Letter to Editor of Brandon Sun on Math Education

In response to a letter that was written to the Brandon Sun (Brandon is a city in Manitoba), Anna Stokke and I responded in the following letter that was published today (March 25, 2017) in the Brandon Sun:

The author of “A Message To Armchair Educators” (Sound Off, March 20) is nauseated by non-teachers who express concerns about Manitoba’s poor rankings in international tests.Negating opinions of anyone who is not involved in teaching or education is, at the very least, prejudicial.

Parents bear the burden for ineffective and injurious practices that pass as “research- and evidence-based.”Too many parents are forced to spend time teaching their children what isn’t being taught in school. Other parents, who can afford it, hire tutors or send their children to learning centres such as Sylvan and Kumon. Enrolment in tutoring centres has nearly tripled in the U.S., according to the census there, and a similar increase is occurring in Canada.

Parents who do not have sufficient income to seek help outside of school may, as the author of the Sound Off suggests, be victims of poverty. But unlike the author’s assertion, it isn’t poverty that is causing poor performance in school; it is the ineffective teaching practices that do harm, and poverty-stricken parents have no means by which to rectify it via tutors or, in many cases, by teaching their children themselves.

The author goes on to celebrate bogus practices like “multiple intelligences” and teaching to “preferred learning styles.” But fads like this do not work.

“Multiple intelligences” is one of those platitudes that if repeated enough times becomes taken as truth. We would be happy to provide a list of the research showing that there is no evidence that multiple intelligences and tailoring instruction to preferred learning styles are effective. On the contrary, research shows this to be ineffective.

The author of the Sound Off states: “memorizing math facts does not mean a student understands.” This is a mischaracterization that is often used to denigrate traditional math practices that have proved effective for years. The assumption is that math facts were traditionally taught in isolation without linking them to what they are used for, and that math was taught without “understanding.” A glance at textbooks used in previous eras shows that this is not the case. Explanations of procedures were provided in the past and students were given problems that, ironically, many students today would not be able to solve. Many of the people who claim that traditional methods do not work have benefited from the very techniques that they hold in disdain — yet they promote teaching methods that prevent today’s children from enjoying similar benefits.

Lest we be told that we have no voice in this argument because we “know nothing of the education system,” we are both teachers. One of us teaches math in a middle school and the other is a math professor. Both of us have been involved in the math education debates for many years and have written numerous articles on the subject.

There is a problem with education in Manitoba. International tests show that the percentage of students who struggle in math doubled over 10 years, while the percentage of students who excel in math was cut in half. Manitoba students once performed at the Canadian average — on par with Ontario — but on the most recent national assessment (PCAP), Manitoba was the lowest-performing province in Canada. Things are unlikely to get better if unproven fads dominate the teaching practices in Manitoba schools.

Unfortunately, the opinions expressed by the author of the Sound Off seem to prevail in North America despite much evidence to the contrary. The press and others would be doing the public a great favour by questioning the so-called “evidence” called up by the “experts.”

Barry Garelick is an education writer and middle school math teacher, based in California. Anna Stokke is a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, a Brandon University alumna and author of the C.D. Howe report “What To Do About Canada’s Declining Math Scores.”


Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 25, 2017


4 thoughts on “Letter to Editor of Brandon Sun on Math Education

  1. Well said. Many thanks to you, Barry, and Anna Stokke for responding to such gibberish. More need to respond to this nonsense accordingly.


  2. I support the veiews expressed by Anna Stokke and Barry Garelick.
    As a parent, I have had the thankless job of teaching math to my children while having my children quote to me the views they learned in school: that math wasn’t important and that they could always use a calculator. As a psychologist, I have been skeptical of the prevailing theories of learning, that are always couched in such fashionable but vague language that I, with my academic education, could not really decode what they meant. Ever since general math literacy started to decline, I have tried to support traditional teaching of math skills.
    This situation has been worsening for a very long time. Just try to remember how long it has been since we could expect cashiers to be able to do mental math. That the use of tutors has become commonplace, is a disgrace to education systems all over Canada. I think most of this fashionable bs has been imported from the US, and Canadian educational systems should have known better than to follow those models.


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