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John Mighton teaches Grade 4 students math using the JUMP program.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

A team of Canadian researchers has received a $2.7-million (U.S.) grant to study math education in Ontario from an unusual place.

The U.S. Department of Education has funded the project, led by researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, which will look at how elementary students at several Ontario schools fare in math using the current provincial curriculum and comparing it to the JUMP math program, which combines the conventional way of learning the subject with so-called discovery learning.

Math teaching has come under scrutiny since OECD results that measured the scholastic abilities of 15-year-olds in 65 countries showed an increasing percentage of Canadian students failing the math test in nearly all provinces. Parents want provincial governments to put greater emphasis on basic math and less on discovery or creative strategies, but ministers of education are standing firm.

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Studies on how students learn have piqued the interest of cognitive scientists such as the SickKids researchers. The results of their work, due as early as the spring, could shape the way math is taught. One of the researchers said officials in Ontario's Ministry of Education have expressed an interest in the findings.

Team leader Tracy Solomon, a research scientist at SickKids, said the funding is evidence the West wants to improve math education.

"It's a testament to how seriously people in the United States and in much of the Western world are taking the way we're currently educating our students in math, and really making it a priority to get some evidence about the effectiveness of the best ways to approach teaching math," Dr. Solomon said.

Dr. Solomon and her team are collecting and analyzing two years of data on students in primary and junior grades from one school board, which she declined to name. The students were in Grades 2 and 5 when the study began, and are now in Grades 3 and 6, which means they will participate in Ontario's standardized testing program this year.

The research team randomly assigned some schools to teach math according to the Ontario curriculum, which allows open-ended student investigations and problem-solving. For example, students are encouraged to use physical material in learning math, such as dividing a strip of paper to learn fractions. The thinking is that this develops a deeper understanding of the subject.

The other schools are using the JUMP program. John Mighton, a mathematician and founder of JUMP Math, a Canadian charity that tutors and produces free teaching guides, believes that kids need to learn basic algorithms to recognize patterns, and that discovery needs structure and guidance.

Dr. Solomon said the research team is using classroom testing data, lab tests on how children learn and other measures to study the impact of the two programs on student learning.

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A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, said the JUMP Math program has grabbed attention in the United States, where the curriculum is similar to that of Canada. Christina Chhin, a program officer in mathematics and science education, said the results will show the value of JUMP Math in improving math achievement of students.

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