Education

Why are these kids so bullish on mathematics?

JUDY DOBBIE December 12 1977
Education

Why are these kids so bullish on mathematics?

JUDY DOBBIE December 12 1977

Why are these kids so bullish on mathematics?

Education

The classroom doesn’t even vaguely resemble one a person over 30 would recollect. For one thing, the enthusiasm of the 66 grade eight students is almost palpable. For another, it is not really a classroom at all, but a city: Notlog, Ontario, population 13,200. The evidence is all around. A boy is checking out a bond issue at the Central Stock Exchange. A girl is making calls from the class’s rickety telephone booth to raise money for the hospital building fund. A small group is studying the “positions available” board at the local Manpower office. Others are shopping for home models at the contractor’s, working with the architect to customize their chic Victorian townhouses, arranging mortgages with the trust company manager, making up a budget of household expenses. Bruce Potts, 13, is rustling up investors for his restaurant. Geneva Ledlow, 13, is trying to figure out how much she, as a lawyer, should charge for her services. When $ 100 an hour is suggested as a top rate, she replies, “Is that all?” Strutting cockily through it all is 13-year-old pulp and paper scion Mike Heitshu.who is trying to recruit a “flack” for his milling operations. When

he says, as an aside, “I’m going to be a millionaire one day, you know,” it’s without a hint of doubt.

For anyone who wonders where tomorrow’s economic and social elite is getting

its direction, the mathematics class of team teachers Brian Taylor and David Clyne at Deer Park Public School is a good place to start. Reputed to be one of the top-ranked elementary schools in Toronto in terms of innovative teaching methods, Deer Park is, in many ways, a public prep school for the children of the upwardly mobile business and professional class. Drawing most of its 600 students from well-heeled neighborhoods such as Rosedale, Moore Park, Forest Hill and the Annex, it also attracts a small number of commuters from distant areas on the basis of its graduates’ subsequent record of academic success. Clyne, who has taught there for 10 years, estimates that 90% of his students will go on to university. “There is a great deal of parental pressure to succeed, and the kids feel it,” he says.

Theorizing that as adults their students will, at one time or another, require the practical ability to apply all the math principles they have been taught so far, Taylor and Clyne have developed an integrated approach to math teaching which uses simulation to transform theory into practice. “We weren’t happy with the textbook method,” says Taylor. “It’s all been taught before, but it’s never stayed with them.” Learning is most effective in real-life situations, he believes. “Math is real. It exists out there in the world, and that’s where it’s important.”

Last year, Taylor and Clyne tested their theory with a small number of highly motivated students. Given a phantom $ 100,000 each to invest in the stock market, the students established their own brokerage firm—Toresco Incorp.—and in six months multiplied their original capital 15 times over. “These kids understand money,” says Clyne.

Simulating the world in a classroom setting is what this year’s expanded project is all about. Notlog is, in effect, a city created by the students using only a few ground rules set down by their teachers. These stipulated that Notlog was situated on a river, its major industry was a privately owned lumber mill located upstream, it had a civil service with $20 million to pump into the local economy and a charitable foundation with a two-million-dollar budget. Every citizen started with a $10,000 bank account to “save, invest or spend” as he chose.

From there, the students were chal-

lenged to decide what kind of labor force

they needed to sustain the services and structures they wanted, and to arrange among themselves which occupations to assume. Naturally enough, the world as perceived by the average Deer Park student is not one of subsidized housing, repossessed cars and scrambling to afford admission to the zoo. Thus, everyone in Notlog owns his home, entrepreneurs abound, and there is no unemployment. So far, for example, there is a casino owner and a car dealer, but no one has volunteered to be a bus driver or garbage collector. Presumably, the latter are not indigenous to the Deer Park community.

“Every student will be required eventually to do a presentation on the type of math used in his work,” explains Taylor. “One week it will be the math of the architect, then the carpenter, the town planner, and so on.” In the end, each student will be accountable—via tests—for all the math activities needed to function as a member of the community, from mortgage financing and income tax preparation to measuring a house lot and keeping a payroll. “We’ll have a group of kids excited about learning who understand everything they need to know about math at a grade eight level,” says Taylor optimistically. At the same time, he adds, they will learn about themselves, about one another, about working together, about their own city and how it works.

“What’s important here is the integrative approach,” says math specialist Dr. H. Laurence Ridge of the University of Toronto’s faculty of education. “It means there’s a much better chance of these youngsters retaining their skills.” According to Ridge, the “genuine atmosphere of learning” that Taylor and Clyne have created is an example of exceptionally progressive math education. “This type of experience could go a long way toward overcoming the fear and reticence most people in this society have about things mathematical,” he says.

Talking to Notlog’s inhabitants, it becomes clear the process is already underway. Says 13-year-old Kathy Thiesenhausen, who took to the idea coolly at first: “I’m really not very good at math, but this is more like a game. I’m learning more than I thought I would, and it gets more interesting as you go along.” Bruce Potts echoes her enthusiasm: “I’m one who hates school, but this is one class I really enjoy. It’s so much more fun than going through a book.”

JUDY DOBBIE