Yesterday I came across these guys. The Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE) is a movement organized by some University Mathematics Professors. On their front page, they state:

We began this initiative because we are experts in mathematics and we care deeply about the education of Canadian children. Children who do not receive the strong education in math that they deserve may ultimately be excluded from many careers in trades, technology, science, engineering, business, and economics, to name a few. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential in math so that they may enjoy lives free of innumeracy, may experience the beauty in math, and so that they may have a wide range of career opportunities.

It seems like a noble goal. Digging deeper into their site, I discovered that they believe the following things will improve mathematics instruction in Western Canada.

- Only “math specialists” should be permitted to teach math, at all levels from K-12.
- Math curriculum should be written by “professional mathematicians.” They should decide on both content and pedagogy. Only those who use and teach math at such a high level are qualified to make decisions about math curriculum.
- Standard algorithms must be taught.
- Students must be given lots of practice.
- Calculator use should be minimized.
- “Mathematicians” should review all resources including texts, teacher guides, and all other tools.

Their site asks people to sign a petition to lobby governments to make sure these things are addressed. Many parents have responded indicating support for this initiative, mostly because their kids can’t make change. Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will probably know where I stand on this one. For any new readers who happen across this post, let me tell you how angry this made me.

The sheer pompousness of this group of mathematicians, who seem to think that everybody should learn mathematics the way that worked for them, astounds me. I guarantee that this group of professors has absolutely no idea how to deal with a range of struggling learners. Their classes are full of only the best math students, and those who love math. They deal with students who had over 80% in high school math, and yet I suspect they still can’t (or won’t) differentiate adequately to help students who struggle in University math. Despite their ignorance of what math looks like in the trenches, they assume that their methods would work for all the diverse learners we have in K-12. Rigour is the answer. Algorithms are the answer. Real mathematicians in front of kids is the answer. Give me a break. Not one of them would last more than a week in a K-12 math classroom. And even if they did survive, only the best and brightest students would have learned anything. The rest would have been shuffled out to a shop class.

Despite my anger, I wrote a comment that respectfully disagreed with them, and tried to post it on their blog. They claim to encourage debate on this issue. My comment was rejected, so I’ll share it here. I’d love to hear from some Math Education Professors. They must deal with this kind of thing from their colleagues in the Math department. How do they handle it?

My comment to the folks behind WISE (?):

You guys are attributing an old phenomena to a new curriculum. It’s misguided and actually ironic in a lot of ways.

- Parents who hated math in school are supporting this movement and effectively asking us to teach their kids in the same manner that didn’t work for them.
- This site was set up by some University Math professors. Twenty years ago, when I took first year calculus, it was these same people who told us on the first day to look left and right at the people beside us. They told us only 1 in 3 would pass. They expected a 66% failure rate. They wore that failure rate proudly, like a badge. This happened in a time when we had the kind of curriculum this site advocates. That kind of curriculum didn’t produce good thinkers who are successful in University math. It produced good imitators. Now those same professors want us to keep producing imitators rather than thinkers?
- University math professors were, in fact, involved in the writing of this new WNCP curriculum. The ones I talk to are excited about the prospect of getting University math students who are deeper thinkers. I encourage this site’s group of Math professors to talk to the ones who were involved in the writing of the new curriculum. Or do they think they know better than their own colleagues?
- Not one student has graduated from the new WNCP math curriculum yet. The first set of graduates come out next year. Any perceived deficiencies in students’ mathematical abilities right now is based on the outgoing curriculum, which was the kind of curriculum this site is advocating. You folks seem to want to go back to the very system you have suggested was broken.

on December 22, 2011 at 11:33 am |Debbie ZieglerExcellent rebuttal John.

