The earth moved in Canadian Mathematics education in late June of 2013. On June 17, 2013, Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allen introduced a significant change in Elementary Mathematics education and stated: “Let’s face it: Doing Math in your head is important.” Just eight days later, Nova Scotia Education announced a joint public-private partnership project aimed at motivating Grade 7 Math students at Halifax’s Oxford Elementary School by providing them with tablet computers and access to online mathematics resources, including lessons from Khan Academy. In heralding the pilot project, private donor Jim Spatz of Southwest Properties claimed that it was “a huge opportunity to bootstrap our whole public education system.”
What did the two different Mathematics teaching initiatives in Manitoba and Nova Scotia have in common? Each new project, in its own way, acknowledged that so-called “discovery-based learning” was falling short and helping kids to make sense of Math. The unmistakable signal sent out by the two initiatives was that providing the fundamentals is making a definite comeback in Canada’s elementary mathematics classrooms.
Discovery-based learning in elementary Math classes is now under considerable attack. A feature article written by The Globe and Mail Education Reporter Caroline Alphonso (September 20, 2013) clearly explained why. Parent concerns voiced by KItchener, Ontario parent Angus Gale were now being heard in many Canadian schools. ” The schools have such a broad concept of what they want to teach without nailing down the fundamentals of arithmetic., ” Gale says. ” They’re trying to create mathematicians, but you can’t teach that without teaching arithmetic.”
Student confusion and parent frustration with elementary Math curriculum and pedagogy have reached what Alphonso aptly described as “a tipping point.” Ontario’s Minister of Education Liz Sandals has expressed concern about lagging student Math performance levels. Kumon Math reports a 23 per cent increase in enrolment over the past three years. Spending untold hours teaching children the Math basics at home or paying rising fees for Kumon after school tutorial classes has got to stop.
A growing body of cognitive research, as well as a determined group of Mathematics professors, are now challenging the current status quo in elementary Mathematics education. Without teaching foundational skills and basic algorithms for addition, subtraction and division, discovery-based learning is simply not benefiting most young learners. National math student scores are lagging. On the 2009 OECD report of results, math performance decreased in Manitoba, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland, Alberta and British Columbia. Nova Scotia math performance has stagnated and Ontario’s most recent Grade 3 and 6 provincial test scores dipped for the fifth year in a row.
The Math teaching reform movement was initiated by two Manitoba mathematics professors, Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen. Since September 2011, the two professors have mounted a determined campaign to restore the basics and formed WISE Math – the Western Initiative for Strengthening Math Education. They are strongly supported by John Mighton, a mathematician and founder of the JUMP Math program based upon similar methods. “Kids need to know basic number facts,” Mighton says, “so they can work conceptually.”
Nova Scotia’s new Grade 7 Math Boosters pilot project is motivated by similar concerns. After attending a Harvard Management Seminar, Jim Spatz became a passionate supporter of Khan Academy. and its founder’s methods of teaching mathematics and sciences. Created in 2006 by business entrepreneur Salman Khan, the website provides more than 3,000 free instructional videos, including some very popular ones for teaching early mathematics. The Math instructional lessons, as Manitoba teacher Michael Zwaagstra recently pointed out, demonstrate time-tested methods and all of the standard algorithms, the exact opposite of the approach favoured by curriculum consultants and taught to beginning teachers in today’s faculties of education.
So far, Manitoba is the only province that has fully restored teaching of the math basics. Starting this September, the revised Math curriculum specifies that, before the end of Grade 4 all students will be expected to know the conventional ways of doing math, to be skilled at mental computation, and to master basic equations without a calculator.
Why have Canadian Mathematics educators been so slow to respond to the mounting evidence that discovery-based methods simply do not work in the early grades? What’s the real cause of lagging student performance in elementary level Mathematics — dumbed-down curriculum, flawed teaching methods, the shortage of subject specialists, or some combination of all of these factors? To what extent is the Manitoba curriculum and pedogogical reform the harbinger of changes in other provinces?