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Robyn Thiessen works with students Mehar Shergill, 10, middle, and Kabir Sidhu, 10, at Green Timbers Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 9, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A multi-pronged approach to modernize British Columbia's education system will see a shift toward concept-based learning and the replacement, in some schools, of letter grades with ongoing dialogue. However, some critics are concerned the new approaches will overwhelm young minds and compromise foundational skills.

An overhaul of the current curriculum is necessary because "its highly prescriptive nature puts it at odds with the vision of a more personalized learning experience set out in B.C.'s education plan," according to an overview from the Ministry of Education. "The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives."

Such individualized learning will allow students to apply learned skills to real-world scenarios, said B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

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But critics say the proposed curriculum is filled with "edu-speak" and stress the importance of basic, common-sense approaches.

Tara Houle, a mother of two in North Saanich, says she has seen firsthand the confusion so-called discovery-based teaching techniques can lead to.

"[My daughter] was being taught using Sudoku math puzzles [in Grade 3]. They had computer games in the classroom to learn the times tables," she said. "They were these methodologies to, I guess, conceptualize and make children think in different ways to come up with the answers. We don't have an issue with [that]. However, there wasn't a lot of emphasis on, say, learning the multiplication table."

Her daughter continued to struggle with these concepts until she was enrolled in an after-school math program. "The transformation was incredible," Ms. Houle said. "After understanding their simple and effective methodology to solve math problems, it made her embrace math again. We went back to the basics."

Ms. Houle's sentiments reflect those of many parents and educators across the country who swear by teaching standard math algorithms through practice, memorization and repetition.

There are petitions in B.C., Alberta and Ontario asking governments to put a greater emphasis on basic math skills.

Malgorzata Dubiel, a senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University's Department of Mathematics, said creativity in teaching is valuable, but must not come at the expense of basic math skills, clear instructions and practice. As well, curriculum and teaching at one grade level must feed into those of the next level.

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"Teachers need to know not just what the prescribed outcomes are for their grade, but what students will need later," she said. "I don't see this sufficiently outlined in the curriculum."

Meanwhile, about 15 more elementary schools in Surrey will soon join the five that, as part of a pilot project, have done away with letter grades for students in Grades 4 to 7. Pat Horstead, assistant superintendent of the Surrey school district, said while receiving good grades can be a motivating force for high achievers, those kids getting Cs and Ds may be discouraged. Further, a letter grade doesn't adequately communicate to students and parents how learning outcomes can be improved, she said.

"Part of the pilot process is involving more face-to-face, ongoing communication so that the reporting isn't just an event that occurs on this day," Ms. Horstead said. "It requires schools to have more, and different kinds of, meetings."

All schools participating in the pilot project must adhere to a set of criteria, but have flexibility in determining how to engage with students and parents. One school invited parents in on set dates to observe their students during learning activities and speak with teachers, Ms. Horstead said, while another used iPads to take photos of student work to send home to parents along with written comments.

The pilot follows in the footsteps of the Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows school district, which did away with letter grades in April. Abbotsford school district superintendent Kevin Godden has blogged about letter grades no longer being sufficient – the school district continues to discuss the issue – while the Vancouver School Board says it is looking forward to seeing how Surrey's pilot works out.

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