Can Ontario fix its maths curriculum?

As a long time observer of the Canadian province of Ontario, I am given hope by news that Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne, has acknowledged the need to improve the maths curriculum.

Ontario’s maths results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been declining for some time now. My hypothesis is that this decline has been caused by a move towards a more constructivist mathematics curriculum; one that prioritises students developing their own strategies for solving simple arithmetical problems. Cognitive science suggests that it is better to memorise critical content and to explicitly teach strategies in small steps with plenty of explanation and practice. The constructivist approach is likely to fail to embed key maths facts and it is probably a frustrating experience for many students, particularly those who struggle the most.

If I am right then Ontario’s previous response to declining maths scores was never going to work. They threw money at the problem, offering more training to teachers and creating maths specialist posts. If this training and these post-holders were constructivist then this would only exacerbate the problem.

It now seems that the results from Ontario’s own system of standardised assessments has convinced politicians that something has to give, even if they have predictably led others to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with the assessments.

Here is what I predict will happen next.

Advocates for explicit instruction will be given some time in the Sun. Constructivists will paint these advocates as extremists. Constructivists will be given the job of developing the new curriculum and they will seed this with a few nods to explicit teaching and the memorisation of maths facts, claiming that it now represents a pragmatic balance that reflects the research. They will also be given the job of training teachers in this new curriculum, during which they will emphasise the constructivist elements that remain and downplay explicit teaching and maths facts. There will be articles from and clips from Dan Meyer’s TED talk.

This is a pessimistic view and I hope that I am wrong. But you have to ask; where are the academics and bureaucrats who could play it any differently? There are a few prominent Canadian voices on Twitter but, as far as I can tell, they hold no positions of authority in Canadian education and will be easily marginalised as eccentric, old-fashioned conservatives.

The only hope is that politicians hold steady. Maybe, just maybe, they have been let down often enough that they won’t be sold a turnip this time. Perhaps they will demand rigorous research based on randomised controlled trials. Perhaps they will appoint some quiet non-conformist to lead the project. It can be done. For instance, look at what British education minister David Blunkett was briefly able to achieve, in cahoots with Professor David Reynolds, under the guise of the National Numeracy Strategy.

But that involves us pinning our hopes on politicians.


15 Comments on “Can Ontario fix its maths curriculum?”

  1. Is the fall statistically significant?

  2. Tara Houle says:

    You’re not being pessimistic here Greg, you’re being a realist. Those that are now on Premier Wynne’s speed dial are the same constructivists who have been behind the scenes of Canadian and international curricula for decades. One of them, Michael Fullan is so busy talking out of both sides of his mouth that the rest of us can’t keep up. Fullan was also involved in the creation of our own new curricula in BC, the BCED plan. It’s horrible. The weakest math curricula ever created. (Education in Canada is under provincial jurisdiction, not Federal)

    So this is just a lot of hype without a lot of substance unfortunately. Those of us that have been talking publicly about this issue for years, will continue to be overlooked unless the public decide they’ve had enough. It was the only way that there was any change made in Manitoba or in Alberta, and it will be the only way it will happen in Ontario, and in BC. Parents need to be made aware that experimentation is rampant in the classrooms and the results are dire.

    And politicians will continue to do what they always do: spend taxpayer’s money on useless schemes and invite their friends onto gov’t committees, chalking up big $$ and cronyism once again.

  3. Tunya Audain says:

    The Endgame Of The “New Curriculum” Is Collectivism !

    The “new curriculum” which is distressing many folks is NOT NEW !

    In 1888 the utopian science fiction novel — Looking Backward — struck a chord with thousands of readers. Those were dismal times and Edward Bellamy’s portrayal of a totally planned economy with everyone entitled to the basics of food, shelter, education and jobs was a wonderful dream. Everyone belonged to the Industrial Army (only employment was state work) and your life was monitored from childhood as a template for the nation’s assignments. The common good was the supreme value in life. No one questioned it in the novel.

    John Dewey thought the book was the most important book ever, after Marx’s Communist Manifesto. And it was in the 1890s that Deweyism arose and remains to this day (120 years later) as a huge influence on education. Basically, it is the shrinking of individualism to be replaced with collective behavior and values.

    The reason Math is such a target is because it is too objective, too real, too clear if taught correctly. It’s through “discovery” and “inquiry” and other “experiential” methods that Math becomes more subjective, personal and loaded with “feelings”. It’s through variations of group work that you learn groupthink.

    [WHAT IRONY! This is the essay I wrote in some Canadian blog exactly one year ago. We were talking Math reform then and still are! I think the conclusions I made then still fit today!]

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    This TURNIP just came in on Ontario’s Math problem.

    Sir Ken Robinson waxing eloquent on “creativity” as usual, on Finland, as usual, on “collaboration” vs competition, as usual. Does he have a point, or misleading the serious conversations and actions demanded?

  5. Stan says:

    This link as the members of the panel that advises the government in Ontario on education.

    Until they make changes to this to get someone with interest and expertise in math and remove some of those responsible for the decline in math we should not expect improvement. There are a lot of different challenges so a wide range of expert advisors are needed.

    But perhaps it is time to thank Dr Carol Campbell or Michael Fullan for their good work where reading has been doing so well and graduation rates improving and replace them with people such as John Mighton, Anna Stokke, or Robert Craigen who can help where Campbell and Fullan are clearly failing on the math side of things.

  6. […] my recent post on Ontario’s maths curriculum, Tunya Audain left a comment linking to an interview with Sir […]

  7. Great article and really interesting comments. I agree that Ontario’s obsession with Michael Fullan is misplaced and he needs to move on. However, from what I have seen, Fullan is still the hero of the Ontario math scene and he can do no wrong. The solution to the problem of low scores in Ontario is just to train teachers harder in the inquiry-based system. You can get a good sense of this in this recent interview with Dr Mary Reid of OISE

    True enough, no one will listen to the critics as we have been marginalized and to speak out against Fullan and the dominant ideology in Ontario is a huge risk to your career in education. As you write, “There are a few prominent Canadian voices on Twitter but, as far as I can tell, they hold no positions of authority in Canadian education and will be easily marginalised as eccentric, old-fashioned conservatives.”

    The trend will continue to be to emphasise inquiry over explicit teaching and results will continue to go down. Senior administrators and ministry officials will continue to drink to constructivist kool-aid because there is little critical thinking going on and school boards demand conformity of their educators and conformity to some really bad thinking is actually the way to guarantee an advancing career for an administrator.

    How many years will this silliness continue? How long will we put the blame on teachers who just don’t get inquiry? How long with Ontario’s math curriculum be directed by people who do not need to face its consequences in the classroom?

  8. […] Greg Ashman seems to be one of the few people writing in opposition to the ongoing disaster that is math instruction in Ontario. This week, he wrote another great article on what is not working with math in Ontario – Can Ontario fix its math curriculum. […]

  9. To be skeptical about this is to be smart,I think in war,they would consider this a pivotal moment in strategic planning.
    I believe that K.R. and M.F. are allies in this war,I believe they fervently believe their own edubabble,after all,anyone can have an opinion.
    I am on the Reading side of the war and the stats are misleading because the large numbers of students labeled L.D. are not tested.
    Research is one thing,edubabble quite another,time to force them to teach explicitly K-3 and,honour research before we let the birds fly the nest.

  10. Educational platitudes and fads only hurt the most vulnerable children,with poor instruction at the heart of failure,all socioeconomic groups are at their mercy.
    I can tell you one thing for sure-teachers WANT to do what`s right for their kids,they get up for it every day,if you give them a wet rag to reduce a forest fire they will fail and that feels horrible!

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