Western Canadian Protocol

Ensuring a bright future for math education in Alberta

Wendy McGrath, special to The ATA News

Something does not add up. The 1996 results of Grade 9 achievement tests in mathematics saw only 68.6 per cent of students achieving an acceptable standard. Furthermore, of the four subject areas tested (math, language arts, social studies and science), math results were the lowest. These rather disappointing results show that we need to work to improve math performance in this province. The Western Canadian Protocol Curriculum Framework for K–12 may help achieve this aim.

The Western Canadian Protocol is a collaborative education initiative on the part of ministries of education in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories. The Protocol has a number of broad aims:

  • fostering an awareness of common educational goals
  • striving for high standards of education
  • removing obstacles to educational opportunities, and improving the ease of transfer from one jurisdiction to another
  • making optimal use of educational resources.

Mathematics was the first subject to be developed for implementation under the Western Canadian Protocol banner. However, programs are currently being developed for other subjects, including language arts, distance learning, native education and French language arts. The Protocol was implemented in September 1996 for Grades 7 and 9. The timetable for implementation of the Protocol for remaining grades is as follows: September 1997 will see the implementation of the protocol in Kindergarten through Grade 6 and also in Grade 8. In high school, the chronology for implementation is September 1988 for Grade 10, 1999 for Grade 11 and the year 2000 for Grade 12.

Currently, the Curriculum Standards Branch, Alberta Education, is working with post-secondary institutions to gain acceptance of the Protocol. According to Hugh Sanders, program manager, Secondary Mathematics of the Curriculum Standards Branch, the math Protocol emphasizes and stresses the importance of a conceptual understanding of math. Sanders feels that students are better served when they are taught the how's and why's of things, rather than simply being taught to memorize facts. According to Sanders, the intent of the Protocol is to find a better balance between technology and traditional learning methods to produce better mathematical skills. He does not limit this belief to mathematics and asserts that problem solving abilities, like those learned in mathematics, apply to all realms of daily life.

Goals of the Western Canadian Math Protocol

Sanders notes two principal expectations of the Protocol: a lower failure rate and high standards. To achieve these goals, Sanders cites the need to establish clear guidelines for parents, teachers and the public with respect to what is expected from students at the end of a given year. He notes the need for reasonable standards for students and points to the role of both government and Alberta Education in establishing these standards. According to Sanders, the more strongly teachers and parents support standards, the more students will strive to meet these standards. The protocol establishes a new set of desired outcomes grade-by-grade and course-by-course. It identifies four strands in the K to 12 program, moving beyond standard mathematical exercise of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And while Sanders admits the importance of basics ("We want students to understand why 3 x 5 = 15"), he notes that the key to learning is understanding, not memorization. "Memorizing without content is not going to help us in problem solving," he adds.

"We're expecting children to be able to use mathematics in a variety of contexts," notes Sanders and adds that the Western Canadian Protocol has captured a lot of attention because of its emphasis on consistency of standards.

According to Alberta Education, at least 85 per cent of Alberta students will achieve the acceptable standard (50 per cent or above) and 15 per cent will achieve a standard of excellence (80 to 85 per cent and above) on all subjects tested.

Sanders notes that an additional goal of the Western Canadian protocol is to address some of the criticisms of the (former) curriculum, including criticism related to the availability of resources. Sanders recalls past struggles to secure mathematics resources. Now with four provinces and two territories, a different and larger market has arisen, and obtaining relevant material has become much easier.

Sanders feels that the future of math education in Alberta is bright. But the responsibility to ensure the continuing viability of math education does not rest on the shoulders of one group alone. Teachers, government, business and industry and parents all have a stake in ensuring a promising future for math education in this province.

A teacher's perspective

Wendy Richards has been a teacher for 31 years. In addition to her teaching duties, she is also a member of the ATA Curriculum Committee, the Secondary Mathematics Advisory Committee and the Program and Assessment Advisory Committee (PAAC). Richards has also been involved in the development of the Western Canadian Protocol since its inception.

According to Richards, the new curriculum is modeled on a framework devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the organization responsible for evaluating assessment and professional standards for the teaching of mathematics. In addition to the new educational guidelines, there has been a shift in emphasis as well. Where before, problem solving was stressed, the new curriculum stresses co-operative learning, group decision making and mathematical communication skills. This new approach stems from a belief that mathematics is an important part of daily life and, in order for children to excel, they must believe this. She also notes the need for teachers of math to have a love of their subject and, particularly from the junior high level and above, some kind of math background. She dispels the general perception that anyone can teach math.

According to Richards, changes in the math curriculum in this province were needed and are welcome. One problem that existed under the old system was the duplication of efforts: the same concept might be taught consecutively in Grade 7, 8 and 9, for example, leading to teacher frustration and student boredom. She feels that the Western Canadian Protocol will help to address the issue of duplication and other issues as well.

As students continue to search for answers to math problems, teachers will continue in their quest to smoothly implement the Western Canadian Protocol. As Richards notes, there are still a few kinks to be ironed out. "Inservicing of the new curriculum is absolutely vital," she says, adding that "Consultants in local jurisdictions have virtually disappeared. So, who is responsible? The school? Alberta Ed? Individual teachers? There are questions that have to be answered."