Canada’s falling math scores: legitimate problem or fear-mongering?

A recent report by the C.D. Howe Institute points to declining performance of Canadian students in math between 2003 and 2012, and concludes that classrooms should get “back to basics” and place greater focus on traditional teaching techniques.

The report’s author, Professor Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg, suspects the growing popularity of “inquiry-based instruction” is the most likely culprit.

Also known as ‘discovery-based learning’ or ‘problem-based learning,’ inquiry-based instruction involves minimal guidance from the teacher, open-ended problems with multiple solutions and frequent use of hands-on material to teach mathematical concepts in the classroom, as opposed to more traditional teaching techniques involving explicit instructions, memorization and practice.

“It’s essentially trying to build a house without first building the foundation,” said Stokke. “In a lot of cases, [students] aren’t memorizing times tables, this makes it really difficult to do more complex problems.”

UBC Math Professor Susan Gerofsky doesn’t think this is the case. In fact, she thinks inquiry-based instruction isn’t being utilized enough in Canadian classrooms.

“I would say despite all kinds of efforts to get more inquiry involved in the classrooms … mathematics classrooms unfortunately don’t look all that different from what they did when I was a kid,” said Gerofksy, who taught high-school math for 10 years before teaching at UBC. “There’s no point in making kids sit for thirteen years and memorize meaningless lists of figures, then forget them again.”

Gerofsky went on to accuse the C.D. Howe Institute of fear mongering, questioning whether Canada’s falling test scores were as much of an issue as the report states.

“The only OECD countries that were ahead of Canada were Korea, Japan and Switzerland … Canada did well. So what’s the issue? Is there some kind of crisis? Because I don’t think there is,” said Gerofsky. “What I see is that the C.D. Howe Institute wants to start a big polarized fight about this, a big national debate.”

Stokke admits that the report did not find a direct link between inquiry-based instruction and Canada’s falling test scores. “We’re talking about a correlation… we can’t necessarily for sure that it’s the cause,” said Stokke.

Whether these new teaching techniques are truly the cause and whether it’s a crisis, one thing the report makes clear is that Canada’s test scores are falling. According to results of the Organization for Economic Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment test, the country that declined the most in their math test scores was Sweden, which declined 31 points.

“There are provinces in Canada that have declined more than that, so for instance Manitoba declined 36 points, Alberta declined 32 points,” said Stokke. “In some provinces, the percentage of children performing at the lowest levels doubled over that period. That’s serious right?”

The debate surrounding the C. D. Howe Institute report is representative of systemic cultural changes, say both Gerofsky and Stokke.

“One thing I have seen in recent years that I find troubling is that a lot of students think that what you really have to do is get high marks at any cost,” said Gerofsky. “I see a lot of kids who are willing to memorize meaningless lists of numbers and letters ... and then spit it back out on a test and do your very best to erase it from your memory and memorize the next meaningless list."

Stokke argues against the shift away from memorization and more traditional tactics.

“When you’re teaching a new learner, they need a lot of structure, a lot guidance, they need clear instruction and a lot of practice,” said Stokke. “They’re in more of a position to work in a discovery-based learning environment but new learners, which is the case for almost all learners in K to 12, they’re learning new information in math… It’s not an effective method of instruction.”

Either way, Gerofsky concedes, math is “a rather conservative area of education that… doesn’t change very quickly.”