The prof who pointed out the steady decline in Alta. maths students gets a rough ride
The following account was given to me last week by a person who witnessed the events it describes. Since participation in these events was confined to those invited by the Department of Education, the proceedings were closed to the public and the media. One of those invited was Dr. John C. Bowman, a distinguished professor of mathematics from the University of Alberta and a known critic of the government’s planned changes in the mathematics course. He was told that he would have 15 minutes maximum to make his case. Dr. Bowman was not asked to confirm our story, since this would involve him in a breech of confidentiality.
Now, as Dr. Bowman could see, a mere 15 minutes was on the face of it absurd. Whole books have been written for years on how to teach mathematics. What could possibly be accomplished in 15 minutes? But he also no doubt realized that he was, in the view of the department of education, a dangerous enemy. He knew far more about mathematics and how to teach it than probably any of its so-called “experts.” He had a doctorate from Princeton, had authored or co-authored more than 40 academic papers on the subject, and was a senior member of the university’s department of mathematics and physical sciences.
But there was worse. He was also in a prime position to judge the calibre of the maths students being turned out by the Alberta school system. And in a letter made public in June of 2016, he had not been sparing in his observations:
“In recent years, the high-school preparation of students enrolled in first-year Engineering Calculus and Honours Calculus courses has noticeably deteriorated. Students are not coming in with the same level of skills. Exams that were the norm 20 years ago are too difficult these days. Ten years ago the discussion among the Math 100 and 101 instructors used to be where between 50 and 55 the cut-off for a passing grade should be. The discussion now is where between 45 and 50 that passing grade should be.”
Worst of all, the bizarre change which the department was now proposing to make in the maths program would without question diminish the student performance even more. Manitoba had already adopted the same program and found it a demonstrable failure. Moreover, parents had discovered what the department planned, and their alarm was documented. In a petition, precisely 18,317 parents had signed a protest. So yes, Dr. Bowman was definitely dangerous to the department. He could have 15 minutes. Max!! And by the way, that’s all anybody will be allowed, even if it did make the whole idea of popular input look like a charade. The planners obviously knew already exactly what they were going to do on all the subjects.
Though his colleagues undoubtedly told him it was hopeless, Dr. Bowman threw himself into the job. He talked to fellow maths profs and former maths profs, he talked to students and former students, he talked to others in this science faculty and to high school maths teachers. Piece by piece, point by point, he assembled his presentation, writing, rewriting and cutting, rehearsing his case over and over, while honing it down to exactly 15 minutes.
On Friday afternoon January 20, Dr. Bowman and two colleagues arrived at the U of A Dentistry Building, the assigned site of the curriculum hearings. Something had obviously changed there. They had to show identification to get into the building.
After the prior presenters left, the doctor and party were admitted to the presentation room. There must have been sixty people in there, but it was hard to tell who was doing what. Were they all curriculum planners? And if they were not, who were they? All were talking to one another. It was difficult to see who was in charge. Assured by the department that full projection services would be provided, he delivered his computer stick and other material to an assigned projectionist. That’s when things went really wrong.
A lady responsible for the projector helped Dr. Bowman load his PowerPoint presentation, the central element in his case. He had scarcely begun it when the screen suddenly went blank. The equipment was not working. Dr. Bowman halted his speech and tried to restart the projection. The department’s computer had somehow failed, so the doctor replaced it with his own. Soon thereafter the problem was discovered in a faulty cable.
Meanwhile, the clock had been ticking. Surely, they wouldn’t count all this hopeless wrestling with electronic equipment as part of his vital 15 minutes. Then came a severe female voice above the hubbub of the crowd: “You have five minutes left, Dr. Bowman.”
He struggled on as best he could without his vital power point presentation. But soon the voice came on again to thank him and cut him off. That was that. Thus was a distinguished member of the university’s mathematics department given the opportunity to express his views and those of some colleagues on the teaching of maths to those revising the school maths curriculum.
Where were the media? Where were public observers? Why wasn’t this covered? Covered? Don’t be silly. These presentations are, like so much else in the curriculum revision, strictly confidential. Open them to the public and who knows what might be said?
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered