Editorial: New Math is hampered by the Old Math

March 11, 2014
Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

A divisive argument has emerged over curriculum and discovery learning. The catalyst for the debate was the 2012 PISA results released in December. Those results showed that since 2009, Alberta students had dipped from 9th to 10th place in world ranking.

A 2 per cent reduction in our raw score on math over a period of three years led to ministerial handwringing, parents initiating petitions, newspaper columnists launching crusades and CEOs descending from on high to chastise teachers. These reactions are undermining the government’s curriculum redesign initiative to update curriculum by 2016 to reflect the values of Inspiring Education. Critics argue that the redesign will see the erosion of fundamental skill development expand from math to other areas of the curriculum.

In a previous editorial, I supported discovery-based learning techniques used in balance with important fundamental skills and strong mental mathematics. Today, however, in light of recent information, I see that a problem exists with discovery learning.

To use an inquiry-based approach successfully, teachers present students with a provocative question based on a curricular outcome. From that point on, teachers act as guides and use probing questions and side coaching to help students explore the question and find their way towards the learning objective. When it works, it is beautiful and powerful. Students retain and recall their knowledge with confidence—much more so than after they have completed a mad minute or a skill-and-drill worksheet. When it doesn’t work, students become frustrated and they feel lost and anxious. The frustration leads to parents sending their kids to tutoring and signing petitions.

What is needed here is balance. Teachers, as professionals, should be empowered to find the right opportunities—based on an assessment of student needs and curricular outcomes—to use discovery learning activities. The curriculum should not dictate what strategies are used and when. It is a pedagogical decision for teachers to make, not a curricular one for government to make.

Let’s be honest about why discovery strategies might not be working as well as they should. The process takes time and requires teachers to make careful observations of student behaviour and learning. The teacher needs to constantly assess individual student progress, provide feedback and direct the next steps of learning. That type of individualization does not work in classes of 25, 30 or 40 students.

The problem is not the New Math so much as it is the Old Math. The number of teachers relative to the number of students today is as low as it was in 2003, the year that Alberta’s Commission on Learning (ACOL) instructed government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce class sizes. Today’s average class size is about 17 per cent over the evidence-based recommendations of ACOL.

If we want student learning to improve and if we want a truly individualized learning environment, then we need adequate funding to make it happen—41,000 students taught by 100 teachers just doesn’t cut it. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.