Archive for the ‘Curriculum Reform’ Category

Ontario’s Mathematics program for Kindergarten to Grade 12 has just undergone a significant revision in the wake of the continuing decline in student performance in recent years. On June 24, 2020, Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveiled the new mathematics curriculum for elementary school students with a promised emphasis on the development of basic concepts and fundamental skills. In a seemingly contradictory move, the Minister also announced that the government was cancelling next year’s EQAO testing in Grades 3 and 6 to give students and teachers a chance to get used to the new curriculum.

While the Doug Ford Government was elected in June 2018 on a “Back to the Basics” education pledge, the new mathematics curriculum falls considerably short of that commitment. While the phrase “back to the basics” adorned the media release, the actual public message to parents and the public put more emphasis on providing children with practical skills. Financial literacy will be taught at every grade level and all students will learn coding or computer programming skills, starting in Grade 1 in Ontario schools. A more detailed analysis of the actual math curriculum changes reveals a few modest steps toward reaffirming fundamental computation skills, but all cast within a framework emphasizing the teaching of “social-emotional learning skills.” 

The prevailing “Discovery Math” philosophy enshrined in the 2005 Ontario curriculum may no longer be officially sanctioned, but it remains entrenched in current teaching practice. Simply issuing provincial curriculum mandates will not change that unless teachers themselves take ownership of the curriculum changes. Cutting the number of learning outcomes for Grades 1 to 8 down to 465 “expectations” of learning, some 150 fewer than back in 2005, will be welcomed, especially if it leads to greater mastery of fewer outcomes in the early grades.

The parents’ guide to the new math curriculum, released with the policy document, undercuts the “back to basics” commitment and tilts in a different direction. The most significant revamp is not the reintroduction of times tables, teaching fractions earlier on, or emphasizing the mastery of standard algorithms. It is the introduction of a completely new “strand” with the descriptor “social-emotional learning skills.” That new piece is supposedly designed to help students “develop confidence, cope with challenges, and think critically.” It also embodies the ‘discovery learning‘ approach of encouraging students to “use strategies” and “be resourceful” in “working through challenging problems.”

Ontario’s most influential mathematics curriculum consultants, bracing for the worst, were quick to seize upon the unexpected gift.  Assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Mary Reid, widely known for supporting the 2005 curriculum philosophy, identified the “social-emotional learning” component as “critically important” because it would “help kids tremendously.” That reaction was to be expected because Reid’s research focuses on “math anxiety” and building student confidence through social-emotional learning skills development.

Long-time advocates for higher math standards such as Math teacher Barry Garelick and Ottawa parent Clive Packer saw the recommended approach echoing the prevailing ‘discovery math’ ideology.  Expecting to see a clear statement endorsing mastering the fundamentals and building confidence through enhanced competencies, they encountered documents guiding teachers, once again, toward “making math engaging, fun and interesting for kids.” The whole notion that today’s math teachers utilizing traditional methods stress “rote memorization” and teach kids to “follow procedure without understanding why” is completely bogus. Such caricatures essentially foreclose on serious discussion about what works in the math classroom.

How does the new Ontario math curriculum compare with the former 2005 curriculum?  Identifying a few key components allows us to spot the similarities and differences:

Structure and Content:

  • New curriculum: “clear connections show how math skills build from year to year,” consistent for English-language and french-language learners.
  • Former 2005 curriculum: Difficult to make connections from year-to-year, and inconsistencies in expectations for English-speaking and French-speaking learners.

Multiplication and division:

  • Grade 3, new curriculum: “recall and demonstrate multiplication facts of 2, 5, and 10, and related division facts.” In graduated steps, students learn multiplication facts, starting with 0 X 0 to 12 X 12 to “enhance problem solving and mental math.”
  • Grade 3, 2005 curriculum: “multiply to 7 x 7 and divide to 49 ÷ 7, using a variety of mental strategies (e.g., doubles, doubles plus another set, skip counting) No explicit requirement to teach multiplication tables.


  • Grade 1, new curriculum: “introduced to the idea of fractions, through the context of sharing things equally.”
  • Grade 1, 2005 curriculum: Vague reference – “introducing the concept of equality using only concrete materials.”

