“Math Wrath”: Are parents pushing for a return to tradition?

Recently, Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published, “Math wrath: Parents and teachers demanding a return to basic skills.” The article talks about a movement by some Canadian educators and parents to put greater emphasis on developing concrete math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and less focus on discovery and creative strategies.

I find myself fascinated by this debate. I have long wondered about “creative strategies” in education. At the very beginning of my teaching career I took the Gregorc learning styles test. I came out perfectly balanced between all four quadrants: concrete, abstract, random and sequential. Apparently, that’s not particularly common. What it means though is that I can see and appreciate a variety of different learning styles.

Over the past 20 years or so (about the length of my teaching career), I have noted a distinct shift away from concrete sequential learning. Order, logic, learning to follow directions and getting facts seem to have diminished in value, while experimentation, risk taking, using intuition, problem-solving, learning to work in teams and focusing on this issues at hand all seem to fit with the creative learning strategies that have become popular in recent decades.

There has been a notable shift away from valuing sequential learning, structure, learning to follow precise directions and memorizing. In decades past, educational structures and systems may have favoured the concrete sequential learner. Today’s educational systems favour a more random or exploratory approach.

The debate has become almost vicious in some educational circles. Those who favor teaching methods that are concrete and sequential have been poo-poo’ed or dismissed by colleagues who insist vehemently on the random nouveau. I have known colleagues who have been quietly yet unapologetically exited from their teaching jobs because they continue to insist that their students follow directions, do activities in a particular order or memorize.

I worry a bit about the defiant horror expressed by some educational experts and parents at the idea of memorizing. While I agree that rote learning may not employ the highest levels of our cognition, memorization has its place. Learning to say, “Please” and “Thank you” are largely memorized behaviours. Learning to stop at a red light and drive on a green light is also a memorized response. Memorizing how to do CPR could save someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that we need to go back to the days of corporal punishment for an incorrect answer based on memorization. What has always puzzled me though, is how quickly methodological fashions change in education. When a new way of learning or teaching is introduced, old ways seem to be immediately, unequivocally and vehemently dismissed. Really good teachers whose background are more traditional than fashionable are thrown out along with their teaching methods.

Do we need to take a step back and look at models that integrate and value a variety of approaches? Would it be wise to hesitate… just a little bit… before we denounce traditional methods as being heinous and abhorrent, with only newer and more fashionable ones as being worthy?

I wonder if the obsessive focus on creativity, exploration and problem-solving might be doing some harm that we can not yet predict? Perhaps a small dose of memorization, learning to follow specific directions and learning systematically might be helpful?

Personally, I give both children and adults more credit than some educators or policy makers who insist on a singular approach to learning, regardless of whether it is systematic memorization or exploratory problem-solving. Being the utterly complex and capable creatures humans are, surely we can cope with both memorization and developing creativity simultaneously?

It’s the drastic swings of the policy pendulum that should worry us. The unflinching insistence that exploratory methods are the only legitimate or credible ways of learning should make us nervous. Polarized and uncompromising opinions on the singular “best” way to learn should be considered suspect.

There is almost always more than one “right” way to learn.

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