The Current

Math curriculum needs to get back to using 'more numbers than words,' says teacher

Ontario's provincial government is shaking up the math curriculum after fewer than half of Grade 6 students met the standard last year. We're asking teachers whether "going back to basics" adds up.

Ontario rethinking math curriculum after declining test results over last decade

Sexual education in B.C. schools is ever-evolving and inclusive. (CBC)

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As the Ontario government tries to tackle declining math grades in the province's classrooms, one teacher argues that the teaching style known as "discovery math" could be to blame.

"One of the issues that I have with it is it involves a lot of language," said Tim Millan, a Toronto teacher who has taught math at the elementary and secondary levels, and now teaches adults.


Discovery math places an emphasis on experimentation and problem solving rather than rote learning.

Millan was attending York University in the late '90s when he first encountered the method. At the time, the rote learning that he had done as a child was being referred to as "drill and kill, as though it kills the creativity within you to to learn this way," he said.

The new approach posited that "in order to learn math you need to draw pictures, and write words, and also include numbers," Millan told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

"You're not necessarily looking for a particular answer, but there's all sorts of different possible answers."

A new report showed that fewer than half of Grade 6 students met the provincial math standard during the last school year, which is down from 61 per cent in 2009. (Shuttershock)

Math grades in standardized tests have been declining in Ontario for the past decade, according to a report from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) this week. Fewer than half of Grade 6 students — 48 per cent — met the provincial math standard during the last school year, which is down from 61 per cent in 2009.

The provincial government has promised a new "back to basics" math program to be implemented in September 2020, as well as new rules that teachers in training will have to pass a math test by scoring at least 70 per cent. Unions and educators have voiced their doubts about the plan.


Math professor Marian Small said the provincial government's plan depends on what "the basics" means.

"If the basics means kids really understand what math's about, that's fine," said Small, a former dean of education at the University of New Brunswick and a professor emerita of math education.

"If it's just, you know, say your times tables faster, I'm not sure that works because I know so many adults who are afraid of math, who grew up in that system."

Teachers are leading children through direct instruction, meaning that they show them how to do something, and the children copy them. (sebra/Shutterstock)

She agreed that discipline is important for students, but so is learning other skills that they will take into the adult world, like collaboration.

"I think they need to show discipline in the area of thinking and problem-solving every bit as much as they have to have discipline and practice in the area of, what we might call, more rote learning," she said.

Small has written math textbooks, but doesn't think the curriculum always dictates what happens in the classroom. She pointed out that the EQAO report recorded that 95 per cent of teachers are teaching by direct instruction, meaning that they show the children how to do something, and the children copy them.

That room for interpretation means that teaching off the same curriculum "looks different in different classrooms," she told Galloway.

She added that "if the curriculum does change, it will in the end probably make not a whole lot of difference."

"What matters is what teachers do with the curriculum that's in print."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Canadian Press. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Jessica Linzey and Danielle Carr.


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