Mastering math fundamentals: A call for curriculum reform

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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By John D. Scott and Louisa Horne (commentary)

Ask any school-aged child to recite their multiplication tables for you. Better yet, ask any child if they even like math. We doubt you will find one. It’s become the new reality in our schools: our kids don’t “get” math because our math curriculum has lost its focus on teaching the fundamentals.  

Parents are being called upon with increasing frequency, to help with this shortcoming by either taking their children to private tutors or learning centres so they can learn the fundamentals of math, or spend hours every night, helping them with their homework. But what about those parents who don’t understand their children’s homework and cannot afford learning centres? They can only despair that their children will develop poor math skills and fall even further behind.  

A two-tier system of education is thriving in Canada. Many teachers across this country consider it a crisis. They are seeing this firsthand in their classrooms, but feel powerless to speak out, or do anything about it. The curriculum they are mandated to teach places a greater emphasis on discovery-based strategies than it does on understanding the fundamental principles of arithmetic.  

Most distressing, though, is that this situation is completely avoidable. Unfortunately, any potential solutions are being muted by an army of policy makers, “numeracy experts” and administrators who lack any meaningful designation in the field of mathematics. Professional mathematicians have not been part of this process, and our kids are suffering because of it.

How did we get here? For many years, math was taught in a relatively straightforward manner.  Memorizing multiplication tables and learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and long division were priorities in the classroom. By Grade 3, most of us could recite the times tables and perform basic arithmetic in our head. These proven methods were the key for problem-solving and learning complex mathematics later on.  

Priorities have now changed, as discovery-based learning is now in vogue. Our current curriculum dictates that children discover the answer by themselves, and are given a wide variety of strategies to estimate the answer and to explore various options.  But without any structure in place, children cannot find the answer effectively.   

Performing standard algorithms in columns and memorizing multiplication tables have been replaced with computer games, graphs and pizza fractions. Kids are completely confused and overwhelmed by these strategies, yet their frustrations are being ignored.  

This is the new math. Problem is, it’s not working. In fact, there is no single review or study of discovery-based math and methods that confirms the claims of its designers. It is an unmitigated disaster.     

A balanced approach in the classroom is always the ideal, and proponents of the conventional (common sense) math have always been strong advocates for this. To first strengthen a child’s fundamental math skills, through the effective standard operations, before any introduction of discovery-based strategies, will serve the child well.

Moreover, daily practice, using paper and pencil and effective methods, are still the most successful ways for learning arithmetic. Currently, this step is being ignored and it’s leading to an increased reliance on calculators and a failure of understanding mathematics.   

Mastering the fundamentals is critical for higher learning in mathematics to occur. Without achieving this fundamental life skill, children’s futures are limited.

Math hasn’t changed, and neither have kids. Yet, somehow the math strategies have become overly complicated, and it is only leading to frustration, tears, and a dislike of this subject more than any other. We need to advocate for our children before it’s too late.  

Where will our math professionals be in 20 years? Business owners and leaders alike all lament that their young employees display poor math skills and cannot do their jobs effectively.

Patient survival demands that nurses are proficient in calculating a medication dosage, and engineers are required to apply their mathematical skills to construct elaborate infrastructures.

They need to know the fundamentals in order to do their jobs effectively.     

Our kids deserve better.

Let’s demand change collectively, for a brighter future.


John D. Scott, Sandy Cove, N.S., and Louisa Horne, Halifax, N.S., are two members of a Math Fundamentals movement which has sprung up in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Geographic location: Canada, Halifax, Alberta British Columbia Ontario Nova Scotia

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