‘Alternate’ math confuses kids, parents

Canada’s K-8 schools are teaching a math curriculum that’s too confusing for parents to understand, reports Maclean’s.

Children are using  alternative methods, such as using grids, blocks, or strips of paper to multiply.  “We’re talking about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It shouldn’t be so overly complicated that even parents can’t understand it,” said Anna Stokke, a professor math at the University of Winnipeg. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Stokke began speaking out and soon parents from all over Canada were sending her similar stories of discontent: kids who couldn’t do their homework without help, parents who couldn’t make heads or tails of the assignments so they were hiring tutors, or spending hours looking up math sites on the Internet because the textbooks are so vague. She heard from teachers who felt pressured not to teach the traditional methods. . . . “I don’t have a problem with alternate strategies,” Stokke says. “But I fear they’re learning so many, that in the end they’re not mastering any.”

Many schools now offer Math Nights to show parents how to help their children with homework. A Catholic school offered an online course — 20 minutes a night, four nights a week for eight weeks — to get parents up to speed.

Thirty percent of Canadian parents now supplement their children’s education, reports Maclean’s.

But even students with good grades are confused, says Kim Langen, who runs an after-school enrichment program called Spirit of Math. “They’re really creative—but they don’t know what to do with it,” says Langen.

. . . Grade 5 students . . .  don’t know multiplication facts, have never encountered division, and just look at you blankly when you ask them what 23 + 7 is. In order to build students’ math facts, the ?rst 10 minutes of the 90-minute session is dedicated to drills—then, explains Langen, because they’re not bogged down on simple calculations, they can handle the high-level conceptual work.

Some teachers also have trouble understanding the new math, says Langen.

About Joanne


  1. Interesting. It seems to be getting more press in Canada than similar complaints have been in the US. I’m curious about the picture they use–the only textbook you can read the title of is Primary Mathematics, which (anecdotally) seems to be one that parents use to teach math more traditionally to their kids if they feel that the schools aren’t doing their job (rather than being one of the textbooks parents are frustrated with because they are too new and confusing). It makes me curious which textbook series are the ones parents are complaining about.

    • Hi LSquared. You have sharp eyes indeed and your curiosity is well justified. Allow me to clarify. The picture portrays Anna and her husband with their kids in their home. You know how these photo-shoots go, the photographer wants to see you “in action”.

      Anna and Ross run a “math club” which is sort of an out-of-school tutoring service for a number of local children who were otherwise having difficulty in school. I needn’t tell you that these kids have gone from struggling to the top of their classes in the 2 years this club has been running.

      Although Anna and her husband are brilliant teachers I should also say that, at WISE Math, we get dozens of stories of people like this, many of whom have no background in math or teaching, and universally the children show a quantum-leap in performance at school.

      They have experimented with a number of curricula in this club, including the well-known Singapore Math, and also the award-winning JUMP Math, which was developed by Canadian mathematician John Mighton and is available through a the registered charity he set up, with website at jumpmath.org .

      In that photo you would have seen them sitting down with some of their alternative curriculum materials for the shot.

      By the way, one of the most common complaints parents give us at wisemath.org is that, not only are their students coming home with these incomprehensible methods that they can’t explain coherently, there are no textbooks or other written explanations from which to work. So I’m quite sure Anna and Ross would not have been able to sit down with a textbook used by the school, even if that were their intent.

      • Hi Lsquared,

        I’d like to confirm that, yes, we use Singapore Math and JUMP Math to teach our kids, and some other kids in the neighbourhood, math. Both are excellent programs. I wouldn’t say that the kids in our Math Club were ever struggling with math. We started working with them when they were in Grade 2 and noticed that they weren’t being taught the standard methods for arithmetic. As Rob says, this is because they’ve been completely removed from the curriculum. In fact, in our province, many parents have told us that their children are not allowed to use standard methods for arithmetic at all! Ross and I have spent a lot of time teaching the kids addition, subtraction, multiplication and long division so that they have tools to work with large numbers. The kids love these algorithms!

        The text book that most parents seem to be complaining about in Canada is the Math Makes Sense series which is put out by Nelson. Many schools don’t use text books at all, though.

  2. Hello Joanne, thanks for your post, and for raising the profile of these issues in Canada. You mention the unfortunate caption in the Macleans article which appears to imply that my colleague Anna Stokke and her husband, shown in a photo with their children, are unable to understand the math that is being taught to their children even though they both have PhDs and teach postsecondary mathematics for a living.

    I say unfortunate, because the caption is — to understate the case in the extreme — misleading. The author of the story sent Anna an apology; she was not responsible for the caption.

    The methods being taught are pedestrian and naive. They are not “too advanced” to understand. The problem is that most parents either do not have the methods explained clearly to them — lack of expository material (textbooks) coming home with the kids contributes to this, and the students generally cannot articulate them well, which demonstrates yet another problem — but when they do “get it” there is a credibility barrier: “No, they couldn’t really be teaching you to do THAT!”.