I couldn’t agree with your position more and I would like to highlight a viewpoint that you mentioned …

I would love to know when the last time these folks were in a k-12 classroom. Teachers of students know that the curriculum is only one piece of the puzzle. Students and teachers engage in mathematics in the classroom in ways that cannot be captured in the PofS. If these WISE folks really want to know what’s happening in mathematics education I would encourage them to visit classrooms with real students, real teachers and real math.

on December 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm |James C.On the whole, I agree with you. It especially seems bizarre to me when professors of higher math education wade into debates over things like teaching “standard algorithms” in elementary education. Why would they care what algorithms are taught? What is so special about the standard algorithms that create a higher level of understanding or application of arithmetic? It’s a silly debate for someone so removed from that level.

It’s completely anecdotal on my part, but I’ll concede them on one point. It seems to me elementary teachers on the whole do not have strong math and science backgrounds, and I don’t think methodology courses through education departments are sufficient. Creating math “specialists” at the elementary level may not be realistic or even desirable, but with so much oversupply of elementary teachers in most urban areas across Canada, the “system” can afford to expect a higher standard of math and science education from new elementary teachers.

on December 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |James C.One more thing,

The irony strikes me that teachers who are not comfortable with mathematics will be the ones likely to teach exactly how they are suggesting math should be taught. Algorithms, formulas, rote practice & drill, these are comfort zone methods for someone who doesn’t have deeper understanding of the subject they are teaching.

on December 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm |WISE MathI replied directly to Mr. Scammel, but if he’ll approve this comment I’ll be brief: His first two bullet points are fabrications; they do not represent our positions. The next three are accurate; the last one overstates our position and I object to the use of scare-quotes. On the contrary, the only “mathematicians” I have met on this ground are advocates for WNCP. I do not know of any mathematicians in that camp, although there probably are a few, but for some reason they are currently being VERY quiet.

Of the points in the comment listed here:

1. is a silly misrepresentation. Everyone knows math education was broken. WNCP only exacerbates the problem by removing some of the effective parts of traditional instruction instead of providing forward solutions.

2. is a distortion and really reveals a lot about the way Mr. Scammell thinks.

3. Is false as far as I can tell. Though I’ve been on our Provincial Steering committee since 2005 I have no evidence that mathematicians were involved, though “mathematicians” were. That’s part of the problem, this presumption of subject-matter expertise.

4. As I wrote at length to Mr. Scammel, I already have students in my classes, who learned WNCP Math at early-adopting schools, and I described our experience. But this is a distraction. We already have plenty of input from high school teachers dealing with these students, and our objections are as subject-area experts in the content of the curriculum, not as frustrated post-secondary instructors as you seem to presume.

As for rejecting his comment my email to him makes clear why, at length: We encourage PUBLIC debate. The purpose of our site is to organize like-minded people who wish to do something about the excesses of the new curriculum. I strongly suggested that he make his “rebuttal” the subject of an op ed in a wide-circulation paper where the general public can participate. This is a lovely echo chamber you’ve got here, but we intend to pursue this discussion out in front of the most important stakeholders — parents, postsecondary educators and the general public — where it belongs.

— WISE Math (R. Craigen)

on December 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm |John ScammellWhat offends me most about your group is the clear line you draw between Mathematicians and Mathematics Educators. As Mathematicians, you deal with a very small percentage of our best and brightest students, yet you presume to tell those of us who educate all the rest how we should do our jobs. Pop into a high school Math 10-3 class (trades and workplace math). Engage those students through algorithms and repetition to show them the beauty of math. Then get back to me. I’d love to learn from your expertise.

on December 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm |John Scammell“His first two bullet points are fabrications; they do not represent our positions.”

Bullet Point #1 was based on this quote from your site. I don’t know how I so badly misinterpreted what you were saying. I thought the quote below meant you only wanted subject area specialists to teach elementary and middle school math. My reading skills must not be what I thought they were.

“Recommendation. We recommend that math specialists be responsible for teaching math in elementary and middle years. These teachers would teach math full-time to many different classrooms of students, much like is the case with music teachers in elementary schools. K-8 math specialists should have taken a number of math courses at the university level which develop strong mathematical reasoning as well as courses that are specifically designed to delve deeply into the math contained in K-8 curricula.”

