Numbers game: The story behind Ontario's math curriculum
The Ontario government’s plan to revamp the province’s math curriculum is the latest in a 20-year-long string of attempts to improve students’ math performance.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other critics have labelled the existing approach “discovery math,” a phrase that may conjure up thoughts of unusual questions, answers and methods but doesn't appear anywhere in the curriculum
Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced in August that math education in Ontario will return to a focus on “traditional formulas and memorization techniques.”
This “back to the basics” approach reverses the course math education in Ontario had been charting for more than 20 years, with pencil-and-paper exercises slowly being phased out in favour of an increasing focus on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
The Early Math Strategy
Elementary-age math scores had been declining in Ontario in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prompting the government of Ernie Eves to announce in 2002 that it would spend millions of dollars to create a plan dubbed the Early Math Strategy.
Eves, like Ford, was new to office when he made math education one of his first issues. He had been selected by the Progressive Conservatives to replace the departing Mike Harris.
Development of the Early Math Strategy brought together 20 experts from across the education system. They concluded that math teachers should ensure young students “are engaged in meaningful problem solving and dialogue, and their new understanding and skills are reinforced.”
When it came to assessment, the strategy suggested teachers should primarily check their students’ progress via “observations, interviews, conversations, portfolios and other techniques that involve concepts of dialogue and self-reflection” – in other words, not through traditional math tests alone.
The strategy encouraged teachers to help students build on their “natural inquisitiveness” and make use of “mathematical play” and inquiry-based methods to aid them in understanding mathematical concepts.
“Especially in the early grades, there should not be an overemphasis upon paper-and-pencil tests,” the strategy reads.
Recommendations from the Early Math Strategy and a similar document produced for older grades were used heavily in the 2005 revamping of Ontario’s math curriculum.
The province’s standardized test scores, which had already started to increase, continued their climb until the end of the decade. They have been on a decline ever since.
New government makes quick moves
The Liberal government said in 2016 that it would spend tens of millions of dollars on math initiatives, including the introduction of a dedicated math professional development day for teachers and the creation of a mandatory hour of math time each day for students between Grade 1 and Grade 8.
Additionally, they vowed to create up to three “math lead” teacher positions in all elementary schools. Each of these teachers was given five paid days away from their classrooms to learn more about math and share what they had learned with other teachers.
The 2005 curriculum remains in effect, although the new Progressive Conservative government plans to release a revised version of it soon. Links to the Early Math Strategy and similar documents have already been removed from the province’s website, replaced by guides to “the fundamentals of math” for teachers and parents.
The documents emphasize the desire for students to develop automaticity, which is described as “the ability to use skills or perform mathematical procedures with little or no mental effort.” Students will find it easier to solve problems, the theory goes, if they don’t have to think about the underlying math.
They also contain some pieces that would feel familiar to proponents of inquiry-based math, including recommendations that teachers should assess students by engaging them and observing their responses, that students should seek out and understand relationships between numbers, and that exercises should not be limited to rote memorization.
“Repeated practice … by itself may improve speed, but it does not contribute to understanding and it is not sufficient to guarantee immediate recall,” the teachers’ guide reads.
In addition to the instructional changes, Thompson announced that the province is mandating a PD day for math instruction to take place before the end of the year and will redirect funding for math initiatives to ensure teachers are trained “on the fundamentals of math.”
School boards will also be required to report on what they are doing to improve math skills and what impact those actions are having.
Further changes to how math is taught in Ontario could occur as a result of public consultations, a spokesperson for Thompson told CTVNews.ca.
The consultations, which run until December, will include an online survey and a series of town hall-style conference calls. Times and dates have not yet been made public.