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Saturday June 23, 2018


Canada has one of the best education systems in the world.

The Canadian education system is ranked among the best in the world, with our nation’s students coming seventh overall in a new international study of school systems — but despite the largely good news, Tuesday’s report has once again ignited the debate over how we teach math.

The triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows Canada’s education system consistently beats the competition in science, reading and on equity issues like gender balance. Compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, which came 15th and 25th overall respectively we’re doing particularly well. Canada was second in the world in reading, behind only Singapore, and our nation was 10th in math.

However, the PISA report, which this year focused primarily on science, again highlights the lack of progress in math scores in Canada, even if we still rank well overall. The 2012 report showed the performance of many countries, Canada among them, declining performance since 2006. While things haven’t gotten worse, and we still do well overall, math education experts say the report based on the test scores of students who were 15 in 2015 — shows math remains a cause for concern.

“The concern is with math, while science scores seem to be good, the math scores are pretty stagnant. In fact, some provinces have even gotten worse since the last round of testing in 2012,” said Anna Stoke, a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg.

A debate over so-called discovery math — an approach wherein students are encouraged to work out problems in various ways instead of relying on rote learning — erupts every few months as math-testing scores are published in different provinces. And, as the PISA report reveals, progress across the country remains uneven on all fronts — in particular, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador lag the rest of the country.

Stoke is among the loudest voices in Canada questioning the move toward discovery math. Most schools still teach a bit of both the new approach and the old, but Stoke said textbooks, which unlike curricula are fairly consistent across the country, sometimes ask kids to solve the same problem three ways with methods using blocks or construction paper. She doesn’t believe we need to go back to the era where kids stood up and recited multiplication tables, but worries the “pendulum has swung too far the other way.”

Others disagree with putting all the blame on discovery math, even if the basics can’t fall to the wayside, and suggest the solution to better math scores lies outside the classroom door.

“We have a very good tradition in North America of reading to our kids at home, but how many of us do math with our kids at home?” Ian Vander Burgh, director of the centre for education in mathematics and computing at the University of Waterloo, told the National Post in September. “There’s lots of math phobia out there and it’s very easy to pass it along to our kids.”

Yet education experts also caution we can read too much into small shifts in a report that largely shows good news, even when it comes to math. Canada, for example, performed well above the PISA average in all categories of the test completed by about 540, 000 students, who results are weighted to represent 29 million 15-year-olds in the 72 participating countries.

“It’s really important overall that in the context … Canada does very well,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. She said the country is “in the top ten in everything, including math.”

“We want an easy answer” to why the math numbers have stalled, Kidder said, but she believes it’s a complex issue that may be more a problem of perception. People love to say, ‘The problem is they aren’t learning their times tables ’ she said. “But I’m not sure that is the problem.”

Source: National Post

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