Fri | Jun 18, 2021

Complex math tasks can frustrate students

Published:Saturday | May 8, 2021 | 12:09 AM


I recently took the time to watch a Grade Four/Grade Five performance task in mathematics, hosted on YouTube and on Zoom on May 1. I was both shocked and amazed at the complexity of the tasks aimed at nine and 10 year olds. I know that the emphasis is now on critical thinking and analysis, a move away from the more abstract and mundane forms of mathematics, but we must be careful that we do not go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

One of the tasks had multiple complex parts, too extensive to explain here but, as I paid careful attention to the scenario as it was explained and worked through, certain things were obvious to me. The children present could do the multiplication and addition and division, once it was suggested to them that it needed to be done. The complex wording of the scenario was such that the majority of students could not understand what the process was and were having difficulty in getting from one step to the next.

The complexity of some of the calculations as well, I think, was a bit overbearing. For example, they had to work out the cost of a field trip in about eight different scenarios, including calculating a group rate with people left over after the group rate, which then had to be calculated at the individual rate and added to the group rate.

My curiosity aroused, I went and bought a Grade Four numeracy book which I am informed is used in our schools. In the book, I found more performance tasks which were even more complex. One of them was over seven pages long and involved over 14 mathematical stages of calculations. The wording was also complex.

One section in the problem read: “The budget has been increased to $60,000. The fraction of the money used for each spending category should be the same as the fraction of the money used for each category last year.” This, to me, is a little complicated for those in grades four and five.

My point is this. While we definitely need to start from an early age to teach critical thinking and analysis, this cannot just involve getting the children to furrow through complexly worded mathematical problems, with the hope that it will stimulate thinking. Such problems should be carefully structured and simply worded so they do not frustrate the students. Badly conceived tasks can do this, with a resultant negative effect on learning at a time in a child’s life when development should be the focus.