Robert Craigen, University of Manitoba

Robert Craigen, BSc. (Math, UBC), MMath (Waterloo), PhD (Pure Math, Waterloo)

I began my career as a PostDoc in 1991 at the University of Lethrbridge. I also held a position at Fresno Pacific University in California before taking my present position at the university of Manitoba in 1999. Because of my keen interest in “Mathletics” (mathematics competitions and training) I have spent the last decade training university mathletes and acting as a liaison with Manitoba High Schools, which puts me in touch with many of the outstanding mathematics teachers in the province.

In addition to our own training program, for several years I directed of the IIMS/University of Manitoba High School Problem Solving Workshop, preparing Manitoba students each year to write mathematics competitions. I currently am Director of the Manitoba Mathematical Competition (MMC), for Grade 12 students. I consult with local schools about their own training programs and provide resources for High School Teachers and training for Olympiad-level high school mathletes. By virtue of my work with the MMC I am also an executive member of the Manitoba Association of Mathematics Teachers. I am occasionally asked to speak to students as part of enrichment activities at local schools. During my time at the University of Lethbridge I developed a self-help extra-curricular workbook for incoming students who felt unprepared for university-level mathematics. I do research in the field of Combinatorial Matrix Theory, for which I received early-career recognition in the form of the Kirkman Medal in Combinatorics.

In 2005 I was asked to act as a representative of the professional mathematics community on the Province of Manitoba’s Curriculum Steering Committee for Mathematics. This committee was tasked with the job of overseeing the implementation of the WNCP curriculum in Manitoba (WNCP is currently used in some form across 8 provinces). I spent 3 years wading through hundreds of pages of detailed descriptions of K-12 math, not seeing much “forest”, on account of the “trees”. Initially I believed that as a member of this committee I would be able to contribute to the content and philosophy of the curriculum from the perspective of a professional mathematician. I soon learned that the philosophy guiding this curriculum was determined by a process at a different level, and that the draft documents we were looking at came to us more-or-less complete. Our input into the curriculum itself was on a micro, not a macro level.

Mired in the micro-level detail it was not until 2008 that it dawned on me that I was not looking at a mere rearrangement of topics with tweaks here and there, but a sweeping change that would wrest the most important algorithms of elementary arithmetic altogether from classrooms across the West, plunging millions of children into an unwarranted, and in my mind quite alarming, social/educational experiment.

During that time I also slowly became aware of a radical shift in classroom methodology that was being promoted along with the new curriculum, that is not easily inferred from the documents themselves, but aggressively promoted through training for teachers in the use of the new curricular materials: Over a large portion at the heart the elementary school mathematical experience, “skills” are no longer to be “drilled”. Indeed, “skills” and “algorithms” are demagogued as foils to students’ understanding. A false dichotomy is constructed, suggesting that skills development through repetition and practice of standard procedures must be eliminated so that students will come away with a better understanding of mathematics.

Challenging this dichotomy on the committee I discovered that it was the opinion of educational leaders that teachers are not able to teach the standard algorithms to students with understanding and that the manner in which skills are set up in classrooms acts as a replacement for deeper development of cognitive understanding. Further, I perceived that there was little confidence in the teachers’ own understanding of the algorithms, which of course is a prerequisite to their ability to teach it.

So when Anna Stokke presented her online petition on baseline mathematical preparation of teachers in Manitoba, and I saw the reaction of the media and the public response across Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I decided that we have a short window of opportunity in which to effect positive change, and I have enthusiastically joined this effort.