Doug Ford says ‘discovery math’ is hurting Ontario students’ grades. Should it be scrapped?
Ford made the pledge Tuesday, saying that the method of teaching doesn’t work and pointed to the province’s standardized math test scores.
“Math scores are going up in Quebec, they’ve gone up in P.E.I. — actually they’ve gone up in every single province except Ontario,” he said. “Here our kids are failing their test because Kathleen Wynne has failed our kids.”
Instead of discovery math, Ford said Ontario schools need to get back to teaching the basics.
“Kids used to learn math by doing things like memorizing a multiplication table, and it worked,” Ford said.
“Instead, our kids are left with experimental discovery math. That hardly teaches math at all. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon and our kids are left to fend for themselves.”
What exactly is discovery math?
Discovery math is often referred to as inquiry-based math or open-ended math, Mary Reid, an assistant professor of math education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explained.
“It’s really about having students engage in problem solving, open-ended, authentic, rich problems,” Reid said.
She explained that it’s a “misconception” that there are two separate ways of teaching math.
“When Doug Ford talks about getting rid of discovery math, what he’s doing is he’s perpetuating that math is taught in these dichotomous forms — either it’s discovery or it’s traditional.”
Here’s an example of a Grade 6 math test question that can be classified as discovery math:
Reid said that math education is incomplete without both forms being taught together.
“Arithmetic is absolutely important, but knowing when to apply those skills in a rich problem environment — that’s when you become a mathematician,” she said.
On the flip side, she said discovery math can’t be carried out without basic math skills.
“In order to solve problems efficiently and effectively, you need to know how to add, subtract, multiply, divide. You need to know how to do mental math.”
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Reid explained that discovery math has been a part of Ontario’s math curriculum since around the 1980s.
Wilfrid Laurier assistant professor Jennifer Holm told Global News that the name “discovery math” was actually a “misnomer” created by critics of the revised curriculum.
“It’s supposed to be about exploring the mathematics with a teacher who is attempting to guide the understanding so that they will be proficient in the facts as well as being able to think deeply about the mathematics,” Holm said.
Are Ontario kids failing math?
In April 2016, Ontario announced a three-year, $60-million math strategy that puts an average of 60 minutes per day of “protected math learning time” in the curriculum for students between Grade 1 and Grade 8. It also designates up to three “math lead teachers” in all elementary schools and a dedicated math professional development day.
Results released in 2017 of the province’s standardized tests – conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) – show that only half of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math, unchanged from the previous year.
And among Grade 3 students, 62 per cent met the provincial standard in math.
By Grade 9 the gap widens between the math haves and have nots. In the math academic stream, 83 per cent of students met the provincial standard, but only 44 per cent met the standard in the applied math course.
Norah Marsh, the CEO of EQAO, called the results concerning at the time and said they prove that intervention is needed in the way math is taught.
Reid explained that EQAO results should be taken seriously by parents, educators and officials. But there are also other indicators that are important — other tests, what teachers themselves are observing in the classroom, and comparing scores to different provinces and nationally.
Other indicators, however, have pointed to similar concerning statistics for Ontario students.
“Kids used to learn math by doing things like memorizing a multiplication table and it worked,” Ford said. “Instead, our kids are left with experimental discovery math. That hardly teaches math at all. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon and our kids are left to fend for themselves.”
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Ford said that the Liberals have come out and said they were going to end standardized testing but when Wynne announced the possible overhaul, it included possible changes to, not cancellation of, the EQAO testing.
“They’re trying to hide the problem but we’re going to fix it,” Ford said. “We’re going to scrap the failed discovery math and replace it with proven methods of teaching and we’re going to get rid of the failing EQAO testing model and instead introduce improved standardized testing on the skills that matter.”
How does Ontario compare with other provinces?
It’s hard to compare EQAO results across Canada as Ontario is the only province who implements it, but the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program report released in late April, examined the results of tests administered to eighth graders across the country over a six-year period between 2010 and 2016.
The report looked at tests taken by 27,000 students and found that Ontario students’ performance in math remained stagnant, while Quebec, which had the highest scores in the country, saw its results climb “significantly.”
“All provinces show a positive change in achievement in mathematics, except in Ontario where the results have remained stable,” the report said, adding the greatest gain was made in Prince Edward Island and Quebec.
Overall, the report found that from 2010 to 2016, “mathematics achievement in Canada increased by 11 points,” but that “all provinces showed improvement, with the exception of Ontario, where results remained the same as those in the baseline year.”
Results were converted onto a scale of 1,000. The majority of students in Canada score between 400 and 600, the report said. The results were also weighted by population size.
Ontario’s mean score was 508 in 2010, and 507 in 2016, a difference the report said is not significant. That was slightly below the country-wide average of 511.
Is scrapping the curriculum the solution to Ontario’s math problem?
Holm disagrees with Ford’s assessment to simply do away with the current curriculum, however, she does believe that it could “absolutely” use a refresh.
“Updating it so that those inquiry pieces are stronger in it and making sure that it’s not just about that — that there is some place for learning those facts because that is important,” Holm said. “But doing it by drill and having 50 practice problems, there’s tons of research that says that doesn’t work — for the majority of students.”
Holm said the “back to basics” or “drill and kill” has the teacher just standing in front of the room telling the students how to do something and then the students practices it “however many times in those practice problems where all the problems are identical to what the teacher has already given.”
In the new curriculum, Holm said the teacher gives the students a problem, usually based on a real-life scenario they may encounter, and they work through the math using manipulatives and models and questioning. She said they also talk about it and work in groups while the teacher goes around and answers questions, provides clarification, offers help. The class then discusses what they learned and what the math is at the end of the lesson.
Reid explained that there’s no argument about the fact that Ontario’s math curriculum needs an update, but there’s disagreement on exactly what should happen.
While Ford has thrown around the idea of axing discovery math, he hasn’t offered much detail on what a new curriculum would look like.
Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne also hasn’t explained what a revised math curriculum would entail.
Reid said she thinks that Ontario needs a greater balance of discovery and traditional math. And more specific, clear standards on what students should know — and to what fluency — in each grade.
Tools and proper training for teachers are also important, Reid said.
“Math is hard to teach, it’s not a walk in the park.”
Holm said that it’s not simply about the curriculum itself, but about who is teaching the children. She said teachers need the proper support to ensure they are fully able to enact the curriculum.
“That’s where the problem is and that it’s not being used consistently across the board because of either a lack of understanding of what the curriculum needs to be or how to do it in a classroom, a lack of resources or a lack of time to be able to do it or this idea that there is a push that you have to be able to cover every piece of the curriculum in a certain amount of time in order to be able to report it,” she said. “I think it’s a bigger issue than the document [curriculum] itself.”
Holm referenced the $60-million investment made into the Liberal government but said that they haven’t been given enough time to work.
“If this type of teaching is going to succeed, the teachers have to deeply understand the mathematics themselves.”
Math anxiety is another problem Reid says needs to be tackled. She explained that many students are hesitant to voice confusion or ask for help, which deters them from learning.
Many students also lack confidence in their own skills.
WATCH: Ontario students’ math scores not adding up
According to the EQAO standardized test in the 2016/17 academic year, only 49 per cent of Grade 3 girls in Ontario agreed with the statement they are good at math compared to 62 per cent of boys.
The difference widened in Grade 6, where 46 per cent of girls said they were good at math compared to 61 per cent of boys.
— With files from The Canadian Press
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