    Well, parents, yes they could. It may seem to you that the methods being used are really too naive and weak to be “it”, but yes, they are. You are not stupid; they really aren’t learning the beautiful methods you learned, that work in all cases. They really are being taught to play with strips of paper and draw rectangles all day and a few other ‘toy’ methods — and THAT’S IT. Parents are lost because they are frantically looking for places in the curriculum to attach what they learned — the four standard algorithms of arithmetic — but these are gone in many “modern” curricula such as WNCP Math, which is now taught across all of Western Canada.

    To be clear, the “four standard algorithms” are:
    - vertical addition, linking numbers up by place value, with a “carry” procedure
    - similar subtraction, with a “borrow”
    - multiplication in the familiar array format
    - long division.

    My colleague Anna and her husband don’t fail to understand the methods being taught. They fail to understand the thinking that has gone into the removal of the most important, foundational methods from the curriculum, and the associated reforms such as the current de-emphasis on routine drill-work to reinforce skills. The proponents of this system commonly use misguided pejorative phrases like “drill and kill” (which implies the opposite of the truth — repetition, and skill reinforcement, provide a framework for understanding — “drill and skill” is more like it).

    And I fail to understand as well. Not that we don’t know where this has come from. I am uniquely positioned to examine the curriculum, having been on our provincial curriculum steering committee since 2005.

    Anna and I have read and analysed the dubious “research” by Constance Kamii and others, who purport to show that teaching algorithms to children harms their educational development. So we know where it comes from. We are, however, aghast that NCTM and the broader teacher education community, and now government education ministries, have bought into this bizarre thesis so credulously. Fortunately many rank-and-file teachers (a majority, I discern — particularly those with any length of experience) agree with us and are frustrated by what’s happening.

    Anna and I have put many hours into parsing what is being attempted in the WNCP curriculum, and I must say that it is not the complexity of the material that beggars comprehension and belief.

    She and I and some other academics have begun a movement to address the problems this is causing. We call it the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Mathematics, or WISE Math. Perhaps you’d like to link to our website, wisemath.org

    Some of your readers may wish to join our initiative — simply make a comment on our JOIN page. In the 2 1/2 months since our initiative began we have been joined by over 700 people, many of whom are academics or others who use math regularly — engineers, medical technicians, etc. The vast majority of our JOINers are professionals of one stripe or another.

    Most joiners share an anecdote about their own children. Remarkably often it goes along these lines: “I’m a professional engineer and generally got A+ in all my math courses. But I can hardly make any sense of what my child is doing in grade 3 math. I asked their teacher to explain, and it sounds like foolish nonsense to me. I taught them the proper way to multiply and my kid went from a D to an A, but a note came home from the teacher saying to stop teaching the “outdated methods” because they were harming my child”

    For those of your readers with a serious interest in genuine math reform I recommend reading the summary of the NMAP report on our site, or the report itself, to which I link. The 45 recommendations there present a very well-researched pathway forward. Also, for those trying to get their heads around what’s being promoted in the “new” curricula and why it is misguided, I can do no better than to recommend the two excellent videos prominently featured on the main page of nychold.com , a blog hosted by an American group of mathematicians and parents similar to ours.

    Again I appreciate you paying attention to this issue. I apologize for my largely polemical comment — I just felt it was important to clarify what it was that Anna and Ross have difficulty understanding in this matter. How easily a few words in a national magazine can harm one’s reputation.

    Dr. Robert Craigen
    Assistant Professor, Mathematics
    University of Manitoba
    Co-Founder, WISE Math

  3. North of 49th says:

    Many Ontario schools *do* use textbook series in K-8 (and beyond).
    The three I am familiar with include:
    (1) Math Makes Sense
    (see http://www.mathmakessense.ca/ )
    (2) Nelson Mathematics
    (see http://www.mathk8.nelson.com/ )
    (3) Math Now (http://www.gtkpress.com/products/math-now)

    These may be in use in other provinces, too. I don’t know.

    However, none is required, and they rarely fit the needs of a particular class due to full inclusion and a wide range of ability and development. My own school, which is low-SES but high achieving, does not use a textbook series. We have quasi-homogeneous groupings, incorporate a regular regimen of drill and practice, teach problem solving explicitly, emphasize mental computation, have a math club and teachers prepare lessons in grade teams through backward mapping, formative assessment and use common assessments and success criteria.

    It would certainly help to have better curricular materials. I’ve attended John Mighton’s JUMP math training (excellent) but we can’t afford the materials for regular class use. I know of some special ed classes using it successfully.

  4. Hearing things like “we don’t do stacking” ought to make people wonder if the purpose is not to create innumerate graduates.

    One way to stop the problem at the source is to stop taking innumerate applicants into teaching majors.

  5. Leonardo of Pisa wrote the first modern math book in 1202CE. How is it that some yahoos are still rethinking simple arithmetic? It certainly appears suspicious, as if people were somehow conspiring to make kids innumerate. Just get out the flashcards and drill until kid knows multiplication tables, it has worked for centuries.

  6. When someone claims to have reinvented the wheel, and fixed something that isn’t broken, be wary… Other than updating languages, symbols used, and other nomenclature, there’s a reason Mathematics has been taught the same way for 3,000+ years… (up until the mid 1960′s in the Western world, anyway)