Recent international and national standardized tests suggest that mathematical ability in Canada is on the decline. There is other evidence, too. Fewer students are completing mathematics degrees. Retention in those degrees is very poor. Many students that endure, struggle in their studies and require lots of additional resources to succeed. Women are particularly disengaged from the discipline – even if they are mathematically able. A mathematics crisis may be well underway. A radical re-engineering of mathematics education is needed at virtually all levels of education, but perhaps more so in universities and colleges where teaching and learning mathematics has remained relatively static over time.
Students today are different. They are technologically savvy; social engagement is a way of life and students want it to be a way of learning, too. Access initiatives and increased pathways across the postsecondary sector mean students have more options and possibly more experience with learning than ever before. More women are going to university. Students are likely more diverse in their range of ability and in their understanding of how to support their own learning. These are the realities of students today.
The methods used historically, and almost exclusively, to meet the needs of the “typical” mathematics student need to be reexamined. Universities and colleges would be wise to pay close attention to the way in which remediation is delivered and programed; the innovativeness of the teaching; the connectedness of students to each other, the department, and the faculty members; and the strategic enrolment plan for women. Simply wishing for different students or students that come better prepared has never really been an option.
The low numbers of students that actually complete a mathematics degree, a minor in mathematics, or even have any postsecondary mathematics courses becomes a challenge for learners at virtually all levels of education. Ontario produces very few elementary school teachers with a specialization in mathematics. More concerning is the fact that many elementary school teachers may not have taken any postsecondary mathematics courses outside of their teaching degree.
Currently, teachers receive approximately 30 to 36 hours of mathematics education – and the focus is predominantly pedagogy rather than content. This is woefully insufficient. An individual may become a teacher no more confident with fractions than when they started their degree. Many teachers are feeling inadequately prepared to teach the subject. Does this come as any surprise?
Beginning in 2015, Ontario universities will begin offering a two-year teaching degree. Unfortunately, this doubling of program time does not guarantee more or a better mathematics education for teachers. While some universities may opt to provide more hours of mathematics education in their revised programs, some may decide otherwise. The content in the courses may continue to focus almost exclusively on pedagogy and thus we may still find teachers who struggle with fractions. For children to do better mathematically, we need differently and better trained teachers. The shift to a two-year program may be a missed opportunity for a system-wide change in the preparation of teachers.
Currently, no one is taking any ownership of the mathematics crisis and so a blame-game persists where each level of education holds the previous level responsible. The university and college professors bemoan the underprepared undergraduates; students would be more successful if only they came better prepared. The secondary school teachers express the very same angst about students coming from elementary schools. Schools would hire more mathematics specialists to teach children mathematics if only there were more teachers with these qualifications. Students would do better at every level of instruction and more girls would continue in their mathematics education if only they tried harder. Accountability can be particularly elusive when it comes to failure.
Universities and colleges need to be doing something different – a bolder and more progressive vision of student success in mathematics is urgently needed. The change that is required to shift the current declining trajectory in mathematics (both in achievement and in participation) will require an epic shift in accountability amongst the gatekeepers – educators, postsecondary administrators and government. It goes without saying that students also need to be doing their part. However, universities must give students something worth doing in order for this to happen.
Donna Kotsopoulos is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education and Faculty of Science, Department of Mathematics, Wilfrid Laurier University.
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