This is something that should send shivers of fear down all of our spines. If Canadian students cannot master basic math skills early on, there is no question that we will fall behind in economic competitiveness. And it will happen quickly.
But another recent news item brings a bit of nuance to the discussion. According to a Workopolis report from Nov. 26, the future will have little need for routine occupations that can be easily mechanized. Jobs such as letter carriers, typists and switchboard operators won’t even exist a decade from now. On the other hand, occupations in high demand will be in areas such as social workers and financial advisers – jobs that require technical knowledge, but also social skills, including empathy and listening. It won’t be enough to ring up merchandise (cashiers’ days are numbered), but the ability to help people make purchase decisions will be useful (sales associates are on the rise).
In other words, technical knowledge will be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. For Canada to remain competitive, we will need workers with personalities, too.
Herein lurks the more ominous danger of Canada’s faltering math scores. There’s a risk the OECD report will cause a knee-jerk reaction – educators will be lobbied by angry parents demanding “back-to-the-basics” math instruction, which would no doubt come at the expense of the liberal and creative arts. But it can’t be math instead of arts. It has to be math as well as arts. Technical skills without the creative ability to apply them are useless.
Bridges fall down without math, but they also need someone to design them. Medicine and chemistry require math, but they also require insightful people who can work in teams to solve complex problems. Resource extraction demands math, but it also demands creative solutions to daunting environmental challenges.
I’m not an educator, nor do I pretend to have the answers to education reform. But surely there is a growing consensus that our K-12 education system is still largely a remnant of the Industrial Revolution. Students are handled in an assembly line fashion, with information pounded into their heads and moved on to the next grade (for more pounding). There are encouraging signs of education reform everywhere these days, but Canada’s low scores in math may be a setback to the progress being made.
Technical skills such as math are critical, but so are social skills like imagination and creativity. This cannot be viewed as an either-or proposition – more math and less music is not the solution. How about rethinking the way we teach both, such as teaching math through music?
Our students’ low performance in math is a worry for economists. I’m even more worried about raising a generation of students who can effortlessly solve a complex quadratic equation but have no idea what to do with the answer.
This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on December 6, 2013.