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In Praise of the Arts Education—An initial reaction to Minister of Education, Liz Sandals

Posted on: August 29th, 2013 by Stephen Hurley  7 Comments »

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! 

7 Responses to “In Praise of the Arts Education—An initial reaction to Minister of Education, Liz Sandals”

  1. [...] In Praise of the Arts Education—An initial reaction to Minister of Education, Liz Sandals | Teachi… [...]

  2. Education Minister Liz Sandals pronouncement on the state of Mathematics teacher training also caught my eye, but for different reasons. One of the root causes of why students are struggling in Mathematics is the simple fact that many elementary and junior high teachers are actually “teaching out of field.”

    Minister Sandals identified a critical issue, but missed the mark. It has little to do with teacher training and more to do with the academic qualifications of teache4rs and the pattern of admissions in the faculties of education. Simply put, they do not know enough Math to be effective!

    My recent Commentary on CBC-TV’s Mr. D. pointed out that “Teaching Out of Field” was great fun on TV, but less so for children ion those classes:

    In the case of Nova Scotia, it was identified some ten years ago and remains unaddressed. In Manitoba, as you may know, “Do the Math” campaigners are pressuring the Government to require every elementary school to be staffed by Math specialists, for mentoring purposes. The public issue is more acute in Manitoba where the PISA and PCAP Math results are abysmal.

    Sandals’ public statement was also intended to buttress her contention that all faculty of education degree programs should run for two years. That’s not the answer in the case of Math teacher preparation, according to most if not all university Mathematics professors.

  3. Thanks for the comments Paul! Always good to hear your perspective.

    I’d like to follow-up on your claim that, “Simply put, they do not know enough Math to be effective.”

    Again, I’m not disputing the fact that some elementary teachers—many, perhaps—begin their teaching careers with something other than a degree in mathematics. Although I took at different approach in my original entry, I would love to hear your insights on what sort of math background would be considered adequate for, let’s say, K-6 mathematics.

    Is it mainly content that is lacking and, if so, does the content knowledge required suggest to you that university-level mathematics should be a requirement for admission into an elementary teacher education program?

    This, perhaps, could be the subject of a completely different post.

    • Teacher preparation in Mathematics is only a small component of the challenge in improving student performance in elementary Math. Education observers like Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education and Math tutoring organizations like Kumon Math tend to support my contention that it is more a matter of lacking the requisite academic background to teach Math:

      One of Canada’s weakest provinces in Mathematics, Manitoba, has responded by reintroducing effective Mathematics curriculum and methods. Professor Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg was instrumental in the promoting the change. The Western Initiative for Strengthening Math achieved the breakthrough, over-riding the New Mathematicians populating the Department’s curriculum advisory bodies.

      The key proposal advanced by Professor Stokke was the recruitment and assignment of a fully qualified Mathematics specialist to each school serving K to 8 students. Then establish Mathematics mentoring teams in each school. Finally, over time, ensure that those teaching Mathematics had some university level Mathematics.

      Mathematics professors were the main initiators of the Manitoba Math curriculum reform:

      Beginning this September, the entire Manitoba Math curriculum will be re-organized to address the glaring deficiencies:

      Will Minister Sandals follow suit? Judging from her recent media pronouncement, she still hasn’t grasped the totality of the challenge in improving student performance in elementary Mathematics. Perhaps it’s time for Ontario’s Mathematics professors to weigh-in on the chronic issue.

      • I’m off to check out the references to Manitoba!

      • In asking about the requisite knowledge, I’m actually referring to the academic background with which potential teachers need to come to their teacher preparation. What, specifically, do they need to have? What understanding of mathematics are necessary? I know that in some jurisdictions in the US, teacher candidates are now required to write specific tests in mathematical knowledge and competency. Is this the answer, or one of the answers?

  4. […] did some writing late in the summer about the realization that, on the world stage, Canada’s performance on math assessments […]

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