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Math Perspective by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies

March 25, 2014   (1 Comments)
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Alberta Math Petition

Back to Basics: Mastering the fundamentals of mathematics

Petition by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, Canada


OpEd by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, March 23, 2014

Minister Johnson recently stated in the Legislature that "every chance I get to meet with parents, I take it", and in an opinion-editorial letter, Johnson wrote that he "can't ignore the concerns of parents." The "21st century skills" he promulgates are that of "collaborating" and being "nimble" and “responsive” to "create a curriculum more in tune with the local community."

Until I bear witness to these claims, I will elaborate on the facts behind a petition that has galvanized thousands of parents, grandparents, educators, and professionals, from all across Alberta and Canada, with the sole purpose of protecting our children's basic right to a good education.

As you know, the "new math" curriculum proclaims that students will develop a deeper understanding of how calculations work when students are expected to use four or five different, often convoluted, "strategies" to get to a "reasonable" answer. There is a de-emphasis on conventional methods (standard algorithms, times table, automatic recalls, long division, vertical addition/subtraction), memorization and repeated practice.

One might falsely presume that our math petition on -- Back to Basics: Mastering the Fundamentals of Mathematics -- is about demanding merely rote memorization and repetitive worksheets. And perhaps, if a group of teachers were to start a petition to advocate against mere memorization, we would be so flattered by their support, for our math petition does indeed thoughtfully rise above that to speak to a set of skills and values that are critical to our children's future.

The primary value is RESPECT. Our math petition challenges the Ministry and the curriculum to respect our children, our teachers, our experts, our history, the parents, and the laws of mathematics.

We respect the argument that every child learns differently. In order to respect the rights of all learners, the curriculum cannot mandate the teaching and testing of all these strategies. Respect that the “conventional/traditional way” is not the “wrong way”. Most learners, in fact, thrive on simplicity and efficiency of thoughts and calculations afforded by the conventional/traditional way”. And in most learners, memorization is still the prerequisite framework for understanding.

Children need the opportunity to build upon the mastered fundamentals rather than be chained to the five reasons why 8 x 3 is 24. Our petition is a voice to respect and empower all children.

We respect the teachers, for they are our children's mentors. Teachers know the conventional methods are the most effective and efficient strategy for mastering the basic skills. However, under this "new math" curriculum, teachers say they are discouraged, and even reprimanded, for encouraging memorization or using the standard algorithms. The petition strives to restore the autonomy of teachers to teach, to guide, and to empower our children with knowledge and skills.

The petition also strives to preserve the teachers’ individual teaching style. A thoughtfully-worded curriculum will ensure a common vision of nurturing, strengthening, and reinforcing the fundamentals.

We respect the experts: the mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, accountants, among many others whose successful careers are built upon the deeper understanding and application of mathematics. When they express grave concerns that mathematics is taught improperly, the ministry must respect their expertise and take heed. And when cognitive scientists demonstrate the detriments in over-emphasizing inquiry-based learning, the ministry need also respect their advice and listen.

We respect our past. It is our history. Respecting where we come from is to confidently know who we are and where we’re headed regardless of the ever-changing world. Try as they may to appear innovative, timeless values of being ethical, competent, creative, collaborative, engaged, and adept at problem-solving and critical-thinking are merely being repackaged as a glossy "Inspiring Education" marketing product. Where the “new math” model falters is their failure to respect the importance of the indispensable virtues of perseverance, hard work and practice.

We respect the parents. Regardless of our profession, we are the ones in the trenches with our children. We know best our children’s abilities and aptitudes, and we also know best when our children are confused and frustrated. Therefore, the ministry should respect the sweeping observation that this “new math” is in fact eroding our children’s math skills and confidence. Also respect that parents know when our children will flourish with more direct instructions.

We respect the laws of mathematics. Anyone who knows math will appreciate the beauty of its unyielding principles in the face of changing forces of nature or society. If the ministry respects these principles, they will know our children are empowered with astute abilities to solve problems and think critically when the students are first taught to master the standard algorithms and conventional methods derived from histories’ most brilliant mathematicians. Our children will see further when enabled to stand on the shoulders of giants.

We value FACTS. The fact is the “new math” was rolled out over the past decade and officially implemented in 2008. Since at least the start of their grade seven year, the 15yr olds in 2012 studied the “new math”. Two or three years of "new math" is sufficient time, in young developing minds, for basic math skills to be deconstructed and weakened. Our definition of basic math skills encompasses the proficient ability to understand, reconfigure equations, and apply the math facts to problem-solving, as measured by the PISA level 5 & 6. Without emphasis, the fundamentals are diluted resulting in the weakened understanding and poor grasp of mathematics.

From 2003 to 2012, Alberta’s average PISA scores declined 32 points, the second biggest drop in Canada. The rate of math illiteracy almost doubled, from 7.4% to 15.1%. 1 in 6 Alberta 15-year olds now do not have the math skills, as PISA puts it, to “participate fully in modern society”. The number of students achieving excellence (PISA Level 5&6) dropped from 26.8 to 16.9 per cent.

Alberta's grade six math PAT scores also decreased from 70% '(2009)to 56% (2012), while Alberta's TIMSS 2011 score was 27.8% for grade eight fraction questions. Random guessing scores would be 25%.

We value ACCOUNTABILITY. There was no need for drastic curricular reform in math when we were amongst the world leaders. Logically, the ministry should have continued investing in our students and teachers to maintain and build upon the high achievement standards; not panic at the thought of a changing society by abdicating leadership and merely following trends and fads from the U.S. (Common Core Curriculum). At the end of the day, the ministry is accountable for the upheaval of our children’s education.

We value ETHICS. In medicine, when a drug therapy is found to be detrimental, it is immediately withdrawn regardless of the “research” behind it. Often educational consultants are so deeply immersed in theories and biased data that they lose touch with the uncontrolled realities. The “new math” is an experimental curriculum that, in reality, is showing signs of ill-effect. When actual harm outweighs theoretical benefits, the ethical step is to respond nimbly to mitigate the damage.

And we value COLLABORATION. The "new math" was fully implemented well before the “Inspiring Education dialogue" began in 2009. In other words, we parents did not request the “new math”. In the meetings with the ministry, the mathematicians were unanimously against the proposed changes, but the ministry proceeded anyway with the changes under the pretence of having “consulted” the experts. Trust is therefore an issue. In order to restore trust, it would be wise for the Minister to commit to meeting and collaborating with us. There needs to be proof of substantial changes to rectify the “new math” curriculum for the upcoming school term.

We respectfully request that the Minister meet to discuss our recommendations for curriculum changes to be implemented for the 2014-2015 school term. We also ask for a commitment to transparency and a genuine consultative process in the development of any new curriculum for 2016 and beyond.

We are our children’s advocate. Our only stakeholder is our children and their future.

Contact Nhung at:

Visit the Alberta Math Petition Facebook Website at:


wayne lenhardt says...
Posted March 28, 2014
agreed. The Minister's job isnt to just assemble random comments for whomever, and then implement those suggestions. But if a suggestion is not a good one, the minister should be able to explain WHY it isnt. The issue of what should go into the curriculum is, at the core, a value judgment. The question becomes: Why should every student have a "deep understanding" of why 3 x 8 = 24 (say)? If we are encouraging students to enter the trades, why does a welder need this "deep understanding" (as opposed to being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide accurately and quickly)? Or why set theory should be taught to all students at (say) the high school level? What end result are we aiming for, and why do we think that outcome is a good thing? (and as an aside, how would we test to find out whether we have been successfull in having the students learn it)?

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