Why Kids Struggle with Math (From the Experts)

Thursday September 21, 2017
By Kumon Canada
Math Tips

Does your child struggle with math?  They’re not alone.  According to the CBC, last year only 71% of grade 3 students met provincial standards - a number they say continues to fall. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that 4 out of 5 teachers in elementary school don’t have any math courses in their education and often come from liberal arts backgrounds.

With stats like that, it’s easy to see why kids are struggling. One man who isn’t surprised is Krishnan Venkatraman. As an instructor at the Greater Sudbury Kumon Centre, he helps kids fill in the gaps in their knowledge of math every day.  He had some ideas about the current state of math when he joined CBC’s Jason Turnbull on their Morning North program to talk numbers. He says to some degree, we need to ditch the “new” math and get back to basics.  We curated some of his thoughts below.


math tips - why kids struggle with math


What kinds of difficulties do children have with math?

When a child comes to my centre, what we find is that they have difficulty with the foundations. We find younger students struggling with number sense. Students in grade 3 and 4 struggle with the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And this seems to be a function of not enough exposure; not enough practice learning the basics. I think a false dichotomy has been created in that we only do “inquiry based math” and not the actual math itself. And therein lies the problem. It’s almost like a sucker’s choice having to choose one or the other, and neither one is true all by itself.


Explain that, why are we doing math that way?

Math was previously taught with a lot of drills and a lot of practice, so it wasn’t interesting for students. And in the process of trying to make math more interesting and giving students a rationale, we have left the fundamentals of practice behind. And having to choose one or the other… it’s not really a choice, you need to have both. So here’s an analogy that comes to mind: if I want to know the time, it’s of no use for you to tell me how to build a watch.


What about drilling? Do we still do that? Was it better before?

It helps to think of math as a language… math is a method for understanding and communicating information, just like any other language. When we learn languages, we don’t necessarily learn the logic of the development and evolution of each word in that language, we learn it for what it is. And it’s the same with math. It must be learned like a language, with memory. And that is the best way to learn the basics: to be able to apply the basics and actually use the math, to be able to communicate with math and understand it, and to be able to exploit it to its maximum potential.


What is the importance of understanding the concept of a “number”?

For younger children the number sequence is not perfectly built-in because they are exposed to problems too briefly. And I often get students in grade 8 looking at simple division problems during their assessment telling me “you know, I did this a while ago, but I don’t remember it.” And what that tells me is that students, by the time they get to grade 7 or 8, have forgotten multiplication and division just because they haven’t done it enough times. So kids end up reaching for the calculator.


What happens if a kid doesn’t do well in math at an early age?

It’s a cumulative effect. Even if they do relatively well, graduating with 70, 80, even 90 percent, there are still gaps in their knowledge. What we do at our Kumon centre is, once we assess a child for their gaps, we start working to fill them. For a student to move forward in the Kumon program, there can be zero gaps. So that means 100% mastery when they move forward. It sounds strict, but it’s essential because when they move forward, and they have no gaps; there’s 100% confidence. Students know exactly what they are doing.


Should we look at ditching the new math?

I don’t know that a ditch is necessary. What is necessary is a recognition of the fact that inquiry based math, which we do right now, where students can tell you how a problem must be solved, is important. We don’t have to ditch it, but we need to get our old math back into the system as well. The other thing that needs to be done in a classroom setting is trying to individualize education for every student, because students learn at different rates and have different abilities. It is really not that difficult to tailor a math education in the classroom for each individual, student by student.


Kumon Success Story: You have kids in grade 5 doing calculus?

We have some amazing stories from the Kumon system. The record for finishing grade 12 advanced calculus was set by a 6 year old child from Mississauga, Ontario. From our centre, we have students in grade 6 and 7 working on calculus, and children reading fluently at the age of 4. It’s possible for kids to learn at an early age, we just have to identify the gaps in knowledge and start filling them up along the way.