UCP Curriculum Update 2021 – “What about ‘discovery math’?”

This post was first published by Deirdre Bailey, MEd on April 1, 2021 on https://savouringtheish.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/ucp-curriculum-update-2021-what-about-discovery-math/

I’ve been a little reluctant to come out of “blogging retirement” for this one. I’m COVID tired (who isn’t), and I’m still a little bruised (yes 7 years later) from my last foray into the “math wars”. But the UCP has been actively using the idea that they are “getting rid of discovery math” as a smokescreen while they attempt to usher in a curriculum that is regressive, racist, and utterly unsupported by pedagogical research, so this feels really important. Here are some thoughts…

What about “discovery math”?

What about it? This term has only ever been used by press and politicians. Never in the classroom, never in teacher education, never in professional development, and never in curriculum. Curriculum refers to what we want our children to learn in the classroom. The word “discovery” is not in the old curriculum and it’s not in the new one either.

Well what’s all the fuss then?

“Discovery math” has been used to refer to an approach to teaching (note: how we teach is called pedagogy, not curriculum) in which students are not explicitly taught mathematical procedures or algorithms, but rather, are encouraged to “figure it out” for themselves (i.e. flounder). Has this been happening in some Alberta classrooms? Probably a little bit yup. Can curriculum fix it? Nope.

So why the push for “back-to-basics”?

As medical doctor Nhung Tran-Davies wrote in her 2014 petition to the Alberta Minister of Education “students are [being] led through multiple convoluted “strategies” to get to a solution, with no emphasis on mastering any one method. As a result, the importance of knowing basic math facts (eg. algorithms, time tables, automatic recalls, vertical additions) is diluted down to a weak understanding and poor grasp of basic mathematical concepts in addition/subtractions and multiplication/divisions, which in effect ill-equip our children to reconfigure equations in their own minds, problem-solve, and think critically.” Dr. Tran-Davies goes on to posit that revisions to the math curriculum will ensure that today’s children will be more effectively “equipped with fundamental skills.”

The petition received almost 20,000 signatures and lots of attention. Dr. Tran-Davies clearly articulated a very real fear among parents that Alberta schools were failing their children with respect to mathematics education and offered a scapegoat (the curriculum), as well as a golden ticket to success for all math learners (a new curriculum). Here’s where these good intentions went a bit sideways…

First, the approach to math criticized in the petition stems from a recent, global shift, away from traditional teacher-centered pedagogy, toward more student-centred approaches. This essentially means teaching practice that shifts away from lecturing students on a discrete set of facts and procedures, to more cooperative, collaborative, and responsive facilitation of student learning. To be blunt, updating the curriculum will have limited impact on these globally shifting pedagogies. Dr. Tran-Davies’ petition would have been much better served advocating for greater professional development opportunities for math educators across the province.

Second, Alberta students are not “falling behind” in math. They are currently ranked eighth in the world. Here are the four most recent PISA results (see CMEC site for greater detail).

Given that Dr. Tran-Davies started her petition in 2014, she can be forgiven for highlighting what appeared to be a downward trend and connecting it to her frustrations with the math instruction her children were receiving. PLEASE NOTE however, this downward trend did not continue. Alberta’s world rank bounced back in 2018 while the CURRICULUM REMAINED THE SAME.

Lastly, and perhaps most critically, Dr. Tran-Davies’ new “back to the basics” curriculum, while organizing very similar outcomes a little more neatly, glaringly omits (or drastically reduces) use of a few critical words that she herself wanted to see more of based on her original petition (see emphasis above). The word think appears zero times in the new curriculum. The use of the word problem has been cut from 300 to 41 mentions. The word understand has also dropped from 247 to 93. For emphasis, I’ve dropped a few critical word count comparisons into this very reproducible graph below but please let me be extra clear about this; in the “new” math curriculum, there will be less thinking, less reasoning, less understanding, and less problem-solving. Instead, three very dominant words have emerged to take their place. Procedure. Standard. Algorithm.

Anyway, here are a few questions I’d really love everyone to consider as they review the UCP’s “new” math curriculum.

What do we stand to lose from reducing incidences of words like reason, think, apply, connect, understand?

What do we stand to gain from an overt emphasis on procedure, standard, and algorithm?

And perhaps most importantly..

What is the best path forward for helping all children, find JOY, confidence, and understanding in mathematics classrooms across this province?

Please, write your MLA.