“Math gene” myth threatens future of Canadian industry

Canadian manufacturing’s survival depends on exploiting any competitive advantages that we may have as an industry and as a country.

0 April 5, 2010

Our education system is frequently cited as one of these advantages. However, viewed from the perspective of Canadian industry’s best interests, what is currently happening in our elementary and secondary schools is quite worrying.

For a few years now there’s been a lot of talk about the need to do a better job with literacy, math, science and technology education. Does this mean that students graduating from Canadian schools now and in the near future will include the large numbers of numerate, literate, science savvy, and creative workers that Canadian industry needs? Unfortunately, that’s not likely for a long list of reasons, two of which I will briefly touch on.

Firstly, the overwhelming majority of Canadian elementary teachers are general arts graduates. Many have not taken any math since the last required course early in high school because they “weren’t any good at it.” When they struggled in math, they were told that that was a normal state of affairs because many people don’t have an aptitude for math, i.e. they’re missing a “math gene.”

When these teachers teach math to their students, their discomfort with the subject matter is palpable and the students pick up on it. It doesn’t help that the curriculum, instead of building a solid foundation of arithmetic skills and then progressing to more advanced concepts, introduces many of these concepts in the very early grades.

When their students struggle to learn using this curriculum, elementary teachers help the best they can, but underlying their efforts is the assumption that having trouble with math is a normal state of affairs.

Math tutors have long known that the assumption that math is inherently too difficult for many is bunk. For at least 20 years, concerned parents, appalled at the math homework their kids have been bringing home, have resorted to rationally structured programs like Saxon Math (http://www.saxonmath.com/), through either home or commercial tutoring, to remediate their children and wrest them from the clutches of mathphobia.


More recently, John Mighton and his JUMP program (
http://jumpmath.org/) have demolished the “missing math gene” myth by demonstrating in public schools, even those in poorer neighbourhoods in Toronto, that virtually everyone can learn arithmetic. The kids using JUMP not only learn arithmetic and more advanced topics in mathematics, they actually progress to the point that they like doing math!

Many believe that our schools’ approach to math education and its clinging to the “math gene” myth dramatically reduce the number of students who are receptive to careers involving the use of math including, of course, those in manufacturing and other industries.

On a side note, but still relevant to this discussion, is the fact that Canadian public elementary schools use a “discovery” approach instead of a “direct instruction” approach to teach all subjects, not just math. Extensive research shows that boys, who will continue to be the majority in technology programs, do not learn as well as girls using the “discovery” approach.

This situation would be no more than annoying if parents could easily access alternative schools that take a “direct instruction” approach or use JUMP or Saxon math, but this gets me to my second point.
Canadian educators seem to be ideologically opposed to any direct instruction methods that incorporate rote learning. In addition, they seem to have convinced most Canadians that the most important thing that our schools accomplish is to be inclusive, i.e. that spending time with people from other races and cultures in our schools is more important than what subject matter you learn while you’re there.

As a result, most attempts to provide parents with access to a direct instruction curriculum by, for example, allowing charter schools within our public systems are met with hysterical warnings about “neo-con agendas” and “privatization.” The fact that many charter school initiatives in the U.S. have been led by poor parents fed up with schools content to lower their standards and baby sit their kids through to a dubious high school diploma is an “inconvenient truth” for our education establishment.

Until Canadian parents confront those running our schools and insist on access to public schools not dominated by mathphobia and “discovery” learning, Canadian industry will continue to be frustrated in its attempts to find sufficient numbers of high quality technology graduates and, over time, that component of our competitive advantage will be lost.

John Bachmann is Corporate Sales & Marketing Manager, Wainbee, and Chairman, Canadian Fluid Power Association. He is also a member of the Design Product News Editorial Advisory Board.

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