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Math education in Manitoba

June 27, 2012 — 

Dr. Ralph Mason encourages a strategy that benefits all students

Dr. Ralph Mason Photo

Dr. Ralph Mason

Educating pre-service teachers how to teach math more effectively to help every school-aged child succeed is the primary goal of Dr. Ralph Mason. For over 20 years he has been guiding beginning teachers as they develop the crucial understandings necessary to teach a highly scrutinized subject area. His dedication to his students, to teachers in the field, and to the subject of Math Education and curriculum development has provided him the opportunity to work with Manitoba Education as they explore new strategies for math education in the province. In addition, his work with the Manitoba Education Research Network (MERN) and local school divisions and their schools is helping to transform math education at a grassroots level.

In 2005, Dr. Mason initiated a study called Trajectories of Students’ Learning High School Mathematics and Science. Trajectories was a five-year longitudinal study that explored students’ pathways through high school mathematics and science. The study used school records for a single grade cohort across three schools, and followed sixty students through face-to-face interviews for five years from grade eight to graduation. It focused on the students’ academic decisions throughout their high school experiences and the development of their personal identities as students and learners as they respond to the challenges and successes they experienced in the courses. Trajectories was funded through the Imperial Oil Academy and CRYSTAL project and continues to be a source of action possibilities and examples for secondary mathematics reform.

Through Trajectories, Dr. Mason and his research team listened to students who had perceived themselves as good at math during their middle years in school before struggling in high school math classes. They reported that, prior to high school, these students did well on tests even though they rarely studied for their math and science classes, did not need to listen closely in class, and often did little of the assigned practice. As a result, these students did not develop the learning processes that they needed to understand when they encountered purely symbolic algebra. When they arrived in high school, those students who succeeded developed their own effective ways of taking notes, asking for help, doing homework, and studying—but many did not.

Dr. Mason explained that, “Over the years of our study the number of students who had identified themselves as successful math students reported a steady slide downhill. In Manitoba, algebra is a gatekeeper, and at least 40% of our students are ill prepared for the mathematics of grade 9.”

Dr. Mason’s Trajectories study identified that the gap in readiness is not just a lack of prior content and a lack of prior skills. He explains that, “Years of lack of success in math and lack of understanding of the ideas behind the arithmetic rules that students cannot remember or perform with fluency or accuracy, has taken a substantial toll on their confidence in themselves as learners of mathematics. We know that strategies like mad minute drills and flash cards for basic facts do not work well for all students. As a result, it is important for teachers to find ways to enrich the educational experience of students who are still learning their facts through practice by providing visual representations onto which they can attach meanings for those facts. At the same time, our study recognizes that with such an approach, the students who already have fluent and accurate recall can further enrich their understandings by discovering the multiple uses for those arithmetic operations.”

In a recent presentation to Manitoba Education as part of the Manitoba Education Math Summit, Dr. Mason welcomed the public scrutiny of math education. He also addressed the popular methods assumed to improve math teaching and learning by emphasizing that the education of a child is not a simple endeavor that can be achieved by enacting simple solutions.

“Mathematics, classrooms, cognitions, and mathematics education is complex, and so are the factors that effect each learner and teacher in each classroom. All of these items are inter-related, and demand changes to be initiated in multiple areas at once. Simply changing policy like banning calculators or mandating multiplication fact fluency by the end of grade three will not improve math literacy. A student’s success in math is achieved by the interplay of multiple factors: opportunities to learn, interpersonal support, motivation and intention, and personal identity.”

In addition to his work in the Faculty of Education, Dr. Mason has also been instrumental in MERN, for which he was recognized at the MERN Awards Luncheon that took place on June 14th, 2012. At this event he was recognized for his work with the Arts Smarts Research project where he helped teachers and artists negotiate lesson plans to teach all subjects including math, and to help teachers sustain the art based approach after the artists had left. As part of the Appreciative Inquiry project, Dr. Mason helped teachers, administrators, and division leaders in the Sunrise School Division with an approach to goal setting and collaborative leadership. Finally he was also recognized for his commitment to MERN from its inception, and for the generous sharing of his research which continues to improve the quality of education for all students in Manitoba.

Dr. Mason regularly presents at important academic forums such the American Education Research Association (AERA), the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE/SCÉÉ), and at Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group (CMESG) conferences. For more information on his academic history and research please visit the Faculty of Education, Faculty Directory.



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