Full year math course: Empathy versus arithmetic

On Tuesday, October 30th, the provincial government announced with great glee and excitement that they had decided to extend grade 10 math from a semestered course to a full year credit. Many pundits from all sides lauded this as a great idea. “Finally”, they said, “we are going to fix the math problem”. Oddly enough, on Remembrance Day, I was reminded why such decisions need to be undertaken with extreme caution.

On Sunday,  I stood with a crowd of people watching my daughter take part in her first Remembrance Day service. I must admit, I was thinking more about how proud I was than of the current state of education. That was, until the day’s main address was given.

The elderly gentleman who spoke was as eloquent in his praise of veterans as he was in his criticism of our government’s mistreatment of them. He expressed his anger, and spoke of how this country seems to care more about a labour dispute in hockey than it does this shameful record of abandonment when it comes to vets. He wrapped up his speech with a wish that more could be done in schools to teach the young people about the importance of such issues. And that’s what got me thinking about the “math problem”.

In twenty years of teaching, I have seen little remain the same in education except the notion that math needed fixing. It seems that as soon as math scores fall, change occurs. Never mind that there is no money for education. Never mind that assessment practices have changed. And that teaching practices have changed. And that student retention practices have changed. And that the curriculum has changed. Nevermind all that. Parents can sleep well tonight, say the politicians, because, by golly, we are going to fix the math problem. And teachers are left to clean up the mess.

I recognize that math does serve a purpose. Indeed, many of the most crucial institutions and developments in our society are the result of the scientifically minded. But why is it that math has become the most important benchmark by which we measure the quality of education we offer to our children? Why must math, or any subject, for that matter, be valued above all else?

There are few truisms in education, but one is that if you add on one side, you must take from another.  My concern is that this truism has not been considered in making this decision. If you add time for math, what do you take away? Drama? Dance? Canadian History?

Perhaps adding a full year math credit will help students achieve better math scores. If it does, I will applaud the decision. But if we want to offer a truly rich and meaningful education to all our children, we need to look beyond those subjects that are easily measured.

Our young people require a varied offering of courses to  teach them empathy, sympathy, leadership and caring.  In the words of the speaker at the cenotaph, we must teach our children  so they will avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I am not against improving our young people’s ability to do well in math, but I worry that in our haste to be able to brag about improved test scores, we will lose sight of the larger purpose of education.

Everything comes at a price. And that price must be considered before the full year math course is implemented. If not, those very courses that help teach our children to have empathy for such things as the plight of veterans may very well become a thing of the past.


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Filed under math education, Public education, Uncategorized

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