Ontario’s Math Curriculum Changes Look Good, but Implementation Is Lacking

June 29, 2020 Updated: June 30, 2020


During the 2018 provincial election campaign, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives promised to scrap “discovery math” and replace it with a “back-to-basics” approach. Earlier this week, the Ontario government took a big step in this direction by releasing a new math curriculum.

Discovery math is a progressive approach that encourages students to invent their own strategies for solving equations. Traditional methods such as practice and memorization are derided as “drill and kill.”

As a result, students spend hours working on open-ended word problems with no obvious solution. When faced with basic arithmetic, elementary students regularly pull out their calculators to solve the simplest of questions.

Current math textbooks reflect this bias against traditional knowledge and skills. A prime example is Pearson Education’s “Math Makes Sense,” a textbook series used in schools across the province. As many parents and students can attest, the textbook’s name is a misnomer. The math in it doesn’t make sense and simple math problems are presented in confusing and convoluted ways.

The Ontario government’s new math curriculum restores things that should never have been removed in the first place. For example, students will now be required to recall number facts and memorize their multiplication tables up to 12 times 12.

These changes are supported by research. In their 2014 book “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn,” education researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates note that students who do not know their basic math facts invariably struggle when they progress to higher levels of math. In other words, inventing various strategies to solve 7 x 8 is a waste of mental energy since students should know automatically that the answer is 56.

Parents will also be pleased that Ontario’s new math curriculum has a much stronger emphasis on financial literacy. By grades 4 and 5, students will learn about various payment methods, including e-transfers, while grade 8 students will focus on balancing budgets and the perils of compound interest. This makes sense. Financial literacy is important for everyone.

However, announcing a new curriculum is only a start. If the Ontario government is serious about kicking discovery math to the curb, it needs to have a proper implementation plan. Unfortunately, there are some worrisome signs that there may be no feasible plan in place.

For example, a global pandemic is probably the worst time to introduce a new curriculum, particularly since Ontario students won’t even have regular classes this fall. It’s absurd to think that teachers can implement a new curriculum while also devising a hybrid approach to learning that blends online and in-person instruction. At the end of the day, a curriculum document is just a piece of paper. It’s up to teachers to implement it. That’s not likely to happen if teachers are focused on ensuring COVID-19 doesn’t spread in schools.

There’s an old saying that timing is everything. While this new math curriculum is long overdue, it will not take priority over the pandemic; the government should have been more strategic in its timing.

In addition, if the Ontario government is serious about replacing discovery math with a more traditional approach, it will need to overcome heavy resistance from its own department officials. Many of the people working in education departments come from the ranks of education superintendents and curriculum consultants, most of whom have climbed the career ladder by espousing progressive education ideas and enacting progressive policies.

It’s not hard to find evidence of their handiwork. For example, the education department’s implementation guide for teachers, titled “Focusing on the Fundamentals of Math,” contains statements that undermine the government’s ostensible goal of abolishing discovery math. While the guide pays lip service to the importance of memorizing math facts, it also states that repeated practice, or drills, “do not contribute to understanding.” The guide also recommends that teachers spend lots of time exploring various strategies before getting students to memorize the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

In other words, teachers can go right on using discovery math textbooks such as “Math Makes Sense.”

To make matters worse, many of the experts cited in this implementation guide are propagandists for discovery math. For example, the guide quotes a Canadian professor as saying that children should learn math facts by “using an increasingly sophisticated series of strategies rather than by jumping directly to memorization.” In other words, memorization if necessary, but not necessarily memorization.

On top of that, the new curriculum contains a whole lot of mumbo jumbo about “social emotional learning skills.” Students will be expected to “build awareness about others” and “understand things they have in common with their peers and what makes different groups unique.” Apparently, student self-esteem is now a key part of math instruction.

Anyone who has ever watched the British political satire television show “Yes Minister” knows exactly what is going on here. Politicians say one thing during their press conferences while the bureaucrats who work for them quietly sabotage their plans.

If the Ontario government truly wants to replace discovery math with a back-to-basics approach, they cannot simply release a new curriculum and trust their department officials to carry it out.

Unless the Ontario government gets a handle on the education file, this new math curriculum will quickly turn into a very expensive shell game.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.