Are We Getting Anywhere, Yet?

The CD Howe Institute recently reported on the results of schools using "Discovery-based Methods" for teaching math.

Canadian students' math skills have been on a decade-long decline because rote learning was replaced by discovery-based methods that promoted multiple strategies and estimations, according to a report by the C.D. Howe Institute that calls for a return to tradition.

"Do you know what's the worst kind of instruction? The kind of instruction that makes kids feel stupid. And that's what a lot of that discovery stuff does"

"Their working memory gets overloaded, they're confused. That's bad instruction," said Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg's Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who wrote the C.D. Howe Institute report.

The report draws on results from national and provincial tests as well as an OECD assessment performed every three years in more than 60 countries that measures how well 15-year-olds can apply skills in reading, math and science to real life situations.

Canada fell out of the top 10 countries for math in 2012. The report notes that all but two Canadian provinces also saw statistically significant declines in their math scores, compared with their 2003 performances. Alberta, once a math leader, and Manitoba, saw the steepest drops, while only Quebec held its ground. Saskatchewan declined slightly but not enough to be considered significant. Beyond that, the pool of students at the lowest achievement levels grew while those at the very top shrank.

"You can look at it in terms of where do we rank, but when we see that our students are doing worse, relative to 10 years ago, there's no excuse for that," said Stokke. She pointed out that even Sweden, whose 2012 drop in all subjects was so severe the OECD has warned the country must reform its school system, did not see as big a decline in its math scores as did Manitoba and Alberta.

The report puts a good deal of the blame on Discovery, or experimental learning, approaches that encourage students to explore different ways to solve math problems instead of using standard algorithms, and which promote graphical tools such as drawing pictures, or using blocks or tiles to represent math concepts. The idea was that students should gain a deeper understanding of math and be better equipped to apply it to a variety of situations.

What really happens, though, says the report, is students' working memories get overwhelmed if they don't know their times tables and can't quickly put a standard algorithm to work to solve a more complex problem, both features of what's known as direct instruction. Key operations, such as addition and subtraction of fractions, are overly delayed until the middle school years, just as students need that facility to tackle algebra.

"We all feel the urgency to correct the matter soon, before too many children are lost"

Such concepts should be introduced earlier, says the report. And while it stops short of throwing discovery learning out completely, it says the curriculum balance should be tilted in favour of direct instructional methods, recommending an 80/20 split as a rule of thumb.

As reported in the National Post, May 27,2015






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