In 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government decided to fix the province's most glaring educational shortcoming: mathematics. Elementary math scores in Ontario have seen a startling decline in recent years. In 2019, an unsettling 48% of grade 6 students met the provincial standard.
A standardized exam known as the EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) test is administered to students in grades 3 and 6, containing a math category and a literacy category. Scores for grade 3 students have been declining as well. It is easy to see the ramifications of inadequate elementary math instruction.
Elementary school is about learning the basics of quantities, operations, and algebraic reasoning- the ABCs of math. If our elementary students are unable to grasp such important concepts and cannot apply them, math will become extremely difficult for them in later grades.
Declining math scores in Ontario cannot be attributed to a lack of effort or dedication by our students, but to a curriculum of poor quality. Additionally, poor math instruction will adversely affect the provincial economy. The foundational skills taught in elementary school must become second nature to students.
They must be confident and effective at solving both fundamental and application-based math problems right from elementary school. After 12 years of schooling in the province of Ontario, I can confirm that Doug Ford's new 'back to basics' math curriculum is the answer.
1: Multiplication Tables and Operations from Memory
Basic multiplication statements should become as natural as breathing. To succeed in math, students should memorize multiplication tables from 1 to 12 in early grades. The 2005 math curriculum does not include the memorization of key number facts.
You might wonder who I learned my tables from. My Mother taught me multiplication tables and facilitated my memorization from start to finish. She did the school's work for them. The 2020 curriculum will focus on mental math concepts such as multiplication and division statements. I wish that my early math teachers had focused on developing mental math skills, as it would have made arithmetic much easier down the road.
This is another key skill which young math students need to master. When studying technical subjects taught in middle school and high school, many years after the concept is first introduced, students will draw upon their knowledge of fractional expressions and fractional operations to perform increasingly complex arithmetic (it will be used in problems involving circuitry, trigonometry, reaction enthalpy, etc).
No student should move on from elementary school without a thorough understanding of how fractions work. The 2020 curriculum seeks to build a solid understanding of fractions starting from grade 1, where the idea of equal sharing will be introduced. Fractions are introduced later on in the 2005 curriculum, and students who are weak in math may find this jarring.
This is perhaps the biggest change which Ford has proposed. The PC's want to introduce basic coding skills from early grades- and I couldn't be more pleased about it. Even if students don't take advanced programming courses in high school or choose to pursue computing, basic coding skills will bolster logical thinking, analytical thinking and mathematical confidence.
Programming problems tend to be more open ended than math problems. This can make it considerably more difficult than typical math questions, as the solution to a challenging question may be somewhat elusive. Good programming is about finding efficient and elegant solutions to problems- a key life skill.
High school graduates who do end up pursuing computing may have stronger abilities, since they will have many more years of coding experience. People who don't pursue computing will have a basic understanding of programming, and may even take up independent web design/simple game development.
4: Financial Literacy
Even if you aren't a fan of 'back to basics', you must admit that financial literacy is integral to success and should be taught as a formal strand in mathematics. I'm not talking about financial modelling and numerical problems, but a basic understanding of money management.
When I was little, money management seemed extremely elusive, abstract, and challenging. I wish the school system had broken it down in simple, analytical terms and brought it down to earth. If students are taught budgeting and money management, they'll be less likely to succumb to commercial temptations and decadent purchases. The new curriculum will include "understanding the value and use of money over time, how to manage financial well being and the value of budgeting".
5. Mathematics Confidence
To improve the province's falling math scores, the school system needs to tackle the fear of math that many young students encounter. Math can seem daunting to many students, as they find it both conceptually demanding and tedious. Eliminating the fear of math is sure to benefit students in the long run. It doesn't need to be scary.
Instead of panicking when faced with a more challenging question, students should learn to take the challenge in stride and approach it with a level head. They should feel a boost of motivation to tackle the problem and find a solution. The PC's plan to introduce "tools and strategies to help students develop confidence, cope with challenges and think critically".
There's only one thing missing from this equation: professional development. I believe that September of 2020 is too early to introduce the new curriculum, especially since schools will be preoccupied with figuring out a safe way to reopen and operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers and school boards will need some time to adjust to the changes and determine how to properly implement them. Coding, for example, cannot be taught if elementary school faculty members do not have a rudimentary programming background.
Teachers require time to learn the new curriculum and develop feasible lesson plans. The school atmosphere this fall with be rife with tension and paranoia. These are not ideal conditions for a successful curricular overhaul.
The PCs are off to an excellent start with their amendment of the curriculum. I am confident that, if schools are given time to adjust, Ontario students will become far more capable and confident in mathematics as a result of the back to basics curriculum.