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Math Wars – Common Ground?

October 25, 2015

Full disclosure, I was very involved in the revision of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) Common Curriculum Framework for K-9 and 10-12. I believe strongly in the goals of the WNCP and advocated for the inclusion of what is commonly known as “math processes” in the curriculum. I also think these are very similar to the curriculum competencies which are being implemented as part of the revision to the current BC curriculum. In this sense I think I would be considered to be a proponent of the “new math” as it commonly called in popular media.

I recently attended the Northwest Mathematics Conference in Whistler and attended a breakfast keynote offered by Egan Chernoff in which he provided a great historical background of the Canadian Math Wars as the exist across the country. This session struck a chord with me. As a result I have not included it in my last blog post but have created a new one.

As Dr. Chernoff noted, the debate about “new” and “old” math seems to be an old one. It was the first time I have heard someone articulate the fact that the math I learned in school during the 70s and 80s was also new math. I had thought this for sometime but the references presented confirmed it. I believe that it is worth every math educators time to look over the presentation slides. Agree or disagree but as it was noted in the presentation at least be informed of both sides and not only the perspective in popular media.

The purpose of my post is not to take a side however (I think I did that in the first paragraph) but to note some common ground …

  • I think all educators would agree that it is important for students to understand the mathematics they are using. Although I would classify my education as more of a “back to basics” approach I do think the goal was for me to understand mathematics.  The disagreement is seems to be how to get there.
  • I think all math educators would agree that mathematics is more than the basic facts which seems to be the basis of the debate. Perhaps it is important to move beyond this small slice of an ever-growing area of study.
  • I think all math educators would agree that technology is a tool, it surrounds us but should not be a crutch upon which we build our understanding of mathematics. The issue seems to be the when to use it effectively.
  • I think all math educators would agree that there is a beauty to mathematics and it’s ability to explain the world around us. Students’ benefit when educators see this beauty, are excited about it and pass on a sense of wonder.

There are items I have missed in the list above. Indeed I left a few out intentionally as I think I have made my point. We do have some common ground as all sides of the debate appreciate the importance of mathematics. As we move through this next century there is one piece of common ground that we all need to focus on …

  • I think all math educators would agree that mathematics receives a “bad rep” in the popular press and society at large often portrayed as too hard or only accessible by the top students.

This issue will not be resolved as long as both side treat each other as combatants using media as drones to lobby the highest yielding explosives as possible at each. As Dr. Chernoff suggested at the conference perhaps it is time for both sides of the debate to be heard in the media. Wouldn’t this be better for mathematics education as a whole?

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