. I’m bitter about this. As a writer and editor, I can say unequivocally that they were wrong, and that having to teach yourself grammar rules — rather than them being drilled into a young, developing mind — is no easy task.

I was happy to read two stories in the Globe & Mail about petitions circulating through Canada to reintroduce these fundamentals to our schools, and the other about how people are frustrated at the government’s response (though they said they’re devoting four million dollars to teach teachers how to teach this math better!). I’d read another story in which university professors were lamenting the horrific math skills their students brought to class. I’m paraphrasing, but one of the people interviewed said “Young children don’t need to know the ‘why’ about math. They just need to learn it. If they go on to study it, then they’ll get into the ‘why.’”

The worst part is that not teaching these basics in the classrooms just puts more pressure on parents to pick up the slack — or pay someone else to — so kids can learn what they need to get along in the world. Many of us simply don’t have hours of extra time in our days to teach spelling and times tables — or know how to approach it if we did. My younger daughter is in kindergarten right now with a “play-based learning” approach, and she doesn’t seem to be picking up reading skills very easily at all. I’m not sure how it’s being taught in the classroom now, but I know I’m struggling to figure out how to motivate her to sound out letters in our evenings — and dealing with her frustration — when I’d rather be cuddling. I worry about how this is affecting her view of her time spent with me, not to mention her view of herself when she struggles.

Do you feel that your kids are learning what they need to learn in the classroom? If not, are you trying to bridge the gap yourself?

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