Is teacher training the missing ingredient to math success?
Published Wednesday, October 3, 2018 6:00AM EDT
Quebec is typically the highest-scoring province when it comes to standardized math tests. China and Singapore are two of the top performers on the global stage.
The common thread between these jurisdictions, experts say, is that they offer math teachers more intense and focused training than they would receive elsewhere.
In Singapore, for example, some instructors are removed from their classrooms for weeks at a time in order to undergo more extensive training, which they are then expected to pass on to their colleagues.
“They totally invest in their teachers,” said Mary Reid, a program co-ordinator at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
No such mandatory programs exist in Ontario, where some of the province’s teacher-training colleges require as little as 36 hours of math instruction over the course of their entire program, according to Reid.
Those hours are often focused more on pedagogy – how to teach – rather than the content being taught. Reid’s school is the only one in the province where teaching students are forced to take a math refresher course, ensuring that they understand the concepts they will later have to teach.
“They’ve got to demonstrate solid concepts of Grade 7 and 8 math … because if you don’t know the math, if you don’t know the curriculum expectations, then by and large you’re not going to be able to teach it well,” Reid said.
“We have to go beyond just memorizing it. We have to know the reason why. Why do two negatives make a positive? Why does that happen? It’s not just a rule that you memorize.”
Once teachers have entered the workforce and been given their own classrooms, Reid describes the training they receive as “sprinkled around … maybe after school here or maybe a webinar there.”
Like many teachers and parents, Reid is concerned about math being taught by instructors who may not know the subject well, and the ripple effect that could happen it continues for generations.
Textbooks, often considered a prime resource for teachers looking to learn new material quickly, have largely disappeared from classrooms due to concerns they encourage memorization over learning in both teachers and students.
“I’ve had many a teacher say that they have to close the door if they want to use [textbooks] and hopefully not get caught,” said Kim Langen, co-founder of the Spirit of Math after-school program, which operates in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.
“You’ve got a mess here of two different viewpoints. You’ve got a mess of the teachers being scared to do the wrong thing and get a bad mark, so to speak, for themselves.”
Langen saw some of this firsthand when Spirit of Math was contracted by the Winnipeg School Division to conduct a training program for its teachers. A school administrator in Winnipeg had recommended Spirit of Math after being impressed by how the organization was able to help her daughter.
Over five years, Spirit of Math employees trained all Winnipeg teachers between Grade 5 and Grade 8. As teachers progressed through their individual year-long programs, Langen says, they became less “fearful” of showing weakness and more interested in math than they had been before.
“By the end of the school year they were free and admitting to ‘Hey, I don’t know this, how do you do it?’” she said.
Manitoba’s standardized math testing results have largely stayed stable since Spirit of Math was first brought in.
Ontario, which is grappling with a decline in test scores, is looking at teacher training as part of its plan. Ford’s government has said it will “refocus” a $55-million fund for the hiring and training of math educators.