Forced Distance Learning Could Lead to a Resurgence of Traditional Math

By Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of "A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning."
April 6, 2020Updated: April 6, 2020


Schools across Canada are closed, and it looks like they may remain closed for the next few months.

To ensure students do not fall too far behind, teachers are setting up distance learning programs. These programs are, however, stopgap measures designed to ensure students keep learning during this emergency period. The reality is that, for most students, online instruction is a poor substitute for in-person teaching and learning.

While teachers are now designing programs, assessing student work, and responding to student questions, it is parents who will end up doing the hands-on work with their children. High school students might be able to work independently, but the vast majority of early years and middle years students will need a lot of parental support to keep learning.

This is no easy task for parents. Many parents have full-time jobs and are juggling schoolwork with their kids while doing their own work from home. Most aren’t able to spend several hours a day providing their kids with one-on-one tutoring. Parents are looking for ways to be more efficient.

This need could result in a positive benefit for students—a resurgence of traditional math taught by parents. Across the country, schools have pushed an inquiry approach to math, often known as discovery math, which de-emphasizes practice and memorization and encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems.

Instead of ensuring students memorize their multiplication facts and learn the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, discovery math encourages students to do open-ended word problems with no obvious answers. When faced with basic arithmetic, instead of figuring out the answer in their head or working it out on a piece of paper, students just pull out their calculators, punch in the numbers, and write an answer down.

Commonly used math textbooks such as “Math Makes Sense” and “Math Focus” exemplify this approach. Students are regularly asked to figure out a number of ways of solving even the simplest question. But the word problems in these textbooks are so convoluted that parents who work as accountants, engineers, or university math professors often have difficulty figuring out the correct answers.

Parents might be able to tolerate discovery math when the burden falls primarily on teachers. However, there is little chance that most parents are capable of teaching discovery math on their own. When faced with a basic multiplication question, parents aren’t going to do repeated addition, draw multiplication arrays, or help their kids invent a new algorithm. Instead, parents are going to show their kids the way they learned to do multiplication when they were kids.

It also won’t take parents long to discover that there are much better math resources available. For example, the Khan Academy makes thousands of instructional videos available online at no charge. Parents who take the time to watch some of the Khan Academy’s instructional math videos will quickly see some familiar concepts.

For example, the videos show how to add and subtract by placing one number on top of the other and working digit-by-digit from right to left. Multiplication is demonstrated using the standard vertical format while the traditional long division algorithm is consistently used as well. In fact, the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feature prominently in these videos.

Given the choice between the endless headache of trying to teach discovery math to their children and the tried-and-true standard algorithms of traditional math, it’s not hard to imagine which option parents will choose.

It’s important to note that there is plenty of research that demonstrates the importance of practice and memorization, the very things downplayed by discovery math.

In their 2014 book, “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn,” education researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates explain that students who do not know their basic math facts invariably struggle when they progress to higher levels of math. They also point out that using various strategies to solve simple questions such as 5 x 6 is a waste of mental energy since students should automatically know the correct answer.

In other words, not only is a traditional approach to math easier for both parents and their children, research shows it is more effective than learning math by a discovery approach. There’s no need for parents to struggle with convoluted math textbooks when much better resources are widely available on the internet.

Hopefully, parents will feel empowered to get their kids practicing the math skills they need. By cutting out the unnecessary fluff of discovery math, students will not only learn math more efficiently, they will be more successful. No child should be subjected to substandard math instruction.

Once they’ve experienced the success that comes from traditional math instruction, students aren’t going to want to return to discovery math when regular classes resume again. Nor should they have to.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.