Bullet Point #2 was based on this quote from your site. Again, I don’t know how I so badly interpreted what you were saying. I thought it meant that you thought professional mathematicians and scientists should have the majority say in the content and methodology of mathematics teaching.

“Professional mathematicians, and scientists from disciplines that use mathematics regularly, such as physics, engineering, business, economics or computer science, must have at least 50% representation on committees that shape and make decisions about overall content and the general methodology of mathematics teaching. Those who use and teach higher level math regularly are familiar with what students need to know to succeed in math and thus should have a strong voice in curriculum decisions.”

“2. is a distortion and really reveals a lot about the way Mr. Scammell thinks.”

Not a distortion. It’s a fact. It happened to me. I will admit that it does reveal my feelings about Mathematics professors in general. Most of the ones I encountered were every bit as arrogant and condescending your site makes the four of you sound.

“3. Is false as far as I can tell. Though I’ve been on our Provincial Steering committee since 2005 I have no evidence that mathematicians were involved, though “mathematicians” were. That’s part of the problem, this presumption of subject-matter expertise.”

I won’t give you his name, but a well respected math professor from U of A was very involved in the writing of this curriculum. He understands it, and is excited about it. I have spoken to him personally about it.

“4. As I wrote at length to Mr. Scammel, I already have students in my classes, who learned WNCP Math at early-adopting schools, and I described our experience”

You can’t have students in your classes who have come through this new curriculum yet. The oldest students to have experienced this new curriculum are currently in 11th grade. There was no early adoption, no piloting, and nobody in the WNCP offered these courses in high school until last year, and then only at the 10th grade level. Your statement above is either a lie, or a misunderstanding on your part.

on December 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm |WISE MathDear Mr. Scammel,

I am sorry that I did not approve your post but we explicitly write on the WISE Math site, wherever comments are welcomed, that it is not meant to be a place to debate. I do host a blog at ahypatia.wordpress.com and you are very welcome to comment there and I will approve your comment there.

I respect and am interested in your opinions as a high school math teacher and I hope you are interested in ours. I did my PhD at the U of A and know the professors there so if you’d like to let me know who you are talking about, I would be happy to speak with him.

You seem to be offended by the fact that this movement was founded by mathematicians. Here is the difference between mathematicians and people who specialize in math education, since you mentioned that the line we’ve drawn is offensive to you: Mathematicians teach mathematics courses at the post-secondary level, mathematicians do original mathematics research – they discover new mathematics, mathematicians are experts in advanced mathematics.

Math educators, who are generally employed by faculties of education generally don’t fall into these categories. (None of this is meant to be insulting – I have great respect for math educators – I am just pointing out the difference to you since you brought this up.) This is not to say that math educators should not play an equally important role in the development of math curricula. I’m sure you’ve picked up on this but, in case you have not, the fact is that we, as mathematicians who founded WISE Math, feel that we have not been involved enough in the planning of math curricula and are asking that that be changed in the future. This is not an unreasonable request.

Why should mathematicians have a say in the development of math curricula? As you point out, we work with university math students. We deal with the effects of the K-12 curricula. It is important that schools prepare students to succeed in university (and, in the next paragraph, it should become clear why we think this preparation starts early). Does this mean that long division should be taught? Absolutely – it students are to understand that some real numbers are irrational, for instance, they need to be competent with long division. If students are to be prepared for integration in university calculus, they need to be competent with long division – this competency with standard algorithms needs to be developed over many years.

The standard algorithms for arithmetic are beautiful theorems in mathematics (you can read more about this at my blog, as I’ve posted about it before) that are not just “ways to get the answer” – they are important, in a theoretical sense, for later mathematics. Now this brings me to the reason that I’ve become involved in (particularly) K-8 education: At Grades 3/4, we think that kids can be anything!! (At least that’s what I hope people think – I do work with 12 Grade 4 students regularly and they love math and all want to be mathematicians right now.) Kids need a solid foundation in math if they are to be prepared for entering careers in math,science, engineering, business, etc. and this preparation starts early. Yes, many kids will not go to university. However, I don’t want kids to be unnecessarily be excluded from this option early in their schooling.