Measurement of angles:

  • Grade 6, new curriculum: “use a protractor to measure and construct angles up to 360°, and state the relationship between angles that are measured clockwise and those that are measured counterclockwise.”
  • Grade 6, 2005 curriculum: “measure and construct angles up to 180° using a protractor, and classify them as acute, right, obtuse, or straight angles.”

Graphing data:

  • Grade 8, new curriculum: “select from among a variety of graphs, including scatter plots, the type of graph best suited to represent various sets of data; display the data in the graphs with proper sources, titles, and labels, and appropriate scales; and justify their choice of graphs “
  • Grade 8, 2005 curriculum: “select an appropriate type of graph to represent a set of data, graph the data using technology, and justify the choice of graph”

Improvements in the 2020 Math curriculum are incremental at best likely insufficient to make a significant difference. Providing students with effective instruction in mathematics is, after all, what ultimately leads to confidence, motivation, engagement, and critical thinking. Starting with confidence-building exercises gets it all backwards. Elementary mathematics teachers will be guided, first, to developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills:  (1) identify and manage emotions; (2) recognize sources of stress  and cope with challenges; (3) maintain positive motivation and perseverance; (4) build relationships and communicate effectively; (5) develop self-awareness and sense of identity; (6) think critically and creatively. Upon closer scrutiny these are generic skills which are not only problematic but also entirely unmeasurable.

The fundamental question raised by the new Ontario math curriculum reform is whether it is equal to the task of improving stagnating student test scores. Student results in English-language schools in Grade 3 and Grade 6 mathematics, on EQAO tests, slid consistently from 2012 to 2018. Back in 2012, 68 % of Grade 3 students met provincial standards; in 2018, the mean score dropped to 58 %.  In Grade 6 mathematics, it was worse, plummeting from 58 % to 48% meeting provincial standards. On international tests, Ontario’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) Math scores peaked in 2003 at 530 and dropped in 2013 to 509, then recovered slightly in 2018 to 514, consistent with the provincial slide (See Graph – Greg Ashman). Tinkering with math outcomes and clinging to ineffective “mathematical processes” will likely not be enough to change that trajectory.

Building self-esteem and investing resources in more social and emotional learning (SEL) is not enough to turn-around student math achievement. Yet reviewing the new mathematics curriculum, the Ontario curriculum designers seem to have lost their way. It all looks strangely disconnected from the supposed goal of the reform — to raise provincial math standards and improve student performance on provincial, national, and international assessments.

What’s the real purpose of the new Ontario mathematics curriculum reform?  Does the latest curriculum revision reflect the 2018 commitment to move forward with fundamentals or is it a thinly-disguised attempt to integrate social and emotional learning into the program?  Where is the evidence, in the proposed curriculum, that Ontario education authorities are laser focused on improving math standards? Will this latest reform make much of a difference for students looking for a bigger challenge or struggling in math? 

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Curriculum and pedagogy have become captives of the Machine and a few brave souls in the education world are challenging the new orthodoxy. When Leo Marx’s 1964 classic of American literary criticism The Machine in the Garden first appeared, it met with a cool reception, especially among those enthralled with the modernizing forces of the urban-industrial order. Today, that book is hailed as “the most stimulating book in American studies and the one most likely to exert an influence upon scholarship.”

Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) makes a bold, imaginative and compelling case for rediscovering the foundations of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Confronting the “deep learning” supposedly facilitated by machine learning, we are reintroduced to a sadly forgotten world where knowledge still matters and teaching is about making human connections and future-proofing today’s students.  It is, predictably,ruffling feathers in conventional progressive educational curriculum circles and even sparking the odd superficial, reactive drive-by assessment.

Robinson’s latest book is a worthy sequel to his ground-breaking 2013 education philosophy and teaching classic, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Thought-provoking and enlightening books like Trivium 21c are rarities in a field littered with turgid, politically-correct and impenetrable philosophical tombs or ‘how to’ curriculum manuals designed to advance the careers of school-system consultants.  Resurrecting the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric has a way of exposing the frail foundations and ideologically-driven research sustaining the prevailing progressive consensus, seemingly threatened by the dialectic and comfortable in its presentist assumptions.

Robinson’s highly original work is so fresh that it breaks the conventional categories and binary thinking that readily applies “progressive” or “essentialist” labels to every new contribution to the field. While Trivium 21c and Athena versus the Machine testify to the centrality of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom, it is all in the service of vanquishing machine-learning and restoring the human element in today’s classrooms.  It is a brilliant fusion of two traditions previously considered to be polar opposites and contradictions impossible to bridge in curriculum, teaching, and learning.

