Just fix the bloody math curriculum: Robyn Urback

How many years' worth of students need to be rendered innumerate before provincial curriculum writers admit their little "discovery math" gambit has been a failure? Five? Ten? Oops — sorry, that's a math question.

Isn't a decade of declining test scores enough to show 'discovery math' isn't working?

A flawed approach to teaching math is to blame for declining test scores. Not the students. (Canadian Press)

How many years' worth of students need to be rendered innumerate before provincial curriculum writers admit their little "discovery math" gambit has been a failure?

Five? Ten? 

I realize that question borders on a mathematical one, so to avoid confusion, I won't pursue it further.

A version of this column has been written, I'd estimate, more than 100 times over the past several years (crap, that's math again, isn't it?).

Each time, columnists like myself dutifully fetch the most recent statistics — only half of Grade 6 students in Ontario met provincial math standards this year, for example — and compare them to past figures (54 per cent passed in 2013-2014, 58 per cent passed in 2010-2011, 61 per cent passed in 2007-2008) to show the trend is going in the wrong direction.

We then point out similar trends in other provinces — Alberta and Manitoba, to name a couple — to show the problem is not region-specific, but rather one that plagues jurisdictions where educators have decided that making math more confusing is a good idea.

This math, I will explain now, involves lofty, meta-type instruction rather than rote memorization and other proven techniques. Parents often have as much trouble understanding the lessons as their kids.

Then comes the shout-out to Quebec, which has resisted the impulse to screw up its math curriculum, and whose students, not coincidentally, boast the highest math scores in Canada. 

Provincial leaders, playing along with this little routine, feign befuddlement when questioned about why math scores have tanked following changes to the curriculum:

"Was it something we did?"  they ask themselves.

"No, it's the children. The children must be getting dumber."

Most veteran teachers will tell you the one thing that actually hasn't changed about teaching is the kids; parenting styles, curricula, administration procedures and rules about hugs have all changed, but children are still children. They are not inherently more or less capable of understanding mathematical concepts than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

So if the kids haven't changed, what has changed?

Here, I'll echo what parents have been screaming into their respective provincial abysses for years: It's the math. Just fix the bloody math.

Some teachers colleges now require math literacy tests to graduate. (Shutterstock/iChzigo)

Rather than acknowledge the obvious, Ontario has offered up a handful of red herring remedies, which include mandating at least an hour of math instruction at the elementary level per day and requiring "math lead teachers" in every school. 

These measures won't actually fix the problem, of course. Indeed, students will still be counting out three times five on their fingers. But now they'll have 60 minutes to do it instead of 30 — and perhaps with an extra instructor by their sides.

Meanwhile, elementary teachers in the province still don't need any math education beyond Grade 11, though some teachers colleges, confronted with the realization that many of their graduates can't do basic arithmetic, have begun offering refresher courses and a few now require math literacy tests to graduate.

These fixes aren't necessarily bad ideas — in fact, many of them are very good ideas — but without a curriculum overhaul, they simply won't be enough.

By all means, continue teaching kids why and how three times five equals 15, but make sure they've got it memorized and can also do simple calculations in their heads. Without a firm grasp of the basics, advanced mathematics becomes impossible. And at this rate, schools are creating a generation of kids who struggle with the basics and probably wouldn't attempt the advanced.

Teaching the majority

To be sure, the old ways of learning didn't and don't work for all students. But they worked for the majority, which is generally the goal when it comes to public education. As it stands now, however, the majority of Ontario students will fail to meet the province's own standards in just a couple years.

By that point, we can expect columnists will have churned out the 150th or 160th column on this very same subject, and provincial legislators will look at each other and casually shrug their shoulders, befuddled about ever-declining math test scores in their province.

"Is it something we did?" they will ask themselves.

"No it's the children. The children are getting dumber." 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:


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