Adding up the math issue

Alberta Education officials say the problem with math in the province is not how it is being taught or how students are performing, but how those things are being communicated.

Alberta Education officials say the problem with math in the province is not how it is being taught or how students are performing, but how those things are being communicated.

Yes, they say, the performance of Alberta students did decline in international tests, but the jurisdiction still ranks as one of the top in the world.

And besides, the students who took the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam were schooled in the old curriculum in elementary school, not the much chattered about new one, in place since 2008.

Since the PISA results were released in December, the subject of math has been anything but boring in Alberta.

One mom’s petition calling for more instruction of “the basics” is early grades has garnered over 16,000 online signatures and critics have latched onto the term “discovery math,” calling it a failure that confuses kids and leaves them without a firm grasp of fundamental skills.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson has sought to reassure concerned parties by saying that basic facts will be “more front and centre” in what students learn and that students are required to recall multiplication tables from memory.

And he has pointed to the fact that Alberta’s 15-year-olds are still well above-average in math — ranking third among Canadian provinces — and score higher than Alberta adults.

But, as school board trustees at an education symposium in Red Deer on Wednesday made clear, the education department needs to be clear as well in communicating what teachers are teaching and learners are learning.

Parents and the media, they said, are fixated on “discovery math” but do not fully understand the approach that the department is taking.

Speaking to the trustees, Kris Reid told them the ministry is endeavouring to clarify its language.

To that end, the department has produced Q&A bulletins for parents and teachers, available on its website, and will be communicating the information therein to schools, said Reid, team leader of mathematics, Grades 10-12 with Alberta Education.

The info sheets state that students are required to know basic facts and will study traditional ways of doing math problems without having to use more open-ended “discovery” methods.

Elementary students may be taught two or three methods on how to solve a problem, said Reid, and then each individual student can choose the method that works for them going forward for that topic.

“Once they have that strategy that works for them that’s efficient and effective, they’re not expected the next year to use anything different (for that particular topic).”

One trustee spoke up Wednesday to say that her own child told her he would be in trouble if he did not solve an equation a particular way, which Reid said is exactly what the ministry wants to avoid.

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