Overcoming Innumeracy Part 2: How Do We Talk to Parents About Mathematics?

The goal of this four part blog series is to consider the following questions:

  • What is it about the way we talk about mathematics that promotes the acceptance of "I can't do that"?
  • What might we do to shift the conversation?

Inviting Parents into the Math Learning

Let’s address the elephants in the room, or rather, set them aside: “Discovery Math” and draft curriculum. “Discovery Math”, as a title, arose about the time of the beginning of curriculum rewriting years ago in Alberta. It continues to surface with negative connotation as a term describing students constructing their learning of mathematics and is often pointed to as the reason for declining test scores. The draft curriculum that has been released is also sparking attention to the “what” and the “how” of learning mathematics. This blog post will not attempt to address the notion of “Discovery Math” or draft curriculum. It will not provide details on how to address questions from parents about these topics. Instead this is written from a perspective of helping parents understand the current curriculum and inviting them into the math learning.

Current Curriculum: Problem-Solving Strategies

One misconception in the current curriculum is that students MUST learn and understand many different ways to solve problems. Another is that students do not need to recall “basic facts”.

However, the “new math” that students are being exposed to is driven from a foundation of numeracy and built on an understanding of how children learn. “Students need to explore problem-solving situations in order to develop personal strategies and become mathematically literate” (Alberta Education, 2016).

The recall of basic facts falls under the umbrella of mental mathematics, for which Alberta Education states its importance: “Mental mathematics enables students to determine answers without paper and pencil. It improves computational fluency by developing efficiency, accuracy and flexibility” (2016).

Thus students do not need to learn many ways to solve problems. They are provided opportunities by their classroom teacher to interact with different methods of finding solutions to identify that which enables them to operate as effectively as possible. “Students investigate a variety of strategies, including standard/traditional algorithms, to become proficient in at least one appropriate and efficient strategy that they understand. The teaching professional has the flexibility and responsibility to meet the learning needs of each of his or her students. Over time, students refine their strategies to increase their accuracy and efficiency” (Alberta Education, 2016).

Current Curriculum: Understanding, Interpreting, and Reasoning Mathematically

I once had the father of a student bring me his high school math notebook and remark that I should be teaching my students the same way he had learned (which, coincidentally, was also how I was taught). Unfortunately, the question of why could not be answered. Upon digging deeper into what his child actually understood about the mathematics at the time, he felt confident that the learning was at least on par with what he himself understood.

I will not quote research here (there is too much to narrow down), but I will say, as a generally sweeping statement, that we as a profession have learned much about the process of learning and the shifts in the current curriculum and the anticipation of today’s mathematics classroom are a reflection of that learning.

Alberta Education (2015) put together the Bulletin for Teachers to assist in addressing questions from parents about mathematics learning; it speaks to the expectations of the current curriculum, including the fact that students do need to know and recall basic facts as well as the application of traditional algorithms.

Anxiety Around Mathematics

Have you ever wondered about the impact of a parent’s own math comfort and understanding of mathematics on that of their child? YouCubed synthesized research that was conducted in this area and discovered that the impact on achievement in mathematics is not affected by the parents’ math knowledge, only their level of anxiety with the subject.

Imagine: a parent who is already anxious about math, who might be embarrassed their child is struggling with math, who may feel overwhelmed at trying to articulate the struggles, who wants the best for their child

A Comfortable Mathematics Conversation

So how might we support parents to become less anxious when having conversations about mathematics with their children? How might we invite parents to a more comfortable conversation about supporting their child’s math learning?

Fernandez (2015) shares strategies for parents engaging in conversation with their children about mathematics. The limitation in this article is that it requires parents to know what concepts the child is working on in mathematics in order to ask the questions. One way that we might support parents who are timid when it comes to asking about their child’s math learning might be to provide them with the conversation starters and relevant resources that they might look at together in order to fortify the math understanding and bond positively over learning mathematics.

The Understood Team (n.d.) provides a possible structure for parents to follow when approaching a teacher with questions about their child’s mathematics learning; perhaps we as educators can offer a similarly outlined conversation to parents in advance so they know what to expect when meeting with the teacher. Aligning with what we have learned from Collaborative Response, this connection could start with celebrations to set a positive tone. Rather than waiting for parents to reach out to us out of concern, or following the schedule set for parent-teacher interviews, we might extend an invitation to a conversation that is framed in a supportive way. We might shift the perspective from “Let’s talk about your child’s math struggles” to “Let’s talk about supporting your child’s math success”.

