Students at John F. Kennedy Adult Education Centre are thriving in mathematics

By Terry Haig

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”

The thought comes from B.B. King. The words sit in a wall poster on the ground floor of the John. F. Kennedy Adult Education Centre that occupies a healthy section of a formidable concrete building that has long housed  this popular  institution of lifelong learning located in St. Michel.

The intersection is Rue Villeray and Blvd. St. Michel, part of a neighbourhood long known as a place where newcomers to Canada can settle to seek the wherewithal to find the place they want to get to in the so-called Canadian Mosaic.

Education, of course, is a key part of that search for a better life.Especially, the math part.

Turns out, math might be a terrific place to start in the quest to find a place–despite the heartache, frustration and panic trying to learn it can bring.

Math, especially as it is taught today, is about way more than just the numbers–especially when those numbers are as near as that phone in your palm.

Just ask ChatGPT:

“Mathematics is the study of patterns, structures, quantities and relationships, using numbers and symbols to describe and explain the world around us

“Math is not just a subject; it’s a universal language that helps us understand and interpret phenomena in various fields like science, engineering, economics and even everyday life.

Got  that?

Luckily for a whole lot of people, the principal and vice-principal at the John F. Kennedy Adult Education Centre get it. 

Big Time!

And they are doing their level best to make sure that the 120 or so students, ranging in age from 16 to 45, who are currently taking math as part of their studies toward a high school diploma get it as well.

The students taking math are part of a community that includes up to 600 students (both night and day) taking various levels of courses at the JFKAEC. Students shooting for a high school diploma are generally divided into three groups: Immigrants, “non-traditional learners"  and students who are “upskilling,” (taking specific courses they need to get into a CEGEP).

Regardless of their differences, it appears they all caught some crucial breaks.

To begin with, the people running the JFKAEC know their stuff.

"I would describe mathematics as a language,”  said  Vice-Principal Mauro Corneli 

“Algebra is just learning a certain type of syntax. I always tell my students that, in fact, mathematics is an easier language than English or any other natural language 

“The syntax is simpler, the language is more precise. Yeah, it does cause anxiety and a lot of other associated learning behaviour challenges and that is the thing that a lot of our teachers are really directing and focusing their attention on…it’s not necessarily struggling with the content specifically, but the learning behaviours that come with learning math.

“It comes with anxiety, it comes with difficulty managing time, and how to figure out how to study more effectively for a particular test.” 

And when it comes to teaching math, one size does not fit all.

“The specific challenges that a student brings is going to be unique to them because a lot of them come with different experiences,” said Mr. Corneli. “ Though, generally, many–though not all of them–struggle. The reason they struggle can be different. It’s something that develops in early age. It’s not something that develops later on.”

Adult Education students learn math with the   modular approach and not one end-of-the-year final exam. A nine-month course can be reduced to three months.

“They will do a section of the program, do a pre-test, a practice test, then they will do an exam on that one section. If they pass, they go on to the next module,” Ms. Lagodich explained, 

While the students may come from many different backgrounds and circumstances, most–if not all–are seeking a second chance, after not fitting into their previous traditional education models for varying reasons.

When they succeed, the benefits can be heady.

“Mastering math opens doors,” Ms. Lagodich noted. “It opens a lot of doors, not only in terms of opportunities but also in confidence. Students realize, ‘Oh, I’m capable of doing this. I’m smarter than I think I am, than I thought I was.’” 

“They're realizing things about themselves they didn’t know before,” added  Mr. Corneli.

“When you're in an adult education environment, there is a lot of classroom management  that you don’t have to handle,” said Corneli. “It opens up a lot of avenues of engagement. They are students who have families.  I think the students here have a  lot more flexibility in our classrooms than they did within their high school setting.”

Math, according to Ms. Lagodich, requires precision that some say might be missing in other disciplines. “We try to make strong connections with our students, take into account their situation, take into account their anxieties,” she said.  

“Central to that is critical thinking in a broader sense,” Mr. Corneli continued. “I don’t think it’s just critical thinking that’s based on the content they’re looking at, say mathematics.

“Because a lot of the trouble we have is getting students to do things that develop skills that they didn’t have when they were younger, and it comes back to the skills we are teaching–skills like executive functioning skills, how to organize themselves, how to do all the things they need to do.”

So in the end, what’s the point of learning math in an age when the proper answer can be supplied by a store-bought device?

“It comes back to those analytical skills, said Mr. Corneli. “That’s what’s really, really important. That’s what you really want to be training.  What I tell my students…when they ask why we can’t just calculate something using a calculator, I tell them again, ‘if you are obsessed with the result, or the answer, you have a tendency to think that way. But  if you are focused on the process, which is what we’re focussed on, you get the sense that someone programmed that calculator, right?  We want to figure out how that stuff works cause that’s the interesting stuff. And, yeah, most students see that, they recognize this.”

John F. Kennedy Adult Education Centre is located at 3030 Villeray. For more information call 514-374-2888 or log on to 



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