CBC’s DNTO: Pi day episode

You can listen to Anna Stokke’s personal math parenting story here: Top three math tips for parents.

The entire DNTO Pi day episode airs today, March 14, 2015 at 1:30 on CBC, or you can listen to the podcast for the full episode.

Happy Pi Day from WISE Math!

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Anna Stokke “When Math Doesn’t Make Sense” on the Stuff For Parents blog podcast

Anna gives a good summary, in this interview for the Stuff For Parents podcast, of WISE Math and parent concerns, discusses the changes in math education and what we have advocated, and what parents in despair over their children’s math education can do.

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Anna Stokke Public Lecture in Winnipeg

The Canadian Math Debate: What’s Going on with K-12 Math Education?

Speaker:  Dr. Anna Stokke, University of Winnipeg, Department of  Mathematics & Statistics Location:  Millennium Library, Carol Shields Auditorium Wednesday, January 21, 12:00 to 1:00 pm   http://wpl.winnipeg.ca/library/pdfs/skywalkwin2015poster.pdf

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John Mighton’s TEDxCERN talk

John Mighton challenges the belief that only some have the ability to excel in math in this compelling TEDxCERN talk.

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PCAP 2013 (released October 2014) articles

Here are some recent articles related to the recent PCAP results.

PCAP 2013 Report, CMEC

Tests show provincial differences in math, reading, science education,Kate Hammer and Caroline Alphonso, Globe and Mail

Manitoba students rank lowest in Canada in math, science, reading, Nick Martin, Winnipeg Free Press

What’s going on in our schools?, Editorial, Winnipeg Free Press Education system is in crisis, Anna Stokke, Winnipeg Free Press

No surprise in Manitoba students’ poor math showings, Anna Stokke, CBC Editorial

Manitoba’s Classroom Challenges, blame-deflecting response to Anna’s pieces by  a local school district deputy superintendent Simon Laplante

Move Learning Forward, Rob Craigen’s response to Laplante (also see online comments below Laplante’s original letter)

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Back-to-school articles

Math skills not adding up, former prof says, CBC News

Practice and drills are the keys to math success, by Anna Stokke, Winnipeg Free Press

Manitoba must focus on academic achievement, by Michael Zwaagstra, Winnipeg Free Press

Five things that are new for back-to-school in Edmonton this year, by Andrea Sands, Edmonton Journal

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Summer reading suggestions

Here are some excellent books about education that you may want to read this summer.

  1. Seven Myths About Education, by Daisy Christodoulou. (Highly recommended!)

“She examines seven widely held beliefs which are holding back pupils and teachers:

  • facts prevent understanding
  • teacher-led instruction is passive
  • the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
  • you can always just look it up
  • we should teach transferable skills
  • projects and activities are the best way to learn
  • teaching knowledge is indoctrination.”

2.  Teacher proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims and what you can do about it, by Tom Bennett

“Education is awash with theories about how pupils best learn and teachers best teach, most often propped up with the inevitable research that ‘proves’ the case in point…Drawing from a wide range of recent and popular education theories and strategies, Tom Bennett highlights how much of what we think we know in schools hasn’t been ‘proven’ in any meaningful sense at all. ”

3.  When can you trust the experts:  How to tell good science from bad in education”, by Daniel T. Willingham.

“In this insightful book, thought leader and bestselling author Dan Willingham offers an easy, reliable way to discern which programs are scientifically supported and which are the equivalent of “educational snake oil.””

Have a great summer from WISE Math!

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Costco Connection debate on “Discovery Math”

In the July 2014 issue of Costco Connection I (R. Craigen) debate the merits of “discovery math” in Elementary school with Deirdre Bailey, an Alberta teacher who is an outspoken proponent this approach.

Her argument starts out by mischaracterizing the justification for foundation-first (or “back to basics”, or conventional) education.  While we do argue that conventional approaches produce empirically better outcomes in computation and symbolic manipulation (and enquiry advocates admit as much) it is also true, as we repeatedly argue, that students well versed in the basics also do better on complex and information-rich tasks, and show more deeply connected knowledge — that is, “understanding” of the subject matter than those who have been taught to “think critically” in a vacuum of foundational knowledge.   There is a great deal of empirical evidence to this effect, over several decades and in studies of many different types.  However, her framing of that statement suggests that the merits of conventional instruction are limited to purely mechanical outcomes while (she implies) discovery stimulates deep learning and understanding.  Actually, it is well established through numerous studies that conventional methods (direct instruction, foundation and basics before exploration and discovery, structured outcomes, hierarchical exposure to topics) is associated with better skills, better understanding and better emotional response to learning.

