Math Problems


by Tina Olesen

Canadian students seem to be having some difficulties in math class. As a recent international assessment showed, our students’ math scores are rapidly dropping. OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment ranked Canada as 13th, which is down three places from 2009 (see this article from the Globe and Mail).

Provincial education ministries are now rolling out new programs designed to address this crisis. Ontario will be investing $4 million dollars in math education – for teachers (Ottawa Citizen). Some provinces are insisting that it isn’t the math curriculum that’s the problem (Globe and Mail). Across the country, parents are pushing for reforms to the way math is taught, asking for a “back to the basics” approach (Global News).

My own experience teaching math leads me to agree with the parents. How do you teach students in grade six to reduce fractions if they do not yet know their multiplication tables? I had students come into the high school learning assistance room who couldn’t tell the time without a digital clock, prompting some remedial lessons. That was scary.

How and why did we get away from “the basics” in math education? It has to do with an educational philosophy known as constructivism, and it’s not just math class that this philosophy has infiltrated. The key component of this learning theory is that the learners construct their own knowledge; the teacher is no longer the purveyor of knowledge.

Constructivism focuses on subjective (as opposed to objective) reality. The idea is that the learners use their own subjective experiences to construct or represent reality. Practically, constructivism may play itself out in a classroom in these ways:

–        a focus on “discovery learning” or having the student explore materials and come to their own conclusions

–        an embracing of multiple perspectives and an openness to many ways of doing things; students are encouraged to come up with their own methods of inquiry and problem solving

–        the teacher takes on the role of coach or mentor rather than director or the voice of authority

Constructivists have been rightly criticized for promoting the idea that “there is no right answer.” This doesn’t hold any water, particularly when it comes to math. Teachers attempting to apply constructivist principles to math class will end up having to be the voice of the authority with the answer key at the end of the day.

Some constructivists are more radical than others, and there are varying extremes. On the opposite end of the scale from constructivism is behaviorism, which looks at students as being a blank slate for the teacher to write upon, and learning is viewed much like computer programming; the teacher inputs the knowledge and the student spits it back out. It’s quite mechanical and soul-deadening.

Neither constructivism nor behaviorism in their purest forms are biblical perspectives on learning. As Christians, how are we to think about the study of mathematics from God’s perspective?

Just read the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and you’ll see that our God is a God of precision and accuracy! Our God is a God of order, and numbers express this aspect of His character. Even the hairs on your head are numbered.

He is the master Maker of shapes and patterns. The complex and intricate patterns we marvel at in nature far exceed the designs of any human being. God created symmetry. He gave us 10 fingers and 10 toes.

God instituted the seven day week and the 24 hour day. He is the Maker of time itself.

God insists upon accurate measurements and weights. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? (Isaiah 40:12)

So, according to the Bible, there is an authority on mathematics: the Lord God Almighty. There is an objective reality: reality created by God. There is such a thing as a wrong answer, because there is such a thing as a mathematical truth, as revealed by God. In order to be correct, the answer to a math question must conform to reality created by God.

Our job as math teachers, then, is to help students to recognize the way that God has ordered His universe mathematically. We are to honor the order that He has instituted, which includes His putting adults in authority over children (while we, the adults, are also to be under His authority).

We acknowledge that we aren’t the creators of knowledge; God is the Creator. We do not create math, He did. We uncover and examine what He created, while honoring God’s order and thanking Him as we do.

We can plan engaging math activities for our students while we still reflect God’s wonderful orderliness with the accuracy and precision that comes from exercises like diligently applying ourselves to memorize basic math facts.

2 plus 2 equals 4 because God made one thing distinct from another thing, and those individual distinct things can be numbered and counted.

“…Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations…

From everlasting to everlasting you are God…

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom…

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.”

(from Psalm 90)

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3 thoughts on “Math Problems

  1. Thank you for the excellent post, Tina! I too agree with you and the parents that there is definitely a need to go back to the basics, so that the proper foundation is laid.
    In light of this ‘math problem’ the following statement is worth considering:
    “Mathematics….. develops and disciplines the mind more than most other subjects due its demanding and exact nature. Strong mathematics skills are essential for success in all the sciences.”
    It does not seem that constructivism would accomplish this.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Mike and Denise! Thanks to all of you who have been reading this blog and giving me helpful suggestions and feedback. It is very much a team effort! I’m so grateful to God.

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