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Mathematics: Balance and Instruction

Sometimes it takes me a while to find a topic about which to write for my weekly blog. At other times it’s as if the topic hits me in the face. This morning, I experienced the latter. Interestingly enough, I already had a draft blog written and was going to send it off when I opened my door to get my Globe and Mail and was immediately drawn in by the entitled “Why the War Over Math is Distracting and Futile” by Erin Anderssen.

Anderssen writes about the ongoing arguments surrounding math instruction: whether the approach should be ‘drill and kill,’ ‘drill for skill’ or ‘alternative strategies.’ There is ongoing frustration regarding our country’s national outcomes with respect to mathematical achievement and a question as to whether there is a need for a common approach. Mathematical skills are fundamental in so many areas and, in particular, in future professions. As Andersson writes, “Canada is stumbling just as research shows that student performance in math matters more than reading, both for academic success and future job prospects…the country is producing too few engineers for its high-tech economy and nowhere near enough mathematicians and scientists to leap ahead on the Next Big Thing.”

There were a number of things that resonated for me about this article. One was the commentary about the need to stop the math pendulum from swinging and to consider a national focus on mathematical instruction. While this may make people nervous, as one doesn’t know where the pendulum might stop, it suggests the need for a focused approach. I would argue that this is where St. Clement’s, a small Grade 1-12 independent school, is afforded a significant advantage. We can have and already have a focused approach to mathematical instruction. Our girls are provided with a balanced program and, even more importantly, with balanced instruction. St. Clement’s believes that in order to take learning beyond the fundamentals, the fundamentals have to be learned and then applied.

This is where the second- and more important point- comes in. It is vital that beyond content learning, instructional approaches must be exemplary and ultimately model how we want our students to approach their learning. Anderssen quotes Eric Muller, professor emeritus of Brock University, who says “The best mathematicians are the ones with self-reflection, who learn to ask themselves, ‘Am I doing this right? Am I on the right track?’” This is what we wish for our girls- that they are always reflecting on their learning such that they grow and gain confidence.

As Anderssen points out, “To be creative with math requires a teacher who understands the subject at a fundamental level, who loves it, and who is well-trained on how to teach it.” At St. Clement’s many of our girls go on to study in STEAM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, Artistic Design and Math). They enjoy these subjects and perform well- because they have been exposed to exemplary, balanced instruction from Grades 1-12.


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