We might also frame a math conversation from around the competencies students are developing around critical thinking, problem solving, managing information, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation, cultural and global citizenship, and personal growth and well-being.

Perhaps we might approach math conversations on a grander scale, such as a Math Fair, inviting students to explore good math problems with peers, family, and community in an inclusive manner wrapped in a socially fun experience.

Regardless of the approach to the conversation, we know that we must establish and fortify the home-school relationship to reduce the anxiety and enhance the comfort around mathematics. A number of resources exist in support of these efforts.

Continuing to Move Forward

While the fundamentals of mathematics have not changed, we have a broader understanding of how to enhance mathematics instruction in support of the idea that “math is for everyone”: we are striving for a numerate (mathematically literate) society. This learning is a progression, with the expectation that what the average student can do at a particular age means that some can do more and some can do less. As teachers we are charged with ensuring students are the most accurate and efficient problem solvers that they can be with the knowledge that they have at that particular time. We know that the mathematics classroom is not the same as when parents were learning, or even perhaps when we were students.

Barack Obama said, “Change is never easy, but always possible.” By striving to support parents in supporting their children, by creating safe and positive experiences to connect about mathematics, by inviting them to participate in the mathematics learning with their child, by being transparent in our instructional practices, by fortifying the home-school relationship, and by continuing to make mathematics accessible, at some point we will be able to put to rest that notion that “I can’t do math.”


Alberta Education. (2016). Mathematics kindergarten to grade 9. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/3115252/2016_k_to_9_math_pos.pdf

Alberta Education. (n.d.). Support documents. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/mathematics-k-6/program-supports/everyone/support-documents/

Alberta Regional Consortia. (n.d.). Elementary mathematics professional learning: Parent communication. Retrieved from https://learning.arpdc.ab.ca/pluginfile.php/32846/mod_resource/content/1/Parent%20Communication.pdf

Alberta School Councils Association. (n.d.). Resources for parents. Retrieved from https://www.albertaschoolcouncils.ca/education-in-alberta/education-and-covid-19/resources-for-parents

Ferndanez (2015). How to talk to your kids about math (and why you need to). Retrieved from


Galileo Educational Network. (2021). Math fairs. Retrieved from https://galileo.org/math-fairs/

Government of Alberta. (2021). High school mathematics: My child’s learning - a parent resource. Retrieved from https://www.learnalberta.ca/content/mychildslearning/highschool_math_subject.html?section=math10

Government of Alberta. (2021). Mathematics. Retrieved from https://www.alberta.ca/curriculum-mathematics.aspx

Government of Alberta. (2015). Bulletin for teachers. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/481796/teacher_bulletin.pdf

Government of Alberta. (n.d.). High school mathematics at a glance. Retrieved from https://www.learnalberta.ca/content/mychildslearning/gradeataglance/hs_math.pdf

Government of Alberta. (n.d.). How can I help my child look forward to mathematics? Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/481819/_alberta_ed_fs_lookingforward_en.pdf

Flangan, R. (2018). Parents call for math education reform as test scores slide.

Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/parents-call-for-math-education-reform-as-test-scores-slide-1.4117570

Learning Media Limited for the Ministry of Education. (2008). Home-school partnership: Numeracy. Retrieved from https://nzmaths.co.nz/sites/default/files/pdf/HSPNHandbook.pdf

Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. (2016). Encouraging math learning at home: A guide for parents. Retrieved from http://www.catholicteachers.ca/OECTA/media/pdfs/Communications/Math%20Resources%20for%20Parents/2020/MathResourceforParentsnew.pdf

SNAP Mathematics Foundation. (n.d.). Mathfairs - Home. Retrieved from https://www.mathfair.com/

Staples, D. (2018). New program could be solution to math crisis in Alberta schools. Retrieved from https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/david-staples-new-program-could-be-solution-to-math-crisis-in-alberta-schools

Understood Team. (n.d.). Math trouble: Conversation starters to use with your child’s teacher . Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/working-with-childs-teacher/math-trouble-conversation-starters-to-use-with-your-childs-teacher

University of Alberta Department of Elementary Education. (n.d.). Parent perceptions of mathematics curriculum: Executive summary for participants. Retrieved from https://www.albertaschoolcouncils.ca/public/download/documents/53669

Author: Jennifer Ferguson