On March 15th, 2013, the University of Manitoba hosted Manitoba Education Research Network (MERN) and its Special Forum “Inquiry into Mathematics Education”. The day started with a panel of three professors from the University of Winnipeg and two from the University of Manitoba, each briefly outlining how math education in Manitoba can “add up to success”. After the panel, participants could choose from ten different sessions in three time slots on various topics.
A few things stood out for me from the morning panel session. Butterworth’s dyscalculia research was highlighted by one professor as a significant advance in understanding of struggling learners. Griffin’s delineation of three mathematical worlds – real, verbal, and symbolic – were also highlighted by the same professor as another helpful tool for teachers to focus their efforts to help struggling learners. A second professor highlighted how there is a significant shift in Manitoba students opting out of courses such as Precalculus and Applied Mathematics in favour of the Essential (formerly Consumer) Mathematics course. This professor shared statistics on how 50% of Precalculus-streamed students drop out of maths and science courses at the university level (though no source for this statistic was provided). This professor stated that struggling learners in high school tend to be struggling learners in early years, and as such he called for a “revolution in mathematics education”. Participants would find out later in his session exactly what he meant by this statement.
A third professor of the panel discussed the meaning of numeracy as a label. Its elements are essential, fundamental, and universal, and its core involves conceptual understanding paired with arithmetical fluency. He emphasized that numeracy is an identity and a right of an individual. He quoted Seeley (2005):
“It is oversimplified, unrealistic, and unfair to try to raise students’ achievement in mathematics simply by putting pressure on teachers to try harder. …To accomplish the ambitious goal of a high-quality mathematics education for every student, educators, policy makers and communities will have to make significant, fundamental changes in the education system, not just exhort teachers to ‘try harder’.”
I came away from the panel, as well as from the sessions I chose, with mixed feelings.
As an individual currently in the education system, I felt let down. I had high hopes for where the conversation would go during the day, particularly when I saw the Seeley quote and the call from more than one professor for systemic change. When I assessed what I had gleaned from the Forum at the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that much of the “same old” rhetoric was being spoken of as (weak) solutions. Saying that we need systemic change, without offering details, or (worse) offering “solutions” currently being used and found unsuccessful, is disappointing and frustrating. For teachers in the current system dealing with a myriad of student issues such as dramatically increasing levels of poverty, family breakdowns, student mental health issues, as well as academic issues, no clear solution was offered.
As an academic currently in the process of writing my own thesis on education reform, I could step back to realize that the professors were taking on an incredibly complicated topic – supporting struggling learners – and doing their best within a very tight time frame to offer current teachers a glimmer of hope. One professor in an afternoon session specifically highlighted that because of the complicated and interwoven nature of academic, social, emotional, and physical lives, attempting to come up with a solution that works for every struggling learner is an impossibility – yet we still should not give up seeking multiple ways of supporting these learners.
As a human being hoping that society is ultimately here to help bring equity and opportunity to all, I found hope. Hope came in the individual conversations I had with others attending the conference. I spoke with a teacher candidate who expressed her amazement at the lack of hope offered by the professors, but the many good things she was seeing in schools and in her soon-to-be teaching colleagues…how they truly were seeking to improve the learning *and* the lives of the students in their care. I spoke with a young teacher in an elementary classroom who I know is doing amazing things to connect her early years students to citizenship skills through use of technology, and addressing conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts through project-based learning.
Ultimately, if mathematics education is going to “improve” – if numeracy skills of students are going to “improve” – it is the teachers in training and the current young generation of teachers entering the profession who will carry this torch. From what I have seen and experienced, we have much to be thankful for, much to anticipate, and much for which we may hope.
So – how do we improve mathematics education in Manitoba? How do we go beyond a vague call for a “revolution” and make effective, timely changes to help our struggling math students *now*?
That, dear readers, will begin with my next post.