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Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals is pictured in her office in Toronto on March 14, 2013. (CHRIS YOUNG FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals is pictured in her office in Toronto on March 14, 2013. (CHRIS YOUNG FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Canada's provinces divided about best approach to tackle math deficit Add to ...

Ontario is banking on better teacher training to improve its math results, even as the Manitoba government is going back to basics this fall to battle poor test scores.

Students across the country are struggling with numeracy. Results this week from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment – a sweeping measure of scholastic abilities in 65 countries – showed that increasing percentages of 15-year-olds are failing the math test in nearly all provinces.

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The numbers have got Ontario worried, and Education Minister Liz Sandals is vowing to tackle the problem.

“It really has been the top priority,” she said in an interview.

The province is offering two-day sessions on both math and reading for all teachers, as well as encouraging teachers to upgrade their skills through courses offered by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Earlier this year, Ontario doubled the budget, to $3-million, of a summer program meant to help primary students keep their math and reading abilities sharp when school is out. The government is also taking a closer look at school boards that have produced better test results in math to figure out what they are doing well, to share these measures across the province.

The OECD results suggest that jurisdictions that teach math in a more traditional way had more success than those such as Ontario that use “discovery learning,” a method that allows for open-ended student investigations and problem-solving.

Critics of this method say it ignores the basics, such as having students memorize multiplication tables. In Ontario, for instance, students are required to be able to multiply by 9 in grade 4, but there is no requirement they do so through rote memorization.

This fall, Manitoba returned to some traditional teaching methods in its kindergarten to Grade 8 curriculum, in hopes of giving students better foundational math skills.

The changes in Manitoba mean that students are now taught all four standard methods for arithmetic – addition with a carry, subtraction with a borrow, long multiplication and long division. The curriculum stresses that students do math in their heads and not rely on calculators.

Students are also now expected to be able to recall multiplication facts to 81 by the end of Grade 5.

“In response to concerns raised by teachers, professors, and parents, we set clearer expectations around counting, memorizing math facts, using standard algorithms and connecting numbers to real life experiences to solve problems,” Education Minister James Allum said in a statement.

Other provinces have been slow to follow suit.

Asked if changes to the curriculum were coming, Ontario’s Ms. Sandals was vague. “We’ve looked at the curriculum a bit, so that’s still a possibility. We’re not going to make any snap judgements,” she said.

Progressive Conservative education critic Rob Leone said parents have approached him to express their surprise students do not have to memorize times tables. He also advocates greater specialization for math teachers and performance bonuses for those that can up test scores.

“Part of the issue, and folks have talked about this, is that the math training of teachers isn’t sufficient to the job,” he said.

In PEI, which uses discovery learning, Education Minister Alan McIsaac said his government is focusing on interventions in the early years. The government has invested in a pre-school play-based curriculum.

“We have an issue here. But it’s an issue we’re dealing with,” he said.

British Columbia, meanwhile, is trying to balance foundational math with real-world examples in a planned overhaul of the math curriculum.

Critics view the still-vague proposal as a departure from foundational math. However, the ministry maintains students still must be strong at foundational elements – such as mathematical algorithms and memorizing times tables – but then learn how to apply those skills in real-world settings to give them context. In the near future, math students could conceivably be asked to use their skills in a hands-on project: In building a boat, for example, how does one measure the curvature of the hull?

B.C. is now reviewing teacher training, including in math, to determine what skills will be needed.

The coming changes will only improve the curriculum, says B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

“We’ve plateaued because using the old models of how we deliver learning outcomes … [students] have not been able to necessarily make that direct connection to everyday living,” he said. “We’ve done everything under a system that’s been in place for many, many years. We need to transform that to something new.”

Follow us on Twitter: @calphonso, @adrianmorrow, @andreawoo

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