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Math attack

Darin King is right. Sort of. 

The minister of education was on the defensive last week after retired Memorial University professor Herbert Gaskill went on a rant about the state of mathematics education in this province.

Gaskill, interviewed on CBC, said the current math curriculum is failing our students. He's not the first to raise the alarm, though he's likely the only one to co-author a parents' guide to math with his wife.

In June, Gaskill expressed similar sentiments in a letter to The Telegram.

"Once again low math scores are on the public table," he said, citing a C.D. Howe report that put this province and Manitoba at the bottom of the heap.

"Once again, our minister of education tells us to give the curriculum a chance, particularly since a 'considerable amount of money' was spent on it. Once again, the buck is safely passed to the distant future."

King, meanwhile, protested that significant changes have already been implemented, largely in response to pressure from MUN academics, as well as teachers and parents. For years, students had been set adrift on a misguided "discovery" curriculum that eschewed rote learning and expected students to figure things out for themselves.

In 2008, the government rolled out a new strategy that added extra teaching resources and reined in the volume of concepts being taught.

So, King is right to say the government hasn't just been twiddling its thumbs. Change comes slowly, and it may be too early to tell whether the shift in 2008 has had much of an effect.

However, it may also be that the changes weren't radical enough, because the curriculum is still largely based on the discovery learning model.

As a concept, discovery learning has been around for at least 50 years, but its implementation has met with varied success. One thing is certain, however, and that is that in its purest form, it is a total crock.

Since 2006, a number of meta studies - studies that incorporate all previous research - have consistently found it to be ineffective.

While exploration and discovery, in the generic sense, are important elements in any education, the discovery learning model has fallen flat. So why does it persist?

Good question.

It may be that education faculties and government departments are riddled with educational theorists who can't let go of a dying idea. Or it may just be the usual glacial pace of policy change.

In any case, it's high time the department took a comprehensive look at school curricula - not only math, but other problem areas such as language arts.

And while we're at it, perhaps we could stop mollycoddling students who ignore deadlines and finally put an end to no-zero nonsense.

St. John’s Telegram

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