Decline of Canadian students’ math skills the fault of ‘discovery learning’

Jun 1, 2015 by

Moira MacDonald

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 new report that calls for a return to tradition.

“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 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’

“You can look at it in terms of where do we rank et cetera, et cetera, 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 a single standard algorithm and often promote concrete tools such as drawing pictures, or using blocks or tiles to represent math concepts. The idea is students will 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.

“I’m fine with a bit of discovery learning … [but] you want to make sure that you’re getting the balance right, that most of the balance is going towards instructional techniques that are actually going to work,” said Stokke.

A petition calling for a back-to-basics math curriculum in Alberta, started by Edmonton-area mother Nhung Tran-Davies, has gathered more than 17,000 signatures. It was presented to the previous Conservative government last year, with some limited success, but Ms. Tran-Davies hopes she won’t have to start all over again with the province’s new NDP government.

To that end, she is holding a forum for the public and government officials this Friday evening in Edmonton to talk about how to advance reforms and hopes new education minister David Eggen will attend.

“We all feel the urgency to correct the matter soon, before too many children are lost,” she said.

Stokke’s report also suggests elementary school teachers in training should be required to take two semester-long courses at university in math with the aim of deepening their grasp of the concepts they will be teaching. Provinces should also consider making elementary teachers-to-be write a test in that same content before they’re licensed.

Those are good ideas, said Ann Kajander, an associate professor in math education at Thunder Bay, Ont.’s Lakehead University. But she strongly criticized the research basis for recommendations against discovery-based learning techniques.

“How can we have a report that makes significant recommendations in mathematics education when absolutely none of the major mathematics education journals … are included in the reference list?” she said. “As a researcher, that’s absurd.”

The report however does cite published research in science, psychology and neuroscience.

Source: Decline of Canadian students’ math skills the fault of ‘discovery learning’: C.D. Howe Institute | National Post

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