After almost twenty years in education, I have seen curricular changes – both minor and major – to mathematics in Manitoba. I have been part of the process in creating curriculum documents, assessment tools, and support documents for math teachers. I have witnessed the politics and personalities that need to be navigated in this process – a given when education is tied to funding from the government. With the anticipated announcement of further (purported minor) changes to the mathematics curricula this coming September, plus with my recent post on the MERN Special Forum on Math Education, I needed to put at least some of my thoughts into a blog post. So here goes….
Mathematics education in Manitoba needs to “stay the course”. With the goals for students as well as the focus of the curricula, we need to keep doing what we’re doing – and get better at it.
What’s good about the current math curricula? For a start, the “front matter” of the documents are exactly where we need to be in math education. We have the overarching goal of students needing to “become mathematically literate adults”, coupled with five other goals that will lead them to this mathematical literacy (what follows is shortened and paraphrased):
1. use math confidently;
2. communicate and reason mathematically;
3. appreciate and value math;
4. make connections between math and the real world;
5. commit to lifelong learning.
What else is good about the current math curricula? It focuses on mathematical processes (again, in the front matter). Seven different processes are threaded throughout the strands (or units of study), providing students with “the critical components…in order to achieve the goals and encourage lifelong learning”:
3. mental math and estimation;
4. problem solving;
Mathematics is not rote learning. Mathematics is not memorization. There is a place for this in math, but mathematics is so much more than “basic skills” or “number sense”.
Mathematics is language, symbols, pictures, and patterns. Math can be seen as a language that provides a different way of learning about our world. Mathematics is a way to both explore and explain the world around us. Fluency in basics helps that exploration, but basics fluency should not be the focus of any mathematics program.
Math curricula will never meet the needs of specific career(s) nor specific post-high-school programs. High school teachers need to be released from that assumption (some would call it a responsibility). Again, if we look at the front matter of our curricula it clearly states through the listed goals that we are not about “university preparation” or “job preparation”. Math is and should be about lifelong learning.
It is strange that mathematics is held to such a higher level of accountability for connection to career and study choices. No other subject or course offering at the high school level has the public perception been so closely tied to next steps. Though some may dispute that science and vocational courses are closely tied to next steps (career or study), both public perception and media coverage does not highlight this as is regularly done with mathematics. Courses in the Humanities in particular are seen to be venues for more open-ended thinking in particular.
High school mathematics teachers in particular need to be allowed the flexibility of teaching mathematics as open-ended thinking and connecting similar to the Humanities. Students need to be encouraged to approach mathematics as a language and a way of thinking, not as a means to a particular end (be it career or further study). That being said, we know that research shows that students will create meaning when they see connections to applications. But once again, the front matter in our curricula addresses that in both the goals and the processes for students.
We need to keep our current focus on conceptual understanding (beyond number sense). We need to keep our current focus on confidence (fluency), communication (mathematically), appreciation (of math), and connecting (math to life).
What needs to change?
1. Better teacher preparation (courses on math conceptual understanding offered by Faculties of Education);
2. Better transition from middle years to senior years credit system (grade 9 needs more flexibility and choice for students…this is a whole blog post on its own!);
3. Consistent approach to teaching mathematics at all grade levels (using Griffin’s three worlds of real, verbal, and symbolic math at *all* grade levels, for example. If you want to read some background on Griffin’s research, try this ASCD article for a start.)
Our Minister of Education needs to maintain a balanced perspective, neither letting industry nor higher education needs sway the purpose of the curricula. Conversation on mathematics education needs to continue, and it needs to come back to its roots – the front matter of the curricula.