Tuesday 26 April 2011

NDG's Green Gal--Jessica Gal, that is

This past Easter weekend, NDG’s Green Gal—the intrepid Jessica Gal—found the time to come and talk with me. And so, feeling a tad biblical (even though it isn’t part of my Bible), I will take her last comments first. Even though the Green Party isn’t my party, I respect Jessica’s commitment to her ideals and admire her motivation in trying to make her city, province, and country a better place.

So, in this latest election, her third, why does she do it? “Democracy,” she says. “If you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s our responsibility as citizens to be involved. People have fought and died for this right. That means a lot to me.”

Jessica has run once for the provincial Greens, a party she helped create, and twice for the federal party. She says she wouldn’t be involved in politics if it weren’t for the Greens. She appreciates their incredible diversity, and says they attract a different sort, people united by a common set of values: “they ‘get it,’ they understand that we need to rebuild our society to be sustainable for the future because we’re about to hit a brick wall, environmentally.”

Canadians, Jessica says, don’t realize how much our country’s reputation has been damaged on the world stage. “It’s vital to get Canada on track to be a leader in the global sustainable economy, instead of winning fossil of the year awards.” But the Green Party isn’t only concerned with the environment (or their leader, Elisabeth May’s, disqualification from the single televised party leaders’ debate). Proportional representation is also a crucial part of their platform. She also says the current electoral process is often “very misunderstood” by the population.

In door-to-door campaigning, Gal often meets people “who speak of ‘the need to vote strategically.’ Even when they’re voting in a very safe riding,” one that is certainly not about to turn Conservative. “People don’t understand the system. People should feel completely free to vote their choice.” Proportional representation means the number of seats each party receives corresponds to the real measure of public opinion. A government ruling with 35 per cent of the actual vote? “That’s a poorly functioning democracy right there. That makes people feel that their vote doesn’t count, resulting in lowering of voter turnout and increasing public apathy.” Making things worse, she adds, “are the kind of stunts that this Conservative government has engaged in—prorogation, disrupting committee work, Ministers and bureaucrats not allowed to speak out.”

She recommends Elisabeth May’s book Losing Confidence, which looks at the evolution of our political system over the past several decades, and also the recent history of the Conservative Party. Sometimes the Green Party is criticized for “splitting the left. But it’s partly the Red Tories coming to us. We attract more students than any other party, and also more of those who had stopped voting. We’re the only party to have steadily increased our vote over the past few years.”

Canadians have to talk about the shift the economy has to make. “We have to get the price right—the price on carbon, on pollution, and on packaging.”

So what makes Jessica run? “I want people to have the option of voting for something they can feel good about, instead of the lesser of two evils. One person can make a difference.”

To find out more about Jessica and her party, please visit www.ndglachinegreenparty.org. Find her on Twitter at @NDGLachineGreen.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Some math symbols more = than others

Apparently, a not-so-funny thing happened on elementary students’ way to higher mathematics — most of them were left without a proper understanding of the equal sign. This problem can get in the way of success later on in tackling algebra and, because algebra is a “gatekeeper” to higher mathematics, misunderstanding the equal sign can even ultimately influence a student’s choice of career.

Concordia’s Helena Osana, a professor in the Department of Education, is part of a three-year $157,000 research program, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, that’s trying to understand this phenomenon and rectify it, working closely with elementary schoolteachers every step of the way.

Osana, an educational psychologist who focuses on working with math teachers, says her ultimate goal is “to enhance children’s thinking about mathematics, particularly at the elementary level.” The project is being done in collaboration with Jeff Bisanz, director of the Centre for Research in Child Development at the University of Alberta and a developmental psychologist in their Department of Psychology.

Over the past 10 years or so, Osana says, educators have been paying more attention to the problems children have with the equal sign. “Research showed that when children were confronted with a non-standard problem, for example, worded like this one: ‘What number would you put in the blank to make this a true number sentence? 8 + 4 = ___ + 5,’ the majority of elementary schoolchildren — from Grade 1 all the way to Grade 6 — will say the answer is 12. And that’s because they think that the equal sign means ‘The answer comes next,’ instead of realizing that what really matters is that the total on each side of the equal symbol is the same.”

There are probably many reasons why this deficit occurs, Osana continues: Often, children aren’t offered explicit instruction about the equal sign, and it’s also possible that frequently used standard equations (e.g. 8 + 4 = 12) in effect train students to misunderstand the meaning of the symbol. “It is possible for children to think accurately about the equal sign, but teachers must pay attention to it in the classroom. We’re working on ways of teaching this explicitly.”

Year 1 of the project, conducted at the University of Alberta, was spent teaching children in grades 2 to 4 to solve non-standard equations using various methods in a laboratory setting. Now, in year 2 of the project, Osana’s team is bringing the techniques that worked in the lab to Montreal classrooms. But they realize that lab-approved methods aren’t always equally successful in a classroom setting. “Lab activities are very controlled. In class, kids behave very differently. They’re allowed to ask questions and to talk to the teacher and to each other. There are many more variables. What we’re doing is working with the teachers so that our solutions have greater validity in a natural class setting.”

Seven Montreal-area teachers, each teaching two math classes, are part of the project. Osana’s team will lead three daylong professional development (PD) seminars for the teachers. “At the first meeting, we explained the kinds of misconceptions students have about the equal sign. Teachers were shocked to learn only two to ten per cent of students in elementary school are able to solve non-standard problems, even if they have good addition and subtraction skills.”

Following each PD session, teachers return to work with their students. In a subsequent session, Osana says, “we showed the teachers several techniques, some laboratory- tested and others not, that would help students master this concept. We’re asking them to implement these methods and then give us feedback on what worked.”

Osana and her team meet the teachers next in May. Meanwhile, they will videotape math sessions in the 14 classrooms through most of April. “We’ll be learning a lot by observing students’ discussions and by being responsive to any modifications the teachers make.” Those gleanings will be put in practice in year 3 of the program, this time in Alberta classrooms. Ultimately, the research findings will be used across Canada to help improve the teaching of mathematics.

“Our program distinguishes itself by relying on teachers. We’re not going into the classroom and telling them what to do. We recognize that teachers are classroom experts, so we’ve got a true partnership going to develop techniques that will work in real-life settings.”