Old school or new?

Math teach­ers de­bate best meth­ods as scores fall

Cape Breton Post - - CANADA - BY LIAM CASEY

Don’t get math teach­ers started on best teach­ing prac­tices.

The dis­cus­sions are emo­tional, heated and they don’t agree on much _ ex­cept that Cana­dian kids are fall­ing be­hind their peers in other coun­tries, and there’s no clear so­lu­tion.

There are gen­er­ally two camps: those in favour of the old­school method to lec­ture kids with a “drill-and-kill’’ for­mat that preaches prac­tice, and another, ever-grow­ing group that be­lieves a more cre­ative ap­proach is needed to en­gage stu­dents.

At a re­cent event in Toronto, dozens of teach­ers waited in line to take self­ies with math-teach­ing celebrity Dan Meyer, de­lay­ing his key­note talk at the On­tario As­so­ci­a­tion for Math­e­mat­ics Ed­u­ca­tion con­fer­ence. He is part of the new-school camp.

His ap­proach is sim­ple, Meyer says on the phone from Cal­i­for­nia, where he’s a math ed­u­ca­tion re­searcher at Stan­ford Univer­sity.

He presents a prob­lem at the start of class, and lets the stu­dents try to fig­ure it out. Hope­fully, he says, the stu­dents will strug­gle.

“That ini­tial mo­ment of strug­gle pre­pares them for what they’ll learn later,’’ he says.

Meyer cites sev­eral stud­ies that back up his ideas, in­clud­ing one from Manu Ka­pur, a pro­fes­sor at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity in Sin­ga­pore. Ka­pur’s study shows stu­dents who are given a prob­lem to solve on their own _ be­fore in­struc­tion from a teacher _ out­per­form stu­dents who are given the tra­di­tional lec­tur­ing style.

The tech­nique is in the early stages of im­ple­men­ta­tion across On­tario, ac­cord­ing to Sheena Agius, a math coach who helps teach­ers with the new method in the Duf­ferin-Peel Catholic Dis­trict School Board.

Just like all other boards in On­tario, it is mov­ing away from rote learn­ing to try to get stu­dents to un­der­stand math at a deeper, more con­cep­tual level.

“Just be­cause we’re do­ing it, doesn’t mean we’re do­ing it well yet,’’ she says. “But it’s a learn­ing process for teach­ers and that will come.’’

Meyer has many acolytes, such as Paul Alves, pres­i­dent of the On­tario As­so­ci­a­tion for Math­e­mat­ics Ed­u­ca­tion and a high school math teacher at Fletcher’s Meadow Sec­ondary School in Brampton, Ont., north­west of Toronto.

“Teach­ers are re­ally en­gaged by the way (Meyer) teaches math be­cause when they try it they see the same thing _ the ex­cite­ment stu­dents have to do the math _ and it changes the class­room. It in­vig­o­rates it and en­er­gizes it, which wasn’t the case be­fore,’’ Alves says.

That en­gage­ment is price­less, Alves says.

He says a teacher at another school dove head­first into the new-school method for his Grade 9 ap­plied math class. The class, he says, jumped from 40 per cent on the pro­vin­cial tests us­ing the old method to 70 per cent af­ter im­ple­ment­ing the new one.

Yet both Meyer and Alves say they aren’t ad­vo­cat­ing aban­don­ing the clas­sic “chalk-and-talk’’ style.

“At some point I need to know that kids can fac­tor a qua­dratic equa­tion, and some­times you have to prac­tise that skill to get good at it,’’ Alves says.

On the other side of the di­vid­ing line, old-school math teach­ers are just as vo­cif­er­ous.

Anna Stokke, a math pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg, is a staunch de­fender of lec­tur­ing and prac­tice.

She re­cently pub­lished a re­port with the C.D. Howe In­sti­tute that showed Cana­dian stu­dents’ math per­for­mance in in­ter­na­tional ex­ams de­clined be­tween 2003 and 2012.

Stokke blames the de­cline on the style pro­moted by Meyer, which she dubs “dis­cov­ery-based learn­ing.’’

CP PHOTO

Math teacher Paul Alves holds a vis­ual learn­ing aid as he sits be­low a tra­di­tional math equa­tion on a class­room's chalk board at Fletcher's Meadow Sec­ondary School in Brampton, Ont., on Wed­nes­day.

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