by Tamara Stuart-Barry
Every year our Math scores both at the primary and the secondary levels highlight the sad reality that Math education in the Caribbean and on our tri-island state continues to be a chronic problem.
Students spend at least 45 minutes per day, 5 days a week learning Math, and the Math scores still reflect poorly. What are we as a nation doing wrong? Is it that the curriculum is just plain awful? Is it bad teaching? Is it the students? Is it bad parenting? Or could it be that the approach to teaching Math might be a problem?
Let me state the facts so that we can put things into perspective. The results speak for themselves. The CSEC (CXC) Math results for the past three years are as follows; In 2017, the pass rate was 38.23%. In 2018, the pass rate was 38.57%. This year only 38.59% of students who sat the exam passed it. That leaves a significant part of our population with poor Math skills, and the inability to access quite a number of opportunities that require Math proficiency. Now let that sink in.
I am not in a position to criticise our education system, because it is all that we have at the moment and also because there is no easy fix. Furthermore, it is far easier to stand on the sidelines and throw criticism at a system, than it is to actually contribute to a workable solution. With that said, as a former teacher in this very system, I do believe that I am in the position to advocate for our nation’s kids and to be a part of innovating our education system. Please note that my intention is not to criticise our teachers. Rather, my intent is to open the door to healthy discussions amongst our teaching fraternity, and to lead to a rethinking of Math teaching in Grenada. So back to this approach to teaching Math in Grenada that does not seem to be working.
Let’s put things into perspective. When we use Math in our daily lives, we use it out of necessity. It serves a specific purpose. It is relevant to us and the results that we get satisfy our inquiries. We use Math to figure out if we should choose one financial institution over the other for their interest rates, we use it to determine how much taxes we need to pay, or if we will be able to afford that extra 1% that NIS will be deducting from our paychecks starting this September, or if we can even make ends meet this month or next etc.
Our use of Mathematics is dynamic. We have discussions with our family members. We advocate for increases in our paychecks based on our calculations. Our architects use it to design our buildings (take a look at the new Parliament building, couldn’t happen without Math). Our athletes use it to improve their times on the tracks. We give our bosses ‘ah good cussing’ for underpaying us. We even plan ahead and save to make sure that we have enough to ‘play ah good mas’ every August before we go back to the grind ‘when the carnival over’.
Now what about our kids? How is the Math that they are learning in school relevant to them? Think about this. As an adult do you waste time on learning things that you will never use and that are totally irrelevant to your everyday life? Of course not! Our kids on the other hand, sit and write for most of the day from a blackboard or whiteboard. They ceaselessly memorize methods that they don’t understand. They hardly ever touch or build anything math related that puts things into perspective for them. They learn about fractions but they never cook an oildown with their teachers and learn how, by using fractions they can equally divide the pot of oildown with the entire class. They learn measurement but they never measure anything to determine for example what 15 feet actually looks like, or create a visual representation of their learning. However, they’re expected to fully understand the difference between a yard and a foot, a metre and a centimetre without being involved in creating the learning experience themselves. They’re expected to learn that ax2 + bx + c=0, without understanding how quadratic equations for example connect to making a profit in business. How crazy is that?
Our kids who are not visual learners, in other words this act of writing all day long is just not their style. What happens to them? What happens to the kids who do not have the ability to sit for extended periods? What about those kids who learn by touching, feeling and moving? What about them?
I’ll tell you what happens to them. They are the ones who are barely passing. They are the ones who are failing Math miserably. They are the ones that come home at night and tell you their parents, how much they hate Math. And that school is a colossal waste of time. They are the ones who sleep through the entire Math periods at school. Or don’t even show up at all. They are the ones who avoid Math homework, and they are the ones who NEVER consider the highly paid Math related professions.
What is the solution to this chronic problem in our country, you might ask? What can we as a people do better? Well for one thing we definitely have to stop doing the same old things. IT’S NOT WORKING! We need to step away from the chalking and talking and move toward total student involvement in the learning process. We need to incorporate movement into our classrooms so that our students are not being bored to death. We need to allow our kids to learn from each other through team working. We need to teach our kids that Math is not just about memorizing math facts and that Math is logical, it requires reasoning, questioning, team working, constructive criticism, ups and downs. We need to teach our kids that it is 100% OK to fail and keep trying. We need to inject in our kids that Math learning requires passion, it’s relevant and most importantly it’s fun! At the end of the day kids are kids, and if the things they are learning are irrelevant to them and are absolutely boring, they disengage and learning never happens anyway!
If you’re a parent, an educator, a minister of Parliament or a ministry official reading this, ask yourself why in the 21st century on our tri-island state, only 38.59% of our students who finished secondary school this year passed Math? And then allow yourself to further consider the fact that 61.41% of our nation’s children who finished school in 2019 have all been locked out of high paying jobs, university degrees that require Math, and a host of other career opportunities. We are failing our children. We are with open eyes, walking them to the gates of failure, and it’s high time that we STOP! Let’s stop talking and start DOING something about this problem.
Tamara Stuart-Barry is a math enthusiast, former vice-principal of Grace Lutheran School and Current Grade 3 Teacher in British Columbia, Canada.