Before he passed away a few years ago, we would occasionally attend my father-in-law’s church. Attending someone else’s church is a strange thing. I almost always came away with a few things I agreed with, a few things I disagreed with, a few things I was curious about, and a few things that seriously offended me.
On May 1, I attended someone else’s church again. I joined (I think I was invited) a whole bunch of University Mathematics Professors from across Alberta at their 2014 Alberta Mathematics Dialogue, put on by PIMS at Augustana in Camrose, Alberta. Of particular interest to me was a series of talks on Number Theory, but I wasn’t there to engage my own mathematical interests. I was there to listen to these math professors analyze the Alberta K-12 math curriculum.
The sessions I attended were:
- Leif Stolee (Retired Edmonton Public Schools Principal) – NEW MATH: Building the Roof without laying the foundation.
- Vladimir Troitsky (University of Alberta) – Critique of Alberta K-4 math curriculum
- Cornelia Bica (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) – Grade 5-6 Mathematics Curricula Around the World
- Christina Anton (Grant MacEwan University) – Mathematics Curriculum in Junior High School
- John Bowman (University of Alberta) – What is Missing in High School Mathematics Education?
- Mark Solomonovich (Grant MacEwan University) – Now and Then; Here and There: problems with what they call education.
For details beyond the titles: the full abstract of their talks.
Based on the four categories of reactions I had in my father-in-law’s church, I present, without commentary, my reactions to the sessions I attended.
Things I heard that I agreed with…
- All of the Math Professors emphasized that basic facts and problem solving are both important.
- Cornelia Bica wants students who persevere, solve problems, and do more than just follow recipes.
- Cornelia Bica talked about a blend of pedagogies. She said, “Singapore and China aren’t as hardcore as they used to be.”
- Cornelia Bica said that pedagogy should be left to the teachers.
- John Bowman stresses that he is not criticizing K-12 teachers. He is asking for leadership in making changes to curriculum.
Things I heard that I disagreed with…
- Troitsky insists that bar graphs, charts, patterns and shape and space are not mathematics.
- Cornelia Bica said that you need basics before you move on to problem solving.
- Christina Anton stated over and over again that concrete and pictorial representations need to be removed because they are a waste of time. Only the symbolic should be taught because it, alone, is real mathematics.
- John Bowman said, “Strategies and tricks are interesting for the brightest students. However, the average student (including future professionals) will be better served by learning the time-tested algorithms for arithmetic computation that we learned as children and continue to use in our daily lives.” (This one might be better placed in the category below. My gut says, “disagree”. My head says, “think about it.”)
Things I heard that I want to think about some more…
- Two of the speakers (Troitsky and Bowman) mentioned that they believe kids can’t develop personal strategies until they have first mastered a traditional strategy.
- Cornelia Bica carefully analyzed at what level different topics are introduced in different curricula around the world.
- Cornelia Bica’s analysis included comparing instructional time in mathematics as a percentage of total instructional time. Alberta was the lowest of the regions she showed.
- John Bowman spoke about Math 31 (HS Calculus) and whether we need it.
Things I heard that really offended me…
- Vladimir Troitsky said that kids who can’t multiply 7 x 8 or those who need 5 strategies to do it should go work at McDonalds.
- Christina Anton said that concrete material and pictorial representations should be reserved only for special needs students.
- Leif Stolee opened with Matthew 8:28-34. It’s a story about demons and swine and Jesus. As I understood him, Alberta Education is the demons, K-12 teachers are the swine, and he is Jesus. I not sure I followed him completely.
- Leif Stolee told a story about working in a school in which I would later work. Two of his English teachers applied for a job at Alberta Education. One of them was a superstar (Leif’s words). The other was mediocre. The mediocre teacher got the job. He extended this thought by pointing out that good teachers like himself can no longer advance in Edmonton.
Edit: After Dr. Troitsky’s comment below, I looked back at my notes from his talk and found that he had also included patterns and shape and space in the list of things he found in the curriculum that are not mathematics. I have added them in that bullet above.
Edit: Based on Dr. Bowman’s comment below, I changed what I originally had above (strategies and tricks should only be for our brightest students, the other students are best served by learning algorithms) to the direct quote he provided.