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6 changes in Ontario's not-so-basic new elementary math curriculum

The Conversation
27 Nov 2020, 04:40 GMT+10

This fall, Ontario elementary schools launched a new mathematics curriculum. It was introduced in June by Premier Doug Ford as part of a remedy for a "broken education system ... inherited" from the Liberal government. He described it as a back-to-basics approach, something he promised in his election campaign and since becoming premier.

The new curriculum was crafted by competent scholars, informed by extensive research and innovates in different ways. But the highly politicized "back-to-basics" language favoured by Conservatives both exaggerates what has changed and fails to capture some important and relevant new directions.

Considering that there is often criticism and controversy about mathematics teaching, it is appropriate to understand the new document teachers from grades 1 to 8 are now expected to use. Here are some changes to the new curriculum.

1. Times tables

Education Minister Stephen Lecce introduced the new math curriculum noting that memorizing times tables was back. This was after the premier blamed Ontario students' standardized testing scores on the former Liberal government's curriculum.

Meanwhile, the Education Quality and Accountability Office that administers Ontario's large-scale standardized testing has said "Ontario students' basic knowledge of fundamental math skills is stronger than their ability to apply those skills to a problem or think critically to determine an answer."

The new curriculum frames specific outcomes around multiplication differently. While the specific language of memorizing times tables doesn't appear in the new curriculum, the word "recall," meaning simply to remember, does. For example, a curriculum expectation for Grade 3 is now "recall and demonstrate multiplication facts of two, five and 10, and related division facts."

Does this suggest the teaching of multiplication will be based on rote memorization? Not really. The fact that the word "recall" is followed by the word "demonstrate" emphasizes that the curriculum expects conceptual understanding, not simply memorization. Recalling is a natural part of developing fluency in mathematics. Although the word "recall" wasn't in the previous curriculum, it doesn't imply students weren't recalling or remembering these facts before.

Read more: Ontario math has always covered 'the basics'

2. Thematic organization changes

There were some changes to "strands" - big umbrella themes of how curriculum is organized.

Three of these strands (number, algebra and data) were preserved, albeit some changes in names and content. Number was previously called number sense and numeration, algebra was patterning and algebra and data was data management and probability.

Measurement and geometry and spatial sense are now considered one strand, spatial sense. This advances the idea that these two areas have a lot in common and it makes sense to approach them together. For instance, you measure areas of 2D geometric shapes, so why split measurement and geometry?

Two new strands were added.

3. Social-emotional learning

The inclusion of the strand social-emotional learning seems to be a trend for curricula revised from 2019 on. Both math and health and physical education new curricula now teach social-emotional learning.

Considering the feelings students may encounter when doing mathematics, such as confusion, frustration, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, among others, addressing social-emotional skills is crucial. Students may transform these feelings into resilience, perseverance, hope, joy, pride or confidence, if they are supported to identify, acknowledge, normalize and cope with these emotions.

4. Financial literacy

The new financial literacy strand invites teachers to discuss methods of payment, exchange rates, financial transactions, financial goals, financial awareness, budgets, debit and credit, decision making, compound interest and credit cards. These are additions beyond what the previous curriculum covered (Canadian money, taxes and simple interest).

Students will have to make financially informed decisions in their lives. This may be the most common and critical scenario students will use math. It's necessary to ensure students are financially educated.

5. Coding and modelling

A major change to the algebra strand is the addition of coding and mathematical modelling. Teaching coding from Grade 1 can sound far-fetched or intimidating. However, the way the curriculum is proposing this inclusion is realistic and well-structured.

Coding can also be integrated with the learning of mathematical concepts, fostering enjoyment and engagement. In a society that is more and more relying on technology, knowing the foundations of coding is needed.

Mathematical modelling is yet another highlight of the curriculum. It fosters the learning of mathematics through investigation, understanding, analysis, modelling, conjecturing and validation of scenarios that students are likely to encounter outside school. Mathematical modelling promotes rich experiences that emphasize the value of studying mathematics.

6. Earlier approaches

Some content in the curriculum is now explored in earlier grades. Integers, for example, which used to be taught in grades 7 and 8, are now taught in Grade 6 also. Teachers will have more time to explore the topic, slowly starting from the fundamentals. This change offers more time to conceptually teach students.

Teachers, educators, parents and students should be delighted and enthused about the topics and discussions that the new curriculum invites us to experience.

Author: Priscila Correa - Assistant Professor in Mathematics Education, University of Windsor The Conversation

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