The War of the Worlds
Without a doubt, the past week on Twitter has been one of the most interesting I have been a part of since joining in 2009. I have always said that Twitter is an excellent source of professional development if you allow it to be. That was definitely the case this past week.
Two weeks ago, a fax circulated around Alberta schools. I wrote about it when it was released. Among other things, it invited people to participate in a forum on math and curriculum to be held on May 29 at the University of Alberta. The organizers brought in number of speakers including both local and out of province mathematicians and former, educators. One expert invited to speak was Robert Craigen. This all coincided with the release of a CD Howe report written by Anna Stokke titled: What to do with Canada’s Declining Math Scores (http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_427.pdf). Finally, the CBC Radio program Cross Country Checkup had the author of the CD Howe Report on with other guests to discuss math in Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/checkup/is-there-something-wrong-with-the-way-math-is-being-taught-1.3093910).
Tieing It Together
All of these pieces came together on Twitter as the various voices in the debate began airing their views and staking their claims. What ensued was a week’s worth of points and counterpoints related to the teaching of math, not only in Alberta or Canada, but around the world. I won’t go through and list of the tweets as there are many. But some of the voices involved were: Dan Myer (@ddmeyer), Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), John Golden (@mathhombre), Anna Stokke (@rastokke), Robert Craigen (@rcraigen), and David Coffey (@delta_dc).
I became involved when I asked Robert Craigen a question about one of his tweets. That resulted in quite a lengthy exchange between the two of us, which consisted of me mostly trying to gain a better understanding of Dr. Craigen’s position and Dr. Craigen patiently answering my questions. Dr. Craigen’s position is that all students in Canadian schools should memorize a canon of mathematical knowledge consisting of standard algorithms. According to Dr. Craigen, these algorithms should be learned in a very sequential way with little deviation and should be memorized by the students so they are able to recall them quickly when needed. The argument here is that through memorization, the cognitive load required by the students is reduced because they do not need to spend intellectual horsepower on remembering the algorithm. Dr. Craigen’s contention is that “normal” (his word) students, without impairments will be able to do this. He points to Jump Math as an example of a program that teachers could employ to achieve this goal.
What is interesting to me about this, is not all mathematics education professors agree with Dr. Craigen. When asked, Dr. Craigen suggested that the acceptance of his position was almost completely universal in the mathematics world. However, the debate that continues to go on would suggest otherwise.
The big question I have been asking myself after being involved in a variety of these discussions is why is there such a disagreement amongst mathematicians and mathematics education professors? I have yet to come to an answer for this question. The other larger implication to this debate is the teaching of math in schools and, the teaching of any subject in schools. Some people are very passionate about their beliefs on the teaching that should take place in classrooms. Anna Stokke’s CD Howe report recommended that there be an 80/20 split with 80% of the time dedicated to direct instruction and 20% of the time allocated to other teaching methodologies. For me, the bottom line to this, and the “so what” answer, is balance. I believe teachers should use a variety of teaching and assessment practices and not rely strictly on one approach. The reason for this is that students learn at different rates and attach meaning/develop schemas in memory in different ways. Therefore, if we present material in a variety of ways and provide students with a variety of ways for them to demonstrate what they know, we can maximize the success of all our students. Which, in my opinion, is the ultimate objective in our classrooms.
The Next Steps
The debate currently going on is nothing new. People are passionate about their particular areas of expertise. Parents are passionate about their children and only want what’s best for them. I’m sure, this will not be the last time this debate comes up. I only hope that we all can wade through the rhetoric and park our egos long enough to remember that we are trying to help kids. As my wife said “if only students loved math/learning as much as adults love debating how to teach.”
Thanks for reading,