MartinRobinsonrED17Inspiring teachers like Robinson rarely posses the gift of being able to translate their discoveries and secrets onto the written page let alone witty, thought-provoking, elegantly-written, soundly researched books. The author, a seasoned London high school dramatic arts teacher, actually personifies what he is espousing — a stimulating, intellectually engaging, mischievous cast of mind that ignites your interest in a classroom.  Watching him in action at researchED conferences, he is a truly riveting teacher and his books further enhance that reputation.

Robinson tackles what is perhaps the central educational issue of our time — the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). His metaphoric imagery breathes real life into the educational debate and reminds us that the “beating heart” of the school is its curriculum and it should not be subsumed by globalized conceptions of the function of education or attempts to reduce it to a vehicle for social justice. “Bringing the human back” into education has found a champion.

Reading Robinson’s book one is struck by how it is informed by, and builds upon, the cutting-edge social criticism of the late Neil Postman.  Searching for a way of reconstructing a “transcendent narrative,” he shares Postman’s despair over “life with no meaning” where “learning has no purpose.” Preparing students for success in the 21st century technological world or to challenge class inequalities fill the vacuum, but further accentuate utilitarian or instrumentalist conceptions of promoting social mobility or social justice.  Fully-educated students possessing a liberal education, Robinson argues, recognize the true value of knowledge and enjoy the significant advantage of cultural mobility.

The author delights in challenging prevailing curriculum assumptions and in tweaking educators absorbed in student-centred learning who invent the curriculum in response to passing fancy or children’s immediate interests. “Curriculum,” according to Robinson, “is a dialectical pursuit framed around great narratives” and should be respectful of our “subject disciplines” which are our “great muses.”

Parroting progressive education philosophy and echoing the popular dogma of “21st century learning” are more alike than recognized by many of today’s school change theorists, curriculum consultants and their followers.  Going along with prevailing currents associated with technology-driven learning, Robinson reminds us, means succumbing to mechanized processes that feed off quantifiable outcomes. Succumbing to the “doctrine of child-centred learning” or “project-based miasma” runs the risk of producing a generation of “little Napoleons” who are “conned into thinking that they are central to the culture in which they find themselves.”

Robinson has the courage to expose some oft-forgotten educational truths. Powerful, life-altering lessons should not be reserved for upwardly mobile families attuned to the benefits of liberal education. True wisdom comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge is,” in Robinson’s words, ” not a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord of consumerist passions” and is “understandable within contexts — for example, words are most useful in sentences, paragraphs, stories, and books” (p. 142)

Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine does pay homage to the wisdom bequeathed by Western civilization without making apologies for doing so. Athena is a cleverly-constructed proxy and conduit for Robinson’s own thinking on the purpose and role of education. He points out that dismissing the traditional humanist curriculum as “white or middle class” may be easy, but it is also ill-considered. The so-called Western education tradition has deep roots going back to Muslim scholars and pre-Christian thinkers. It has also been challenged, over the centuries, and proven itself capable of thriving on argument and emotion, reason and debate, and equipping students so that they can “make up their own minds.”

Martin Robinson’s new book stands out because it is so unlike the current crop of curriculum books pouring out of California-based Corwin Publishing and featured in Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  “Computer-aided inspiration,” envisioned by Seymour Papert in his seminal work Mindstorms (1980), gave way to “computer-aided instruction” and has now morphed into digital surveillance, data collection, and measurement of outcomes. That transformation goes unrecognized in too many books offering up curriculum panaceas.

The breadth and depth of  Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine sets it apart in the field of contemporary educational philosophy and criticism. It deserves to be discussed along with some of the most influential radical education texts, such as French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul‘s The Technological Society (1954), Paul Goodman‘s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Neil Postman‘s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), and Ivan Illich‘s Tools for Conviviality (1973). We are sometimes slow to recognize books that shatter perceptions and significantly alter our understanding of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

What makes Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine such a compelling and original education book?   Can it be properly understood without reading and digesting its prequel, Trivium 21c?   Why is the book so difficult to categorize, label and dismiss? How does the current crop of system-bound curriculum books stack up against this piece of work? Will the book, like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, live on as an influential contribution to understanding societal transformation? 



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