The academic background of a lot of our elementary teachers is more in the arts – they don’t necessarily have an extensive background themselves in math and science—Liz Sandals, Ontario Ministry of Education, in response to the recent news that Ontario’s elementary students’ test results in mathematics have declined for the fifth straight year.
Now, that’s one way to jolt someone out of a self-inflicted summer silence. Less than a week before our children head back into the classroom for another year, the leader of one of Canada’s largest school systems has decided to make public her belief that it’s not only our students that aren’t making the grade, but the teachers responsible for their progress aren’t doing much better.
Don’t get me wrong. I won’t take issue with the idea that many elementary teachers don’t have the same background in science and mathematics that those responsible for teaching parallel subjects at the secondary level have. They don’t and they aren’t required to! And I won’t deny the suggestion that many of our elementary teachers would not count math as one of their favourite subjects in their own schooling. In fact, I was one of those students and, to be quite honest, I began my teaching career still affected by my lack of success in math.
Where I think that the Minister could use a bit of a shift in thinking, however, is in her suggestion that a degree in the arts (and I’m assuming that she means a general arts degree, as opposed to a degree in Fine Arts) might preclude sufficient background in math and science. Not only does the idea show a lack of appreciation for what an arts education is all about, but it also points to the belief that there is a direct line between formal mathematical training and quality mathematics education.
In fact, while mathematics and science have long been part of what is considered a liberal arts education, studies under a Bachelor of Arts degree, the basic requirement for entry into an elementary teacher education program, are not generally geared to careers as a scientist or mathemetician. In the same way, if I wanted to be a visual artist, a professional musician or an actor, I would likely choose a path of study other than a B.A.
But what a liberal arts education did for me was to broaden my perspective. It offered this young, naive, Catholic boy a sense that there was a bigger world out there. It encouraged me to make broader connections, understand the world and its problems from different points of view. It allowed me delve into the worlds of logic, metaphysics, English criticism, poetry, history, psychology and sociology (I met the nicest girls in sociology). And, beyond the broad array of perspectives, my studies gave me the opportunity to make connections, see patterns and intuit relationships. My liberal arts background gave me the opportunity to step back and move in close to the world in so many ways.
You know, the Ontario Ministry of Education has spent millions of dollars over the past five years, attempting to improve the quality of mathematics education in this province. Most of the PD work that has been done has been based on the assumption that our teachers don’t yet have what it takes to be effective math and language educators.
And now, we know what is to blame. Despite all of the resources that have been poured into mathematics curriculum, webinars and videos, resources, teacher education and staff development, it really comes down to the fact that most elementary teachers come from an arts background?
As my own children begin a new chapter in their schooling next week—one moving into JK, the other into Grade One—I can only hope that they are under the care of someone that can help them see their lives in terms of patterns and relationships, in terms of connections, and in terms of how mathematics is one of the many languages that can help them express their understanding of the world.
For this, I count on the arts education to which their teachers will have been exposed. I want my children to grow up loving and appreciating mathematics for what it is—a gift that I was not given in my own schooling. I want them to know that many, many artists, writers and philosophers also had a great appreciation for the beauty of the world—a beauty that can be expressed in so many ways, mathematics included.
I don’t deny the fact that a teacher needs to have confidence in the subject matter for which they are responsible. That’s a no-brainer. But don’t tell me that the reason that Ontario student test scores in mathematics are on a steady decline can be atttributed to their arts background.
Not only is it off the mark…its not very creative!