There’s more to learning than science and math

by | Jan 24, 2014 | Opinion


Jade Leung, News Editor

Over the last few years, there has been escalating concern over declining levels of mathematic abilities in Canadian and American students alike. When the results for the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment were released this past December, our national fears were affirmed: Canada has been slipping down the ranks in math and sciences.

Some experts are anxious that North Americans are losing their international competitiveness, especially to populations in China and India, where math comes readily and is almost second nature.

These fears however are greatly misplaced.

It’s called comparative advantages: if country A is particularly efficient at a certain skillset, and country B is efficient at another, they trade. Instead of focusing on areas of weakness, they concentrate their resources on their efficiencies to become increasingly competitive.

But PISA data generates a more single-minded approach to national skills. It’s an evaluation spanning 65 countries, testing aptitude levels in math, science, and reading in just over half a million students aged 15. Released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the purpose of the study is to galvanize positive educational reforms around the globe.

According to the PISA results, although Canada sits above the average worldwide score, there has been a steady decrease in its math scores over the last nine years. While reading has more or less remained the same, science scores have also been waning.

News outlets quickly reported math in our education system didn’t “add up” and parents became indignant. Since, the Ontario government has said it will be pumping $4 million into the education system throughout the year. In turn, the benefits will hopefully be passed on to the students.

The importance of a high IQ has long been emphasized. Bill Gates is notorious for being an advocate, even once quoted in a Forbes article titled “Talent Wars”, as having said, “Software is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.” In another Forbes piece, “Scary Smart”, author Rich Karlgaard said, “The surest way to become a billionaire today is to be born with a 150-plus IQ and have math SAT skills at the 800 level.”

An article in Psychology Today, “Of Brainiacs and Billionaires,” said individuals in the top 1 percentile of the highest IQ scores “produce nearly 20 times the per capita output of the bottom half.” Those with the highest IQs, according to the article, usually flock to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.

If I had a dollar every time I heard the joke that journalism students can’t even add, I’d have a lot less tuition to pay. Many of my cohorts are quick to admit, math is not their strong point.

So the question is: would forcing more math upon us during elementary and high school years change our decision to pursue our chosen field?

Practice will make younger students more apt at performing basic mathematics, but I don’t believe it would change their career ambitions. Instead of forcing students to become skilled at something they don’t care for, why not foster their wide array of interests and talents in different areas?

In a recent piece for the Globe and Mail, teacher Andrew Campbell called into question the accuracy of the PISA scores. According to the article, “Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter expressed ‘…fairly serious concerns…’ about PISA’s 2012 testing methods and data analysis, while University of Copenhagen’s Svend Kreiner calls PISA results ‘useless.’”

The article continued, “Education levels help fuel growth up to point, but once a country achieves an optimal level of education, traits like creativity, perseverance and ambition become more important.”

In a newer article in the December issue of Forbes, Karlgaard backpedaled and echoed similar sentiments. Karlgaard wrote, “Smarts is something different in the real world. It isn’t defined by 800 math SATs. It’s more about the importance of hard work, perseverance and resilience. Call it grit. Call it courage.”

I call it basic economics.