Five hundred and thirty-two minus five hundred and eighteen equals fourteen. The most recent 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have been published. And fourteen is the number of points Canada has dropped since 2003, ranking our country thirteenth internationally and bumping us out of our seventh place position in the top ten.
PISA is an international diagnostic test that surveys around 470 000 fifteen year old students in sixty-five countries. Last year in Canada 21 000 students across all ten provinces were tested on their mathematics, science, and literacy skills with particular attention paid to math. Although still well above the international average of four hundred ninety-four, Canada’s results have been described “on the scale of a national emergency” by John Manley, ex-politician and current CEO and president of the Council of Canadian Chief Executives.
In the increasingly science and technology driven world that we live in, math is an essential skill, and deceptively easy to dismiss as a gift. There is a general attitude that people are either good or bad at math, and that this cannot change. Those blessed with the talent understand concepts as if they simply diffuse from textbooks into their brains. And those less fortunate – well there’s nothing they can do. But this is a fallacious dichotomy.
No child is born with an understanding of calculus. Proficiency in math takes practice, more so than any other subject. It requires repetition and elbow grease. This sounds obvious, but many fail to understand. Students are unwilling to dedicate the time and effort to a skill that makes them feel so inadequate. This encourages them to drop any and all math courses that they can, as soon as they can. Only slightly above 50% of Ontario students take math in their senior year, severely limiting their career options. So, what is it that went wrong – where does this thinking develop?
Although PISA reflects the abilities of fifteen-year olds, the problem begins much earlier than that: in our elementary schools. Until middle school, students receive no specialized education in math. This means that the subject is taught by a core teacher whose background may be any number of things, but is most likely not mathematics. In fact, student teachers at U of T were given a Grade 6 math test as the beginning of their training, and a concerning number of the prospective teachers struggled to recall even the most basic mathematical concepts such as volume and prime numbers. These are the people who teach our youth. Not only do they lack mathematical background, but perhaps worse, they lack confidence or interest.
It has been said that one year of poor instruction in math can take up to three years to correct. Math is a skill that builds on itself, each lesson growing naturally from the last. We can’t afford to give our youth a weak introduction to the subject. Students and teachers alike are avoiding the dirty work associated with creating a strong foundation. More time needs to be dedicated to teaching mathematics at the elementary level. More rigour needs to be introduced earlier on. Problem sets and higher level concepts should not be terrifying realizations in high school.
As soon as I began grade school I was asked to keep a reading log. Everyday I had to read for twenty minutes and record my progress, and all of this was signed off on by my parents. There was accountability, and it worked. I not only learned to read, but I learned to love reading. This same practice could be easily implemented with math. Twenty minutes a day could go a long way towards solving a national emergency.