We need to overcome our national math phobia

Posted on April 14, 2016 in Education Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – To equip our children with the skills to compete on the global stage, students need to devote more time to learning mathematics
Apr 14 2016.   By: Stephen M. Watt

Pencils down, here’s some mental arithmetic for you. If a student does one hour of math every school day for 12 years, how many hours of math will they do in their school career? Is it closer to, (A) just shy of a whole day’s worth? (B) a bit more than a week? (C) three months? (D) three years? (Answer at the end of this article.)

If you’re the kind of person who just skipped to the end, you might be one of those people with math phobia. We nod sympathetically at friends who say they have never been good at math, as if it’s just one of those things. Some people even take pride in and make jokes about not doing math. Technology everywhere and reliance on calculators means we live in a world where many people don’t know whether 1/3 is larger or smaller than 2/5.

These little deceptions blind us to the fact that math underpins our way of life today in ways that most of us never stop to consider. Why is this a problem, and how do we answer those who say they will never need math after leaving school?

Math is everywhere. It is in everything from the security in our mobile phones and banking systems to the geolocation and route planning in our car navigation systems. Health care and medical decision-making are driven by data analysis. Computer models that help us predict the weather rely on differential equations. Our finances — from calculating interest rates to predicting pension requirements — all depend on a solid understanding of mathematics. It is impossible to thrive in today’s society without mathematics. To be innumerate is to be disenfranchised.

The move by Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals last week to boost math teaching in Grades 1-8 is a good first step to help more Ontario students achieve excellence in numeracy and proficiency in mathematics.

Of course, many will argue that more time mandated for math comes at the expense of other subjects. But this move to embed math skills more deeply in Ontarians needn’t become a question of the sciences versus the arts. Quite the opposite: just as with increased reading skills, increased math skills will allow more efficient learning of other key subjects. And as we go forward, the other subjects are relying more on math, be it alignment algorithms in genomics or machine learning in the digital humanities.

Being at ease with numbers is just the first step. Mathematics isn’t just about fractions and arithmetic. Math teaches us logic and proof. It teaches us to think abstractly, yet precisely. These are skills our youth will need. We are preparing the current generation of Canadians for careers in the fourth industrial revolution and a world economy that relies on knowledge as the driver of prosperity.

Are we to be a nation solely of consumers, sending our dollars and jobs abroad? Or are we to ride this wave of change as leaders, innovators and beneficiaries? Some of the quickest-growing fields lean heavily on math. Last year, CareerCast.com listed no fewer than six math-linked careers in the top 10: actuary, mathematician, statistician, data scientist, software engineer and computer systems analyst. Simply put, to equip our children with the skills to compete on the global stage, students need to devote more time to learning mathematics.

As we increase the participation rate in our colleges and universities for jobs in the knowledge economy, more attention to math preparation is vital. Providing the resources to support teachers in dedicating more learning time to mathematics in elementary school helps lay a solid foundation for our future prosperity as individuals and as a nation.

To do this, we must end the cycle of math phobia for Canada to remain a leading nation. That’s why Ontario’s idea of installing a lead teacher — or three — who is “deeply knowledgeable about teaching math” puts some of the passion back in the Pythagorean Theorem. We owe our children this ticket to the future.

To the question above, the answer is C: 12 years, with about 200 teaching days per year is 2,400 hours, or 100 days.

Stephen M. Watt is the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, home to the largest concentration of mathematical and computer science talent in the world.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2016/04/14/we-need-to-overcome-our-national-math-phobia.html >

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