You are right that I don’t teach classes of 25 young kids who are all at varying levels and perhaps I wouldn’t even be suited to a career as an elementary school teacher (and, for the record, I think that teachers are saints). However, this is beside the point. We are talking about math curricula and what we think needs to be taught so that students are prepared for their futures. We are talking about our observations, as university professors, of the preparation level of some (NOT all) elementary school teachers. It is not unreasonable for us to take an interest in these things and to advocate for change because we care about the subject of mathematics and we care about kids.

I suspect that you think we are pushing for more of a traditional approach than we really are (in some cases, the media has portrayed us in this way). We do want kids to practice (and this is currently being discouraged in many MB schools – any form of practice seems to be referred to as “drill and kill”) but we also want kids to understand math. We want a balance between these things and feel that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Best regards,

Anna Stokke

on December 23, 2011 at 9:23 am |David Coffey (@delta_dc)Dear Professor Stokke,

I read your blog. Your statement here, “I have great respect for math educators,” seems at odds with some of your posts. Granted, these posts were written over a year ago. Have you come to appreciate math educators’ “so-called research” in that time?

Math education research is difficult to conduct because of the human subjects aspect. And as Dr. Golden has pointed out, it can be difficult to understand. If you are interested in learning how to interpret math ed research in a meaningful way, I would suggest working with an expert. Otherwise you can fall into traps that replace research with beliefs.

Let’s say you start with the statement, “After all, everyone my age grew up on mathematical algorithms and I do not know of a single person who cannot add, multiply, or divide.” Have you tested everyone you know? Is it possible everyone you know is not a representative sample? Reading math ed research through such a belief lens leads to biases that result in faulty conclusions. Conclusions like, “The next time we hear someone tell us that ‘studies show that this is the best way to teach math’, we have absolutely no reason to believe them.”

I do hope that your stance toward math ed research has changed in the last year, as your comment here suggests. Mathematicians and math educators have a lot to learn from each other, and a lot to contribute together. I’d ask you to look at the work of Hyman Bass and Deborah Ball at the University of Michigan for an example.

Peace,

David Coffey

on December 23, 2011 at 10:43 amWISE MathDear Professor Coffey,

Thank you for your comment, which I’ve approved and replied to on my blog. I am very much enjoying this discussion and appreciate your expert opinions on these issues.

As I mention in my reply to your comment on my blog, I completely agree with you that mathematicians and math educators have a lot to contribute together. I recently organized a conference at my university that brought both groups together, and was attended by many teachers in the city, and the discussion was very productive. I am also working with the people in math education at my university (we are not at odds) to develop math courses specifically designed for K-8 teachers.

Anna Stokke

on December 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm |WISE MathThere is one other thing I’d like to address. You wrote:

“Twenty years ago, when I took first year calculus, it was these same people who told us on the first day to look left and right at the people beside us. They told us only 1 in 3 would pass. They expected a 66% failure rate. They wore that failure rate proudly, like a badge.”

I certainly do not adopt this approach to teaching and nor do any of my colleagues. I work hard to help my students appreciate and succeed in mathematics and teaching is my passion. Perhaps you had a calculus instructor like this 20 years ago but that does not mean that all calculus professors are this way. In any case, this is again beside the point.

A. Stokke

on December 22, 2011 at 8:15 pm |David Coffey (@delta_dc)Professional mathematicians are content experts in a specialized area of study. They have a great deal to offer in the development of curricula as they often have a depth of knowledge that offers a different perspective related to the connections among topics. As professionals, they also represent what it literally means to “do math” for a living.

