Once again Margaret Wente, my favourite Globe and Mail columnist, has delved into the gritty underworld of math education to expose the truth. This time she is concerned that we’re not teaching basic arithmetic in schools any more. She takes issue with recent trends in math education, which emphasize discovery-based learning over drill or rote-based learning. As a consequence of this shift, the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are no longer a core part of the curriculum. Wente, as well as some parents and teachers, thinks this is a bad idea. And while I agree with her on one point—it’s essential for students to know basic arithmetic as they go on to high school—once again I have to protest how she has chosen to argue that point.
Before I discuss Wente’s arguments, I think it’s important to mention one thing that Wente does not make explicit. Education falls under the mandate of the provincial governments. Hence, every province and territory in Canada has different math curricula. There are similarities, but we still have to be careful when we are talking about math education across the entire country as if it were some uniform curriculum.