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Provinces stick with ‘discovery math’ despite back-to-basics push

Kayvern Lewis, 12, completes a test to determine her math and English skills on Aug. 31, 2012.

FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Provincial governments, including Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, are staying the course on mathematics curriculums, despite a growing movement pushing for reforms.

Groups of parents and some educators are demanding education ministries dial back so-called "discovery math" teaching techniques, which encourage students to use complicated, often open-ended methods of breaking down equations instead of traditional formulas and memorization.

But the provinces are defending discovery math, arguing it gives children broader problem-solving skills that are useful in everyday life.

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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals said Wednesday the province is not planning a shakeup of its curriculum in the face of worrying scores on both its own exams and tests administered by the OECD. Instead, Ontario is putting $4-million into giving teachers better math training.

"Curriculum's an ongoing review and we've already checked in with the experts to make sure that the curriculum is there," she said at an inner-city Toronto elementary school.

Ontario's curriculum, however, does not require students to memorize multiplication tables or learn basic algorithms such as long division. They are instead encouraged to break problems down into smaller portions to work through them.

British Columbia is moving further in the same direction as Ontario, reasoning discovery techniques make math less abstract.

"We have not made the transformation to individualized learning that we need to … [students] have not been able to necessarily make that direct connection to everyday living outcomes," Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in an interview. "We need to transform that to something new so that we can actually focus in a meaningful way on [real world] skills."

Ian VanderBurgh, director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing at the University of Waterloo, says the value of discovery learning is to develop peoples' abilities to think problems through. "The more problem-solving that you've done whether it's in math class or in science class or in one's job in the real world, the better able you are to solve the next problem that comes along," he said.

Many parents and academics agree. They successfully pushed Manitoba to amend its curriculum this year to add more basic formulas, such as adding and subtracting columns of figures.

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"You need to have basic skills if you're going to go out in order to be an apprentice in any of the trades, if you want to build a house, those kinds of things," Education Minister James Allum said. "[We're] helping kids to develop academically in order to find good jobs in the future."

The Quebec government may be facing less political pressure to switch from discovery math because of the province's strong performance on OECD scores.

"When we compare ourselves to others with results like that, we see we're on the right path," said Caroline Lemieux, who speaks for the Quebec federation of school boards.

But some educators in Quebec say the province is succeeding in spite of its curriculum. A major Quebec teachers' union is pushing legislators to bring back an approach that teaches the basics.

If Quebec has done well in international testing, it's because educators have resisted Quebec's reforms and insisted on teaching and testing children on essentials like multiplication tables, said Nathalie Morel, vice-president of the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement, which represents 32,000 public-school teachers mostly in the Montreal area. "We refuse to say … that systematic teaching is passé. On the ground, in the schools, teachers are still asking children to memorize their tables."

With reports from Andrea Woo in Vancouver, Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Allan Maki in Calgary

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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