After nearly two decades of helping children decipher which train reaches its destination first, or how many cantaloupes Sally needs to sell in order to make a profit, there is growing evidence for a back-to-basics approach to teaching math.
In theory, Toronto has been at the leading edge of this pedagogical shift, with a program known as JUMP math that began more than a decade ago as an after-school tutoring program in the Christie Pits neighbourhood.
But in practice, JUMP has had a tough time here. While school boards in Northern Ontario, British Columbia and the United Kingdom have embraced it, JUMP has had a warmer reception from private schools in the GTA than it has from the public education system.
A recent study may help it gain traction with local school boards. The results haven't been published - they're currently under review - but are promising partly because control studies investigating pedagogical techniques aren't terribly common.
"I think part of the resistance toward JUMP is it flies in the face of way people currently think mathematics should be taught," said Tracy Solomon, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children, and author of the study. "There has been a real emphasis on teaching kids math by presenting them what are called contextually rich or everyday problems. … The JUMP approach is totally the opposite."
That means reducing a problem to its component parts and then building it back up incrementally. There is an emphasis on rehearsing the basics, or as cognitive psychologists would say, "automatizing" knowledge.
Her group followed nearly 300 Grade 5 students at a Northern Ontario school board for five months. Slightly more than half were taught using the JUMP method, while the remainder following the regular problem solving-based program.
In that short time frame, students in the JUMP group showed significantly larger gains in a number of measures of math achievement, including fluency and quantitative concepts.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Lambeth school district has been using JUMP for four years. This is a high-needs, underachieving district, and in 2007, when the program started, the students were performing 6 percentage points behind the national average on national exams.
By 2010, they were 2 percentage points ahead.
Rotherglen, a private school with campuses in Oakville and Mississauga, started using Jump last fall with its Grade 4 and 5 students, 126 in total.
Academic co-ordinator Amy Gill said the program appealed to her because it takes into account recent developments in cognitive science.
"The traditional model is the teacher explains things and then the students do practice problems," she said. "But this program is very interactive and there's lots of guided practice.… It really relies on brain plasticity and student engagement."
She said her school has seen a boost in class test scores and in students' enthusiasm for math class.
Both the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board have being using JUMP at a handful of schools, in a limited capacity. Neither has designs to apply the program more broadly in the immediate future.
Gen Ling Chang, co-ordinating superintendent of teaching and learning for the TDSB, said for now it is a supplementary program for struggling students.
"We have to look more closely at it," she said.