Teaching math: ‘We have lost sight of the need for balance,’ says director of education

By Roderick Benns

The director of education for Trillium Lakelands District School Board, Larry Hope, is calling for more balance in the curriculum with the return of traditional math teaching.

Results from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) released this week show that for the second year running only half of Grade 6 students are meeting the provincial math standard.

In Trillium Lakelands, those scores will not be released until after Sept. 20. But Hope says he is “displeased” from what he has seen of the data.

“We have not fared well in Grade 6 math and I am not happy about that.”

Experts point out there are many reasons for Ontario’s lagging math scores, including ‘discovery-based learning’ that often relies on:

  • using multiple strategies, which has created unneeded complexity for students
  • creating too many open-ended problems
  • the over-use of manipulatives, or hands-on materials such as blocks to understand basic skills

“I am personally of the belief we have lost sight of the need for balance. We need more emphasis on the fundamental skills,” Hope says.

Teaching math: ‘We have lost sight of the need for balance’ says director of educationIn discovery math, the more traditional techniques, such as clear, explicit instructions by the teacher, typically followed by practice with a pencil and paper, are often downplayed. Even math textbooks for additional work, or having students keep a math workbook, are now often avoided.

Hope says that at the heart of every math problem there are basic computations that need to be followed and he would like the Ministry of Education to review and revise its curriculum with this in mind.

“We shouldn’t any longer accept the need to problem solve everything,” the director says. “We need to guide the instruction, as teachers, to go back to some of the original teaching methodologies.”

The director says he would also like the Ministry to review the sheer number of expectations placed upon teachers, in terms of what they are expected to cover.

“It’s a heavy curriculum.”

He’s also not sure that it’s appropriate to compartmentalize with strands in math, rather than getting the big picture. Ideally, at the same time the Ministry would look at the whole Kindergarten-to-Grade-8 sequence of learning.

The Ontario Liberal government has just announced there will be some changes to the math curriculum in response to dropping test scores, but has not yet provided details.

Hope says his board has taken “bold steps” to try and turn math scores around. Trillium Lakelands has financially supported all elementary teachers who want to get additional qualifications in math. The board has put instructional leads in its schools who have responsibility for teaching staff. They have also supported and purchased numerous resources to help teachers.

For the secondary level, he isn’t so sure Grade 9 students should be streamed as they are now into academic and applied, with the former sorting students into a university track and the latter assuming a workplace or college track.

“There’s lots of research against streaming in Grade 9.

Ontario-wide data

According to EQAO, among Grade 3 students, 62 per cent met the provincial standard, a one-percentage-point decrease from last year. Elementary school reading results for Grade 3 students increased to 74 per cent, an increase of two percentage points since last year, and reading results for Grade 6 students have remained at 81 per cent for the second year in a row.

Achievement results in writing at the elementary school level have declined since last year by one percentage point for both Grades 3 and 6, and stand at 73 per cent and 79 per cent respectively.



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