Finally, note the example of “inquiry learning” in her argument:  finding the dimensions of a rectangle given information about its area and perimeter.  Problems of the sort she describes are older than her grandparents.  They are standard. Conventional. They are easily solved using straightforward procedures learned in early algebra (Junior High School)

Presumably this is “inquiry” for her students because they are years from starting algebra.  Indeed, in that case a student’s toolbox for such problems is rather empty.  It seems that “inquiry” is code for requiring students to solve problems for which they have not yet been exposed to appropriate methods.

The problem she states is easy enough to solve using guess-and-check. But even a simple variant would suddenly be unsolvable in that way (e.g., what are the dimensions of a rectangle whose area is 10 square cm and whose perimeter is 5 cm?).  So not only is this “math-as-an-Easter-egg-hunt”, no general method of value is learned — that will still only come in high school.   And the problem only “works” if it is contrived so that a solution is unnaturally easy to find.

This leaves untouched the cognitive complexity caused by the categorical problem of setting equal areas and lengths as if units of measurement didn’t matter.  Classically this is resolved in a couple of different ways — by shifting to an abstract formulation in which the concrete meaning of those quantities is ignored by fiat, or by adjusting the meaning of the relation so that one ends up with matching units.  Neither of which is appropriate for students to grapple with when still mastering the ideas of dimensions, areas and perimeters of rectangles!

You can see this teacher in action here, a promotional video for their school in which two teachers purport to guide students to “discover” a definition.  You might ponder in what sense this is even possible, in principle.  The interested viewer is directed to the discussions early in the video in which children are clearly echoing things they’ve been told by adults or older siblings in a sort of guessing-game in which students attempt to “get it right”, while the teachers dutifully record all contributions, helpful or not, on a board, avoiding accidentally actually … uh … teaching them anything.  While the pretence is that the children jointly generate this knowledge out of the blue, in reality you see enough vicarious expertise in the room from children who’ve been versed in these ideas at home or elsewhere that eventually a serviceable definition emerges, probably the most gruelling possible way of defining a new term.  On Deirdre’s blog she argues that this approach “makes learning memorable”, and given the amount of time and effort that went into this trivial outcome, it may be that she has something of a point here.

There certainly is a lot of positive energy in the room.  It’s just too bad not to use all that energy for something more educationally productive.  Surely dragging out the acquisition of a new definition into an hour-long socially complex exercise is not the only (or even the best) way of helping students enjoy math class.

You have to understand, watching this, that Connect! School is a Potemkin Village of sorts for discovery learning:  a vaunted example or showcase to sell the idea.  And the lesson shown is, for them, a sort of pinnacle of the art, or as their webpage puts it, an “exemplary example of teacher inquiry”.  In other words … this is as good as it gets, folks.

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Progress in Alberta

Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies has made great progress in Alberta. There is still more work to be done but this is a positive first step!

University of Alberta mathematics professor John Bowman said the curriculum changes are a positive step, but those standard math algorithms should be mandatory. Personalized strategies can be useful, but algorithms are important technical tools that allow students to move on to higher-level math, Bowman said.

Edmonton Journal:  Critics, ATA applaud minister’s revisions to Alberta math curriculum

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Ontario Petitioner and retired teacher Teresa Murray talks to CBC about parents’ frustration and the need to master number facts.


Teresa makes a simple and also profound point in the video.  If multiplication facts are committed to heart there are no “steps” — one has the answer and moves on.  These are called “basics” for a reason:  continually breaking simple, repetitious actions into tiny subtasks oversells the trivial and misses the point of mathematics, which is the accumulation of more and more sophisticated procedures, always building on what was learned before, until powerful, complex things can be done with fluency.  How many times must one justify, two or three different ways, that 9×6=54?

Mathematics is about more than “getting to an answer, one way or another, in basic arithmetic problems”.

Indeed, it seems that the advocates of fuzzy math want precisely that:  for children to get hung up on elementary arithmetic and devote as much time and energy as possible to it. The WNCP framework stipulates multiple-step procedures for obtaining multiplication facts in Grade 5, with mastery of those facts … never!

It is not acceptable for students to obsess over elementary building blocks of mathematics for five years of their lives.  They should be moving on and doing interesting things.  This would be like a 6 week cooking class in which the first three weeks are spent learning how to turn on the stove. Those math facts should fully automatized so that they do not get in the way by cluttering up more complex tasks with unnecessary, purely elementary steps.

It is a common misconception promoted by some in the Educational Establishment that those who talk about emphasizing “basics” in early years want children’s lives consumed with routine, elementary, mindless “basic” tasks.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We advocate for the basics to be done — finished and mastered — as early as possible, enabling students to move on in their mathematical education, to the greater things for which that foundation is laid.  “Back to basics” is not about more basics, but less, more efficiently covered, and more solidly learned.

In the final analysis it is the advocates of fuzzy math who are about “basics”:  years of tedious, multiple-step ad-hoc procedures to calculate what should be committed to memory and reinvested as single steps in more engaging and worthwhile uses of their time.

If you haven’t done so yet, sign her petition here.

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