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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Why Wente is wrong about math education

I woke up on Friday to see a page from Thursday’s Globe and Mail on the living room table. My dad had flagged an article by Margaret Wente as something that I might find relevant. You can find it online under the title “Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it”, but in the paper itself it was published with the headline, “Go figure, because teachers can’t.” I encourage you to read the article, but the gist goes like this: elementary teachers, according to Wente, are failing to teach students the basics of math, because faculties of education don’t take their responsibility to prepare those teachers seriously enough.

By way of disclaimer, I am preparing to teach at the Intermediate/Senior level (I/S), or grades 7–12. As an I/S teacher, and as a formally-trained mathematician, I have to admit to a bias when it comes to this subject: I do worry about how well-prepared elementary teachers are to teach math. I’ve marked for a course that teaches elementary concepts to prospective teachers, and some of the answers to the assignments are … creative. However, my concern isn’t so much with their knowledge of content; I worry more about their attitude toward learning and using mathematics.

When I tell—more like confess, it sometimes feels—fellow teacher candidates that my teachable is math, I’m usually met by some type of cringe, as if the very concept brings up bad memories of a grade 10 test review. As I said in my previous post, I feel like there is a perception of math as something you can either do or you can’t, and if you can’t, then there’s no reason to bother wasting time learning anything beyond what you need to punch into a calculator. Of course, this might be the result of our education system and how we teach math. Whatever the cause, I worry less that teachers won’t be able to teach the content and more that teachers will transmit their anxiety about mathematics to their students. I’m not saying all elementary teachers must love mathematics, but how can one foster an appreciation for mathematics if one does not share that appreciation and is merely teaching it as part of the curriculum?

But I digress.

Wente might be on to something when she points out that elementary teachers need more thorough preparation in math. I don’t know; I am not familiar with the research and can’t step to that claim. (Here’s a York professor’s rebuttal with actual data analysis.) I find it interesting that Wente does not mention any of the current methods that faculties of education use to prepare elementary teachers: here at Lakehead University, Primary/Junior teachers must complete a content test to demonstrate their understanding of elementary concepts in mathematics. The way Wente presents faculties of education makes it sounds like they are resting on their laurels:

Today’s faculties of education have much loftier goals in mind. According to them, their main job is to sensitize our future teachers to issues of social justice and global inequality.

Gasp! Teaching our teachers to respect diversity and, shock!, be aware of factors affecting equality among our students? Those naughty faculties of education! Who do they think they are?

What I find really bizarre is how Wente goes on to devote the rest of her article to criticizing this one aspect of education—but at no point does she give any evidence for a causal relationship between the teaching of social justice and a decline in the quality of math education! Dripping disdain, Wente writes:

No wonder little Emma doesn’t know her times tables. She’s way too busy learning how her Western position of privilege entrenches gender relations. Or something like that.

(Wente does not, in general, have a very high opinion of social justice and related fields of study. Earlier this year she wrote a controversial piece about how the “war for women’s rights is over”; the original post is behind a paywall, but there is a good rebuttal on Shameless.)

I hope I’m not making a straw man here, but Wente seems to be saying that teaching social justice, either to teacher candidates or to students themselves, is a waste of time. Apparently it’s a move worthy of “the wacky wing of the NDP”. Yet not once does Wente bother to link this emphasis on social justice with elementary teachers’ abilities to teach mathematics. I guess she’s implying that we spend too much time teaching teacher candidates about social justice instead of teaching them math?

As part of the Differentiated Instruction in Math and Science (mouthful, I know) course I’m taking this year, we are learning how to teach math through social justice issues. Talk about two birds, one stone. This probably wouldn’t placate the Wente, however, for in her concluding paragraph she chooses to take a cheap shot at discovery-based learning, claiming we need to focus more on “practice and problem-solving”. This is a false dichotomy, and presenting these teaching strategies as such is irresponsible and even harmful: discovery-based learning is problem solving. In order to engage students, we provide them with problems they haven’t encountered—problems that are relevant to issues in their lives—and ask them to apply skills and discover new (to them) methods to solve the problems.

Wente concludes by reiterating that teachers need to know math in order to teach it. I agree with this statement; it’s just too bad that the rest of the article is somewhat incoherent. Wente does faculties of education a disservice even as she frames a legitimate concern—preparation of elementary school teachers to teach math—in a way that is confusing and unhelpful. The public, and especially parents, have every right to observe and critique the preparation of teacher candidates, for teachers have an awesome responsibility in our society. I just hope that when they do so, they refer to better sources than this piece, which is far more sensational than sensible.