Can Ontario fix its maths curriculum?Posted: September 8, 2017
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 youcubed.org 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.