The Definition of Insanity: Even More Discovery Math


You’ve probably heard it said before that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Well, that’s what’s going on in Ontario.

The Ontario government recently announced that, as of September, elementary schools are required to teach sixty minutes of math each day.

At first glance this seems like a positive development. More time spent on a subject in a province where math scores have been dropping for years must be a good thing, right?

Look again.

The Ontario government would like us to believe that, by mandating more time to teaching math, they’re doing something progressive and tangible for young students. Here’s the rub: More time spent teaching a largely ineffective math curriculum only results in continued, perhaps greater, math mediocrity for young students.

You see, when something isn’t working, the solution isn’t to do it even more. That seems to be the thinking of the Ontario government.   The math curriculum in Ontario, like many provinces in Canada, is dominated by ideas like discovery or inquiry based math. I’ve talked about my feelings on these approaches many times. In a nutshell, they’re ineffective

The Ontario Education Minister, Liz Sandals, points to those jurisdictions outside of Ontario with better math scores than Ontario’s schools. She states that, since those jurisdictions dedicate somewhere between four and six hours a week to the teaching of math in the classroom, then that must be the solution to Ontario’s elementary math woes.   First of all, math success is relative. Just because one jurisdiction outperforms another doesn’t necessarily mean that its students are achieving a satisfactory level of math success. If one student receives forty percent on a test and another receives 49 percent on the same test, it still means that both of them failed. We wouldn’t be looking to adopt the study habits of the student who got 49 percent. Second, to point to one variable – in this case the number of hours spent teaching math – without examining all of the other variables, is irresponsible.

Of course, you could point out that the Ontario government has also announced that each elementary school will be required to have at least three teachers who will serve as resident math experts. I use the term “experts” very loosely since the Education Minister refers to these individuals as having a special interest in math.   Well, that’s reassuring; they’re not just interested in math, they’re especially interested.

These especially interested teachers will be given opportunities for professional development. From there they then can share what they’ve learned with their colleagues. What we don’t know yet is what will be presented on these professional development days. I think it’s safe to assume that the teachers who attend won’t suddenly be transformed into mathematicians. It’s likely they’ll just hear more about the wonders of discovery math. So when they get back to their schools it’ll just be the blind leading the blind.

Look, I think it’s a good idea to dedicate professional development to the effective teaching of math. But the Ontario government is kidding itself – and fooling parents – if they think that these moves will result in any significant improvement in students’ understanding and success in math.

There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs in education.   Old ideas, philosophies and teaching approaches are often recycled and presented as something completely new and innovative. Discovery math has been around for a long, long time. It has been called by other names and fallen in and out of favour over the decades as the pedagogical pendulum swings between one extreme and the other.   Do some quick research on New Math, the great math trend from the 1960s and 70s, and you’ll find eerie similarities to our modern day discovery math.   Oh yeah, did I mention that New Math was a dismal failure?

So our education system has peddled out discovery math and proclaimed it as the best method for teaching math. It sounds fresh and new. It hits all the right emotional buttons. All we have to do is be patient because, in order to truly see the benefits of this ‘novel’ approach, then we have to give it time. If there are bumps along the way (or complete failures), it only means that we haven’t broken away from the old way and need to double down on the new approach.

So that’s what the Ontario government is doing. They’re going to make it work, come hell or high water. All it takes is dedicating even more time to discovery math.

By the way, for those of us outside of Ontario (yes, I’m even talking to my American readers), don’t get smug. While Ontario’s education system may be in the spotlight for now, most provinces and states have the same, misinformed and far-fetched ideas about how math should be taught.

Now that’s really insane.

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