Nova Scotia math curriculum 'doesn't make any sense': education expert

Nova Scotian students scored below the national standard in test results released this week. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program results look at how students in Grade 8 are doing.

N.S. students scored below national standard in Pan-Canadian Assessment results released this week

The government is always open to improving the curriculum, said Boulet, and she said there are aspects of the math curriculum which are good but she said they're not properly put together. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

An expert in math and teacher education says the way math is taught in Nova Scotia "doesn't make any sense."

Nova Scotian students scored below the national standard for math in test results released this week. Nova Scotia placed sixth in the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program results, which look at how students in Grade 8 are doing.

Local students scored well in overall reading proficiency, but lower on math and science.

Geneviève Boulet is the director of teacher education and an associate professor in Mount Saint Vincent University's faculty of education. She also has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a PhD in educational mathematics. 

"I think the approach is well intentioned. The problem is it's not well done," she told the CBC's Information Morning.

Kids no longer 'human calculators'

Boulet points out that the so-called "new math" — the way math is now taught to students, focusing more on conceptual mathematics than core ideas like multiplication, division, decimals and fractions — isn't new at all. It was introduced to the Nova Scotia curriculum in 1995. 

"For a long time we trained kids to be calculators, human calculators. You had to know your facts quickly, to be able to calculate in your head quickly," Boulet said. 

Boulet said students are no longer "human calculators," memorizing multiplication and division tables. However, the piecemeal way children are taught in recent years doesn't give them a good concept of how fractions fit in to whole numbers.

"Instead of treating them as numbers, they treat them as two separate numbers and they never quite get the grasp of what is a fraction," said Boulet.

Local students scored well in overall reading proficiency in the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program but lower on math and science. (Robert Short/CBC)

She said Grade Primary students learn numbers one through 10, then to 20 the next year. 

Boulet said if teaching language to children used the same approach, it would be problematic.

"Imagine if we did that with letters — in Primary we just see the letters A to G. Like, that doesn't make any sense. We need to have a much better, holistic approach to mathematics," she said.

The foundation of numbers and counting needs to be laid earlier for students to grasp more complicated concepts later, said Boulet.

The foundation of numbers and counting needs to be laid earlier for students to grasp more complicated concepts later, says Boulet. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

An emailed statement attributed to Education Minister Zach Churchill said the department has taken steps to streamline the curriculum and has increased funding for math and literacy support.

"​It's making a positive difference as we're seeing the gap closing between Nova Scotia's results and the national average," the statement read. "However, we want our students to do much better than average. 

"While it's encouraging to see that strides have been made in some areas, we know we need to do better for students."

Curricula need expert input

Boulet said there are aspects of the math curriculum that are good, but they're not put together properly.

"I think the issue has been that we haven't been the right people at the table," said Boulet. 

She said curricula are largely developed by teachers, and while their involvement is important, there should be input from other experts. 

"We need to have researchers at the table and researchers are rarely at the table. So we'd like to have somebody like me at the table to talk about curriculum design," said Boulet. 

"We'd like to have someone in neuropsychology who knows how the brain is developing. We would like to [have] someone who is an expert in language so that how the curriculum is written is reflecting, completely and accurately, what we're trying to get at. And that's not happening."

Boulet acknowledged the government is always open to improving the curriculum.

In the statement attributed to Churchill, the department encouraged Boulet to get in touch.

"The department has been fortunate over the years to work with many experts from universities, business, other government departments, communities and especially teachers who know their subject areas and student needs. If Geneviève Boulet is interested in participating in this process, we would be pleased to hear from her."

With files from Information Morning