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A student works on a problem in class at Montreal’s École Secondaire Mont-Royal on Dec. 5, 2013. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
A student works on a problem in class at Montreal’s École Secondaire Mont-Royal on Dec. 5, 2013. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Math wars: The division over how to improve test scores Add to ...

Parents signing petitions. Governments forced to defend their positions. A declaration that Canada’s problem is on the scale of a national emergency.

Welcome to the Math Wars, a battle that’s been brewing for years but heated up last month when this country dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings.

The battleground is fractured and the sides aren’t clearly drawn, but at the centre of the debate over so-called discovery learning is this question: Should the teacher be a sage on the stage, a guide at the side, or both?

Parents in provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario look at their children’s math homework and see little, if anything, of the fundamentals they were taught just decades ago. Gone are the days, in much of the country, of long division, mad-minute multiplication, addition with a carry and subtraction with a borrow.

Today, children in provinces that have introduced the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) curriculum – a vast swath of the country – learn instead by investigating ideas through problem-solving, pattern discovery and open-ended exploration.

“If you look at what’s been happening, predominantly over the last decade, there’s been an unprecedented emphasis on discovery learning,” said Donna Kotsopoulos, an associate professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s education faculty and former teacher.

Robert Craigen, a University of Manitoba mathematics professor who advocates basic math skills and algorithms, said Canada’s downward progression in the international rankings – slipping from sixth to 13th among participating countries since 2000 – coincides with the adoption of discovery learning.

“The word ‘emergency’ suggests a suddenness, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly sudden about this,” said Prof. Craigen, referring to comments made in December by John Manley, the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, that the results of the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were “on the scale of a national emergency.”

“What we’re seeing is the final demonstration that things have been going downhill,” Prof. Craigen said.

And with Canada’s slip on the global stage comes an anxiety at home, one that’s palpably sweeping across the country as governments tout different solutions to an almost universal problem. Parents in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia, for example, launched petitions over the Christmas holidays, calling on their governments to revamp curriculums with a greater emphasis on basic math skills.

But the governments themselves are taking different approaches, free to do so since provinces have jurisdiction over education and there are no national standards or strategies. Ontario has no plans to change its curriculum and is instead banking on ramped-up teacher training. Manitoba is watering down discovery learning with more “back to basics” fundamentals, while British Columbia appears to be heading in the opposite direction as it revises its own curriculum.

Meantime, Quebec, with its intensive training and teachers who apparently refuse to shirk algorithms despite reforms, enjoys the best scores in Canada and is now at the centre of math-education research.

And then somewhere in the middle of conventional math and discovery learning is JUMP Math, a Toronto-based non-profit whose curriculum reaches 100,000 Canadian students and counting.

“In all the debates that are going on, we think it’s a bad idea to throw [discovery learning] out, but the other side is right also,” said JUMP founder John Mighton, a mathematician and author whose vision has caught the attention of The New York Times. “The parents and those who want to go back to basic math are right in some sense: You need to combine the discovery with guidance.”


There is no national strategy for improving math scores because provinces have jurisdiction over education. Here’s what the provinces are doing – and whether they plan to make curriculum changes.


Landscape: The province withdrew from the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) for financial reasons in 2011 and is currently revising its curriculum. The ministry of education dictates what must be taught, but not how to teach it. Here’s an example: A Grade 4 student is required to learn mental math strategies for adding two-digit numbers, but the teacher chooses whether to teach the strategies by adding from left to right, or top-to-bottom with a carry. Some critics argue the current math curriculum is too conceptually based, with parents in the province launching a petition calling for greater emphasis on basic math skills. JUMP Math, which is being touted as a “third way” that emphasizes rehearsing the basics and breaking problems into small parts, reaches roughly 10 per cent of B.C. students, mathematician and JUMP founder John Mighton said.

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