Battling B.C.'s math education crisis
UBC math professor George Bluman is used to speaking to Chinese audiences. Last spring, he gave a series of lectures in China about teaching calculus. In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, he also revealed that he has worked with three postdoctoral students from villages in China, including one from Inner Mongolia.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in late October he was invited to speak to a group of Chinese-speaking parents at the Burnaby Public Library about the state of math education in B.C.
Their nonprofit academic organization, the Educational Quest Society of Canada, was created in June “to provide Chinese communities with professional suggestions concerning education…and to exert an influence on improving and reforming the elementary and secondary education in British Columbia”.
“I was the only non-Chinese person present,” Bluman said with a chuckle. “They are very concerned about the decline in education.”
At the meeting, Bluman expressed his opposition to the elimination of mandatory Grade 12 math exams in B.C. In 2004, the provincial government made this test optional; in 2011, it cancelled all optional Grade 12 exams, which means there’s no standardized Grade 12 math test in B.C. anymore.
"At their annual articulation meeting in 2007, the math teacher representatives from each college and university—public and private, including reps from Adult Basic Education and BCIT—without dissent, wanted them to be continued for mathematics," Bluman said. "They forwarded a strongly worded motion on this to the B.C. minister of education."
He cited research conducted at UBC demonstrating that students who had written the optional tests performed much better in first-year calculus courses. And according to a survey he conducted, public-school math teachers want the Grade 12 exams reinstated; UBC student senators echoed this view in a separate survey.
Moreover, Bluman noted that B.C., unlike most other jurisdictions, allows secondary-school educators to teach math regardless of their qualifications in this area. “You don’t have to be knowledgeable in the subject,” he said. “It’s a real problem.”
Meanwhile, the Educational Quest Society of Canada (EQSC) has published a report chronicling how B.C. students’ performance in math has deteriorated in the 21st century. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program testing of Grade 8 students in 2010 showed that B.C. registered a score of 481, which was well below the Canadian average of 500 and significantly behind the top three provinces: Quebec (515), Ontario (507), and Alberta (495).
“Moreover,” the report notes, “BC students performed below the Canadian average on all four of the mathematics sub-domains: numbers and operations, geometry and measurement, patterns and relationships, and data management and probability.”
B.C. also fell behind the Canadian average in the 2009 math-test results of 15-year-olds, according to Program of International Student Assessment results. B.C.’s score of 523 was four points below the national average and 11 points below the score achieved in 2000. This decline followed the B.C. government’s decision to halt reevaluation of the math curriculum shortly after the B.C. Liberals took power.
One member of EQSC, Pi Yuan, told the Straight by phone from Burnaby that he teaches math and science at a private educational centre. He rattled off nine major concerns about math education in B.C., including the elimination of the requirement to include calculus in Grade 12 mathematics. He claimed that a reduction in standards has diminished the value of a B.C. diploma.
“If you compare the mathematics textbooks the students are using now and the textbooks that were used 10 or 20 years ago, you can see that the content is getting less and less [difficult],” Yuan said.
He also claimed that the elimination of the Grade 12 math exam can undermine a student’s chance of getting accepted to university. “A lot of students have concerns about the fairness of the marking,” Yuan maintained. “If the students have a very nice, fair teacher and a good marker, maybe the mark is high. But if the student is taught by a strict teacher or a callous teacher, maybe the mark is low.”
Sitting in her office at UBC’s Point Grey campus, math-department outreach coordinator Melania Alvarez bluntly told the Straight that there’s a “crisis” in math education in B.C. Alvarez, winner of this year’s Canadian Mathematical Society award for promoting math learning, travels across the province to support schools and teachers in their math education.
“I think we really need to change some things, because otherwise, I don’t see us moving forward,” she said.
Foremost is the culture around mathematics. She noted that people don’t routinely announce that they don’t know how to write or that they hate reading books. But parents will often tell their kids how much they hate math, even though most young children love the subject.
“Being math phobic is culturally acceptable,” Alvarez said. “I’m sorry to say, the media promotes this.”
Alvarez is education coordinator at the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, a consortium created by eight universities. It puts on two summer camps: one for kids making the transition from elementary school to secondary school, and another for high-school students. And for the past 15 years, the institute has hosted a free educational event called “Math Mania” several times a year in school gymnasiums that includes games, puzzles, kaleidoscopes, and various interactive events.
On October 27, the UBC faculty of education invited families to attend a math fair, which featured numerous activities for children. In one Clue-like game, participants had to figure out which tourist stole a priceless ruby from the tomb of King Ramses. Students also learned how math is integral to Coast Salish weaving.
Two UBC education professors who attended the fair, Cynthia Nicol and Jo-ann Archibald, explained to the Straight how they worked with aboriginal residents of Haida Gwaii on a program to connect math to the community and local culture. Nicol mentioned that they worked with carvers and elders to learn how mathematics influenced the Haida Nation, then incorporated what they learned into lessons. “Some of it was taking the kids outside to the beach, to the land, helping them imagine other possibilities to studying math in a textbook,” Nicol said.
Archibald described how this emphasis on linking to the land could better engage aboriginal students. As an example, she said it’s possible to base a lesson on the number of logs that have been cut and removed, and then equate that to the impact on the local environment. “You’re connecting math with social issues,” Archibald stated.
Alvarez often emphasizes that just as it takes time to excel in sports or in music, it also takes considerable effort to do well in math. “Most kids believe that if they cannot solve a problem in five minutes—or in two minutes or in 30 seconds—then they are no good in math,” she commented. “We need to change that.”
She pointed out that students feel empowered when they excel in math. And she said it’s important for teachers to set expectations high and not pigeonhole students as slow learners because they will not perform as well as they can. Alvarez also acknowledged that many teachers don’t feel comfortable with their level of math knowledge—and she pointed out that they must be supported with professional-development opportunities.
“Many of them have told me that they tried to avoid math when they were student teachers but that they really regret that,” she stated. “Unfortunately, the institutions allowed for that.”
One thing is clear: knowledge of math is increasingly important in the 21st-century economy. UBC math professor Arvind Gupta is the CEO and scientific director of Mitacs Inc., a national nonprofit organization funded by federal and provincial governments and the private sector. It encourages graduate students to work with companies to understand their problems and propose solutions, which then become the students’ thesis projects.
Gupta told the Straight by phone that the program began with math students but has since expanded to include people in everything from anthropology to zoology. Nowadays, occupations ranging from architecture to medicine to journalism to engineering all require significant math skills. Gupta pointed out that the genomic revolution is really about the application of mathematics to life sciences and that math is even becoming more important in the social sciences.
He noted that former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s speech at the most recent Democratic national convention was loaded with arithmetic, winning rave reviews from the public and giving Barack Obama a boost in the polls. “If you go back to that movie A Beautiful Mind, who would have thought that a movie about a mathematician would win so many awards?” he stated. “I think there’s actually a hunger for this kind of thing.”
To stimulate kids’ interest in the subject, Mitacs is backing a stage production called Math Out Loud, which recently played in Vancouver and Surrey. Written and directed by Vancouver actor Mackenzie Gray, the zany show features two students who time-travel. In various vignettes, they encounter characters ranging from Cleopatra to Christopher Columbus and learn how math influences everything from art to game shows to the sounds coming out of the radio.
“What we want to do is figure out a way to re-engage kids, “ Gupta said. “It’s great to have your music on your iPhone, but what you’re really doing is carrying around a very sophisticated piece of mathematics.”