The issue of math education in our country isn’t a new one. For decades, we have strived to improve the quality of our students and their learning in the math and science fields — but is it working?
Two months ago, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) made public the standardized testing results from the previous school year. The agency, which works with the Government of Ontario, showed that the percentage of students meeting the provincial standard is continuing to decline. And as a result, Education Minister Stephen Leece has enacted a plan through which approximately $200 million will be devoted to improving the math curriculum in Ontario’s schools.
Problem solved, right?
Well… not really. In fact, that response might as well be the primary reason for the continued decline of math proficiency: complacency. We treat it as an urgent problem whenever some comparison with other nations or our own standards are unsatisfactory, but quiet down just as quickly. We can’t afford to wait until the next time a report is published to continue making strides. The math crisis isn’t in need of just any solution. It is in need of one that will work, and of one that will work on it consistently.
The immediate response of dedicating such large funds to this cause is definitely commendable, but will need to be coupled with more to jumpstart a change in the positive direction. Even schools with great funding oftentimes have graduating classes where only 15% of the students are ready to dive into college-level mathematics; so to some extent, funding isn’t the problem. Rather, as Timothy S. Norfolk of the Washington Post argues, it is “the negative attitude to mathematics that is common in our culture, even in university circles” that impedes them from reaching their full potential.
Many of us view mathematics as too challenging because of the thoroughness and rigor it requires. With the increasing focus on the importance of a liberal arts education as well, and growth in appreciation for the humanities, it is easy for students to believe that a deep understanding of mathematics is no longer a necessity. But studies have shown that “mathematics achievement is the most robust predictor of college graduation rates, independent of academic major.” Mathematics is not just math, but rather a set of skills — problem solving, creativity, thoroughness — that are invaluable for each and every individual.
It is precisely that perspective that is missing from the general population today, and a leading contributor to our growing weakness in the subject area. As a student whose childhood largely revolved around mathematics, I can say with confidence that it is the thrill of seeking elegant solutions to new problems, the thrill of chipping away at intriguing puzzles, and the thrill of finding connections between seemingly unrelated concepts that fuels my passion for the subject. But for that same passion to be spread to our classrooms, we need to find teachers with that same energy and excitement.
An interesting statistic that was brought up in CityNews’s article stated that “there is a persistent gap between students in the applied and academic courses — 44 percent and 84 percent of them met the standard, respectively.” I feel like we underestimate our students at times, directly correlating the lack of proficiency in math to a lack of capability or a lack of ability on the part of the educators. Yet this statistic shows that our students don’t struggle with memorizing theorems or formulas — they struggle with applying them.
What is it that we need in the world outside the classroom? Precisely that: application.
As Norfolk argues, we can continue to “look for a quick fix, emphasizing pedagogy and technology, to make the learning easier; [but] this is doomed to defeat, since the intellectual challenge is inherent in the subject.” So to conclude the conversation that began with Ontario’s new plan and ended in somewhat of an introspective rant about the role of passion in learning, I leave you with the real question: how do we inspire future generations to see math as something more? To embrace the challenge it poses? To cultivate a love for learning itself?