Mathematics educators are also experts in a specialized area of study – teaching and learning mathematics. While the content is important, for most people it will remain locked in math textbooks unless proper pedagogy is put in place. The research has shown how people learn. Any professional mathematician who is interested could start by reading here: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9853

I am fortunate to work in a department where mathematicians and mathematics educators work together to improve our practice. We learn from one another as long as we do not believe we have all the answers or seek security in like-minded people. Our collaboration has resulted in a mathematics education program that we are all proud of.

I hope that WISE will reach out to those knowledgeable about teaching and learning mathematics. The US has suffered from the ‘math wars’ that have pitted mathematicians vs “mathematicians” – let me rephrase that, US school children have suffered. If you want to learn from our mistakes, then don’t go down that path.

on December 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm |John GoldenI was trained as a mathematician (PhD from Penn State), but have had the opportunity to work as a math educator these last 14 years. It is humbling.

Working as a specialist in a specific field of mathematics, you know how hard it is cross over into another field. Even if it’s related. Yet mathematicians are often heard to opine about the teaching and learning of mathematics when they have no exposure to the research or even the research methods. As such they are especially likely to fall into the fallacy of teaching in a way to mirror the cultural image of teaching that we have. Preservice teachers who are exposed to promising practices and the research behind them often teach as they were taught… it’s a daunting problem.

One of the things that drew me into math ed is the elegance and depth of the fundamental problem: guide a group of 20 to 50 (or more) distinct learners to a specific objective in a deep and meaningful way. And then again tomorrow and then … That is hard. It’s easy to propose a solution, but as H.L. Mencken said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” As professional problem solvers I hope that mathematicians can overcome their ignorance and occasional arrogance to work on the actual problem.

on December 23, 2011 at 11:36 am |Sue VanHattum(Mathematics seems much easier to me than teaching well. But then, I’m not a real mathematician.)

on December 29, 2011 at 11:45 am |Egan ChernoffI thought I would share my twist on an old quote:

“A mathematician is machine for turning [comments] into [insults].”

For example, look at the subtitles in this article (e.g., The incompetent teachers): http://math.ca/notes/v42/n3/Notesv42n3.pdf

Worthy of note, this severe lack of tact is not their fault! It’s the inevitable result of working with abstract mathematical constructs all the time. Fortunately, my quote only applies to certain mathematicians; but, that said, examples, like the one above, are very easy to find…….

Egan

on January 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm |Darren Kuropatwa@Egan I don’t believe that a lack of tact is a natural consequence of sustained work in mathematics.

Thanks for the article in the link you provided. It struck me as peculiar that in the authors’ condemnation of the Canadian educational system his references were exclusively to US sources; ironic in a newsletter by the Canadian Mathematical Society. I’ve found, in conversation with colleagues internationally, our curriculum has more in common with that of the UK, Australia or New Zealand. I think Canadian references might have been more to the point, no? ;-)

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on March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |MacLean’s – Why is it your job to teach your children math? | One / Zero+[...] Scammell had previously taken WISE to task in this blog post, sparking some good conversation that included some participation from WISE [...]

on July 14, 2012 at 6:39 am |Robert HansenParents ask that math be taught like they were taught not because they succeeded in math but because they recognize that those who did succeed did so in that fashion. It’s like taking piano lessons. Most fail. But even those that fail still recognize that this is the route to playing the piano because the vast majority that succeeded, took that route. Until these alternate routes produce actual success you will never have proponents for them like you do for traditional methods.

on July 14, 2012 at 10:47 am |Sue VanHattumSuzuki invented a novel way to teach violin, and the enjoyment and success it brought its students helped it spread quickly. It is based, in part, on being immersed in a musical environment.

I think creating a ‘mathematical environment’ in the schools looks alien to those used to practicing algorithms, but is vital to reaching more students. Music lessons are chosen by individual parents, who can choose the traditional route or the Suzuki route (or any number of other variations); schools are not chosen by individual families, and in this time of great change, that does cause difficulties.