To improve EQAO math scores, ON teachers should include drills

Originally published on February 6th, 2014.

As a former teacher, and later, a learning specialist and teacher-educator, I can confirm that it is acceptable practice when Ontario teachers use problem solving and discovery math approaches.

Yet, something is not quite right, otherwise there would not be a decline in EQAO standardized test results at the Grade 3 and 6 levels.

Some say the “problem” is too much “problem solving” and “discovery math.” I don’t believe that is the case. Rather, I think it is just that something is missing — multiplication table memorization and old fashioned basic skills drills.

First, however, I would like to clarify why blanket reform of how math is taught in Ontario is not necessary. Discovery math has been around for a very long time. It simply means a child is provided with a math related problem and in the solving of that problem, not only build on math skills they already have, but learn new ones through trial and error.

For example:

Back in the late 1970s when I taught Grade 5 math, I taught measurement by discovery. The preamble the students were given was that the classroom had been destroyed (by fire or flood) the night before and everything had to be replaced. They were provided with a sheet of paper that had the prices for all the replacement products. They then had to measure the floor and chalk/bulletin boards to know how much tile/slate/wall board was going to be needed and how much it would cost. By the time they were finished, they had indeed “discovered” everything they needed to know about measurement.

However, that was not the only way we taught. Over and above regular lessons, I had daily oral time tables practice and daily computational written drills.

Now, think about it. Above, I was talking about a measurement discovery exercise that today’s parents (now 40ish) probably experienced because that math curriculum unit was in an Ontario province-wide Junior level ministry document. Yet, when we did that, we not only didn’t yet have personal computers, we didn’t have fax machines or cell phones either. And, that is just over thirty years ago!

So, change and discovery is non-stop as is technological invention. Reform that goes back in time is simply not the right direction we should be moving our children. However, that is not to say, Ontario’s curriculum planners and teachers should not include the kind of standard lessons and drills we did back then within today’s curriculum mix. They should.

That the Ontario Liberal government is going to put $4 million into teaching teachers math skills is rather strange, unless the teachers in the classroom today were never taught the basic skills in the first place. Since it is not that many years ago that I taught prospective teachers, I doubt that very much. Rather, I think it is simply government covering over a problem with a band aid.

The crux of the matter is, then, that for Ontario’s children to improve on EQAO standardized math tests, teachers need to be encouraged and allowed to integrate old fashioned math practices, which as I said above, needs to include the memorization of timetables and basic number facts, into their current problem solving and discovery approaches.

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