Math Task Force - November 19, 2015

We had a jam-packed agenda for the November Math Task Force meeting!

First, we went through a small group exercise to identify the “big ideas” and verbs in the Math curriculum which speak to effective math teaching. In the grades 1-8 curriculum, for example, we found that math is seen to be effective in developing the “knowledge, skills, and habits of mind” (p.3) that promote skills even after graduation. Thus, math is important in life skill development. The curriculum also takes the position that all students can learn math regardless of their background or personal circumstances. It was during this discussion that this point was made by one of our members: “Innumeracy deprives access to opportunity.” I believe this to be true and it is one of the many reasons I initiated the MTF. (This article describes math as the “great equalizer”). In addition, students have different learning styles and it is up to schools to be able to be able to identify and work with students within their particular styles and challenge them when they are ready. Finally we found, “the acquisition of operational skills remains an important focus of the curriculum” (p.4), and further, “certain aspects of mathematics need to be taught explicitly” (p.12).

This last point brought about a discussion that we need to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands that there is room for both rote and discovery learning. In fact, we talked about reframing the “Math War” between rote and discovery learning, and discussed this quote from Dr. Daniel Ansari:

“Enabling students to be mathematically competent is a major challenge for our education systems. For too long math education has been characterized by emotional debates that falsely dichotomize instructional approaches without consulting evidence about how students learn math.”

In fact, I have written this in previous meeting notes and it rang true for many of the MTF committee members. We talked about doing what is best for individual students and ensuring teachers know that both approaches are open to them. Dr. McDougall from OISE, and a member of the MTF, suggested that they are not extremes of the same continuum but two different continua, and both need to be operating to different degrees simultaneously depending on what is needed for the individual student in various situations. We further talked about not falling into the trap of having to pick a side, and that we need to pave a way for the GECDSB that works for our students and teachers, which is based on empirical evidence as well as feedback from the people living it right now. Interestingly, the System Practices Subcommittee indicated they had also come to this conclusion during their research and described how the discussion is typically framed in polarizing ways and is not helpful in moving forward.

Next, we asked the questions: what does it mean to do math, what does it mean to be good at math, and, implicitly, how does it feel to do math – because, yes, Dr. Jeff Hillman, who is from our board but on secondment with the Ministry of Education made us do math. Dividing fractions to be exact. (Remember learning the saying, “ours is not to wonder why; just invert and multiply”? Me either. No wonder I can’t bake.) This was an interesting exercise. Doing math in front of others was somewhat stressful. I think this is how many kids feel every day. For me, doing math is not explicitly dividing fractions, although I use math every day at work – in fact, my job depends on it. From the research, we discussed that math proficiency is seen as having a productive disposition, procedural fluency, adaptive reasoning, conceptual understanding, and strategic competence (Adding It Up, 2001).

A growth mindset is something we are working on in the GECDSB right now. This is a non-judgemental environment in which of course there are wrong answers, but students learn to view mistakes as another step in the learning process. They learn that everyone makes mistakes and that it is a natural part of learning. Dr. McDougall discussed a recent trip to China during which he visited math classrooms. In China, students are encouraged to share and discuss their mistakes so that the whole class can learn from them. This is interesting because China scores very high on international math tests.

The point was also made that children should be exposed to numeracy as early as they are exposed to literacy and that there is no reason to wait; we don’t wait to allow music students to pick up an instrument until they have mastered the ability to read sheet notes. Why wait for math? I believe that we need to raise numeracy to the importance of literacy in our culture. We celebrate our children recognizing their first letter and saying their first word. What would this look like if numeracy held the same value?

The Building Reciprocal Partnerships Subcommittee that I am a part of continues to refine our outreach plan. We will be seeking feedback from teachers, parents and students, as well as the university, college, and industry leaders. The former three groups have direct experience with math teaching, learning, and support with students currently in our board. The latter three groups will help us understand how our grads are doing when they enter post-secondary and/or industry. This is important because we only have EQAO math scores up to grade 9. If students are still struggling or begin to struggle in grade 9, how can we be sure we have closed that gap when they graduate? We want students to be successful in the long term so it is important that we have strong relationships with these community partners.

Since this meeting, Dr. Richard Caron, a University of Windsor math professor, has agreed to join the task force. He will be providing feedback on students’ strength and development areas in post-secondary, as well as helping us to recruit other professors to provide further feedback. Trustee McKinley and I also attended the Open House at St. Clair College to learn about their course offerings and where math fits in. As a result of our tour, I believe we have found our representative from St Clair College as well! I will announce once confirmed. One interesting thing we learned was from a professor in the Architectural Technology department: the focus on math in this program is as much about the systematic thinking that goes along with math as the actual math skills. This was validating because it goes along with our discussions at the Math Task Force as well as principles in the Ministry of Education curriculum.

I am very much looking forward to our December meetings. December 11 will be our regular meeting. December 16 will be a special meeting with our external critical advisors including Dr. Cathy Bruce from Trent University, Bruce Rodrigues from EQAO, and Dr. Hyman Bass from University of Michigan. We will discuss what we have accomplished so far and ask for their feedback on how we are doing – whether we are on the right track or missing something. More to come!


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Jessica Sartori