New math curriculum an added challenge for Ontario elementary schools this fall
'It's irresponsible for this government to mandate a new curriculum during a pandemic,' says math educator
As an international student in Canada, Chloe Yan was surprised when some of her college classmates struggled with math fundamentals she had learned in China. It left a strong impression that persisted as she established herself in Canada, became a chartered accountant and started a family.
Concern about Canada lagging behind the math that's taught in other countries was why she enrolled her daughter, Madison, heading into Grade 4 this fall, into extra classes several years ago.
"She has no problems with what she learns in school, but I felt it was too easy," said the Richmond Hill, Ont., parent. "At about her age, I could do double-digit multiplication and division easily.… I don't see that in her school work."
Like many parents, Yan has concerns about many aspects of returning to school this fall, but she welcomed the late June announcement that Ontario is moving forward with implementing a new math curriculum for elementary students.
"Kids are like sponges.… In the early ages, it's a really golden time for them to set up a solid mathematic and, more importantly, financial sense," Yan said.
Canadian educators are in a crunch now trying to figure out a safe return to class amid the shifting reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Ontario — which includes the country's largest public school board — implementing a major math update for Grades 1 through 8 is another complicating factor in the mix.
With the earlier curriculum dating from 2005, Ontario's update is much-needed, according to veteran math educator Mary Reid, who says she's looking forward to introducing its various concepts to her teachers-in-training.
Along with moving some concepts to younger grades, the update incorporates additions such as computer coding and financial literacy. It also puts significant emphasis on social-emotional learning to combat math anxiety, instil confidence and cultivate a problem-solving mindset in students.
"A lot of students and a lot of adults have math anxiety, so we really need to recognize that," said Reid, an assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
It's important to avoid that anxiety early on, she said, because it can grow and negatively affect how students subsequently engage in the subject as it becomes more complex through older grades, high school and post-secondary years.
Not the right time
Yet, the Toronto educator says this September isn't the right time to unveil a major new curriculum change when the immediate priority is the health and safety of students, families and educators.
"It's irresponsible for this government to mandate a new curriculum during a pandemic," she said.
For a rollout of this sort to be successful, Reid said, it requires "a shared vision and a coherent understanding" of the material by teaching staff.
Ideally, she added, it should be achieved through a process whereby teachers engage in deep, structured professional development and have ongoing opportunities to meet with peers to collaborate, share their classroom experiences and challenges, as well as refine their methods.
"How do you teach computational representation of coding in Grade 1 when that has never been part of your landscape of teaching math? That is going to be unfamiliar material for so many of our teachers across Ontario," she said, including herself in those still learning about the topic.
"We can't simply give teachers a new document and say, 'Go teach it.'… A half-day PD [professional development] session or a webinar on this curriculum is not going to do it."
Teaching resources, supports will be available
If introduced in a slapdash manner, Reid says, "the results are going to be confusion, misinterpretation, frustration and a mismatch of what gets implemented and what doesn't. What's the hurry?"
That some parents have chosen to stay with remote learning this fall adds another challenge: the different approach needed when creating lessons specifically for online learners. Reid would like to see the province wait to officially mandate the math update.
"Let teachers familiarize themselves with this curriculum. And, starting a year from now, let's go full force and implement it," she said.
When it announced in June the plan to implement the new math curriculum in September, Ontario's Ministry of Education unveiled only part of the plan, primarily the expectations of what kids should learn.
Support resources — including guidance, concepts and examples of how teachers might translate those expectations to their classrooms — were to be added this summer.
The government also pledged to support implementation, including funding for school board-based math learning leads ($10 million) and school-based facilitators ($15 million), as well as money for teachers to take time away from class for professional development ($15 million).
The pedagogical resources and supports will be added "over the summer and throughout the school year," a ministry spokesperson told CBC News in an email on Wednesday.
"The ministry has also partnered with education stakeholders to develop classroom-ready resources and host webinars to support educators with implementing the new elementary math curriculum over the 2020-21 school year."
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Content delivery 'fundamentally important'
In Ontario and beyond, there has been a shift in understanding effective instruction methods, according to JUMP Math founder John Mighton, whose numeracy program is currently running a host of professional development classes for teachers prepping for this fall.
In the past, "people just used to care about 'What are the standards for the year?' or 'What do we have to teach?'" he said.
Now, however, school boards are recognizing "it's not just the content of the curriculum. How it's delivered is fundamentally important. That's why we do so much professional development for teachers."
For instance, the JUMP program, he said, is built around evidence-based principles and research in cognitive science that suggests kids benefit from "scaffolding" (breaking up new information and concepts into manageable chunks), continuous assessment and feedback. The program emphasizes helping kids develop a positive, confident mindset and avoiding cognitive overload for youngsters.
Mighton and his team are also currently working with the University of Calgary's math education department on improving professional development for teachers, with a free online course in the works. Having observed and analyzed teachers at work in classrooms, the researchers have made two fundamental realizations.
Teachers need resources based on evidence and that are structured, broken down into segments manageable for students, that build confidence and employ continuous assessment, he said.
"Also, they need great professional development on how to use those resources," Mighton said.
Mighton's mantra is that given supportive instruction, the vast majority of kids can learn — and enjoy learning — math. In the same vein, he also says all teachers can learn to teach math well — and enjoy doing it.
"When teachers are given an opportunity, when they're given support and given materials that help them learn the math deeply and also learn the science of learning — learn evidence-based principles of instruction — we found that teachers really embraced the opportunity."