Toronto·Analysis

How Ontario's new math curriculum goes way beyond back-to-basics

Premier Doug Ford is calling Ontario's new elementary math curriculum a shift back to basics and pitching it as a major overhaul of the previous version, but a closer look at the document casts doubt on both those portrayals. 

Most important change in math curriculum involves teaching social-emotional learning skills, educators say

Ontario's new math curriculum for the elementary grades is to launch in September, despite uncertainty over what school will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Premier Doug Ford is calling Ontario's new elementary math curriculum a shift back to basics and pitching it as a major overhaul of the previous version, but a closer look at the document casts doubt on both those portrayals. 

While Ford is clearly appealing to a large segment of voters by characterizing the new curriculum as back to basics, its most significant revamp is anything but that. 

Educators say the key innovation in the new curriculum involves teaching "social-emotional learning skills" throughout math. According to Ministry of Education documents, this means helping students to "develop confidence, cope with challenges and think critically." 

For example, students will learn how to "use strategies to be resourceful in working through challenging problems," says the parents' guide to the curriculum. 

The point is to help students overcome a widespread phenomenon known as math anxiety, a significant barrier that sees kids throw up their hands or collapse into tears and believe that they simply are no good at math. 

Teaching those skills is a far cry from drilling times tables into students' heads. 

Mary Reid is an assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. (OISE)

The social-emotional learning component is critically important to the new curriculum and will help kids tremendously, says Mary Reid, an assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

Reid, whose research focuses on math anxiety, praises the new curriculum for addressing the issue and hopes it will guide teachers toward making math engaging, fun and interesting for kids. 

The social-emotional learning push is also the most appealing change in the curriculum for Vanessa Vakharia, founder and CEO of The Math Guru, a tutoring service in Toronto. 

"From first-hand experience, the number one thing that gets in the way of kids learning math, building confidence in math and enjoying math is anxiety around math," said Vakharia in an interview with CBC News. 

Both Vakharia and Reid see the new curriculum — to be implemented in September — as an improvement over the previous version, launched in 2005. 

Characterizing the new curriculum as back to basics sells it short, says Reid. 

Vanessa Vakharia is founder and CEO of The Math Guru, a Toronto-based tutoring service. (Racheal McCaig)

"Back to basics is just following procedure without really understanding why you're doing it," Reid said in an interview with CBC News. 

"There's so much richness in this curriculum, so much that talks about problem solving, about understanding the concepts in a deep way," said Reid.

"That's not a back-to-basics program. A back-to-basics program to me is flash cards and worksheets that are timed, and just memorizing procedures."  

Vakharia questions the nostalgia for old ways of rote learning, which she argues failed to make today's older adults confident in math. 

"I despise the use of the term back to basics," Vakharia said. "Do I think mental math is important? Absolutely. Do I think math facts are important? Of course. But we cannot go backwards. We need a new approach to teach kids." 

A math fact is, for example, 6 X 7 = 42. The ability to state such a math fact automatically without even thinking is known as recall. Elementary teachers say the new curriculum isn't breaking new ground on this.     

 

In the 2005 curriculum, students were "not required to memorize key number facts," said the Ministry of Education, while the new curriculum explicitly declares recall of math facts to be an expectation. Since this is arguably the most back-to-basics feature of the curriculum, Ford and his government are playing it up.

"We're focusing on fundamental math concepts and skills like learning and recalling math facts, including multiplication," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said during the news conference announcing the curriculum.

"Yes, parents. That means memorizing times tables is back for our kids." 

Ford spoke of a commitment he made after the Progressive Conservatives were elected.

"I promised you that we'd get back to basics. I promised our kids would learn the fundamentals once again so they could succeed in today's world, because the system we inherited was failing them."  

Ford's chief evidence that the system is failing kids can be seen in the results of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) math exams in Grades 3 and 6. 

There's a long-running debate over how true a picture EQAO actually gives of kids' achievements in math.

But any impact the new curriculum might have on the provincial results won't be seen until August 2022 at the earliest —  after the next election —  as Lecce has cancelled all elementary EQAO exams for the upcoming school year.

The current math curriculum is being blamed for the declining scores on the standardized tests. Yet the changes in what students are expected to learn in math in the new curriculum amount more to tweaks than a revolution.

The Ministry of Education has both curriculum documents currently posted on its website, allowing for a side-by-side comparison  Some examples of the similarities:

Multiplication and division:

  • Grade 3, old curriculum: "multiply to 7 x 7 and divide to 49 ÷ 7, using a variety of mental strategies (e.g., doubles, doubles plus another set, skip counting)
  • Grade 3, new curriculum: "recall and demonstrate multiplication facts of 2, 5, and 10, and related division facts"  
Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce with Premier Doug Ford in the background. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Measurement of angles:

  • Grade 6, old curriculum: "measure and construct angles up to 180° using a protractor, and classify them as acute, right, obtuse, or straight angles."
  • Grade 6, new curriculum: "use a protractor to measure and construct angles up to 360°, and state the relationship between angles that are measured clockwise and those that are measured counterclockwise."

Graphing data:

  • Grade 8, old curriculum: "select an appropriate type of graph to represent a set of data, graph the data using technology, and justify the choice of graph"
  • Grade 8, new curriculum: "select from among a variety of graphs, including scatter plots, the type of graph best suited to represent various sets of data; display the data in the graphs with proper sources, titles, and labels, and appropriate scales; and justify their choice of graphs "

"Any effort to characterize it as a revolutionary change or some great diversion in terms of philosophy, I think that's misplaced," said Andrew Campbell, an elementary teacher in Brantford, in an interview with CBC News. 

"A focus on social emotional learning isn't really what you would expect based on a back-to-basics banner," said Campbell. "Those two things don't really match up."   

The chief changes in learning expectations with the new curriculum: 

  • Financial literacy will be taught in math from Grade 1. Currently, students learn about financial literacy every year from Grade 4 onward in various subjects. 
  • Coding is introduced in Grade 1, a topic that was not even mentioned in the 135-page curriculum from 2005.  
  • Learning how to add and subtract fractions will begin in Grade 5, two years earlier than before.
  • The concept of negative integers is to be introduced in Grade 6, when previously it was Grade 7. 

The Education Ministry's parents' guide to the new curriculum lays out in plain language the key differences from the 2005 version, and the specifics of what kids are expected to learn in each grade. The phrase back to basics doesn't appear at all

Clarifications

  • The EQAO math exam results in the bar chart above do not include results from the province’s French-language school boards. A previous version of the graphic implied the results reflected all boards across Ontario. 
    Jun 27, 2020 2:42 PM ET

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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