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Ontario's elementary math curriculum: What's new, what's good and what's bad

Aaron S. Bayley

The Ministry of Ontario has revamped the Mathematics curriculum for elementary and secondary schools for the 2020-21 school year. But before we can properly assess the pros and cons of the new curriculum, we need to establish the Ministry's motives behind the update.

When it comes to deciding what children should learn in school, there are two competing camps with very different ideologies and motives. The first camp wants to prepare students for what society is like. This camp is led by mostly social conservatives who want to maintain society's status quo and its existing traditions and institutions. They prioritize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, because careers based on STEM expertise are highly lucrative and promote economic growth. They seek to mold students into the Bay Street bankers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, doctors, dentists, or data analysts of tomorrow.

The second camp wants to prepare students for their idealized vision of society. This camp is led by mostly liberals for whom the arts and culture should play as significant a role in society as big business. While they acknowledge the importance of math and science, they also value creative writing, visual and dramatic arts, and the global citizenship and stewardship promoted by the study of social studies, history, and geography. They are generally supportive of teachers (or are teachers themselves) and against the standardized testing of students.

The current Ministry of Education of Ontario falls into the former camp. The province's conservative premier, Doug Ford, is a business owner and populist who once campaigned for the closure of public libraries and blamed teacher unions for damaging the economy. Ford's Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently advocated for inexpensive online learning courses such as the ones used in Alabama and Arkansas, two of the worst performing public school systems in the U.S., as good education models for Ontario. During a disastrous interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan, Lecce failed to identify studies showing e-learning is superior to in-class learning and instead pointed to the opinions of "job creators" and "people in the job market" as evidence that the status quo cannot be maintained, a tacit admission that under the current government, the student's role is to satisfy the needs of employers.

Given the actions and ideologies of Ford and Lecce, it's clear that the updated Math curriculum is predicated on a desire to promote careers in business and technology sectors and push the economy toward unlimited growth. Having said that, a curriculum can have a positive impact on student learning even if the intentions of curriculum writers are perceived by some as misguided.

Good teachers "begin with the end in mind" by using backward design models to create lessons and units for students that foster critical thinking skills and highlight underlying big ideas. When it comes to teaching math, educators are divided on what the most effective strategies are to embed student learning. This brings us to another schism: that of concrete versus abstract math learning. Over the past decade, many Canadian provinces, including Ontario, have adopted curriculum's which embrace the abstract and inquiry-based approach promoted by Canadian educator Dr. Marian Smalls. But math scores on EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) standardized tests have been falling for a decade, and Smalls' critics blame an emphasis on having students discover concepts through experimentation while deemphasizing memorization and rote learning. The new curriculum is touted as a "return to basics" model that includes a focus on memorizing multiplication tables, coding, and financial literacy. So let's take a closer look at the elementary curriculum and its six math strands (which includes Social Emotional Learning Skills), as well as Financial Literacy and coding, before drawing any conclusions.

The five strands

The elementary math curriculum currently consists of five strands: Number Sense and Numeration, Measurement, Geometry and Spatial Sense, Patterning and Algebra, and Data Management and Probability. Each of the strands are reported on throughout the school year. As of September, the strands will include: Number, Algebra, Data, Spatial Sense, and Financial Literacy (the shortened strand names are an improvement over the current convoluted ones). It makes sense conceptually to combine Measurement and Geometry into Spatial Sense, and Financial Literacy should have been part of the curriculum long ago. Instead of five math marks for each strand, students will receive one overall math mark--a welcome change, but one likely made to boost math EQAO scores.

The sixth strand: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Skills

According to the Ministry: "This strand focuses on students' development and application of social-emotional learning skills to support their learning of math concepts and skills, foster their overall well-being and ability to learn, and help them build resilience and thrive as math learners." In a nutshell, this strand was created with the explicit intention of helping students overcome math anxiety. Students who are more creative and stronger in areas related to language (seen as right brain thinkers) often struggle with the logic-based concepts found in math. While the "left brain-right brain" dichotomy is hotly debated, any attempt to acknowledge and support students with math anxiety deserves credit.

Whether mandating the teaching of social-emotional skills with regard to math will prove successful is, however, not clear. For example, students will be expected to "make connections among mathematical concepts, procedures, and representations, and relate mathematical ideas to other contexts." This is a major challenge for students with math anxiety, who often feel as if they are treading water. Just learning how to execute a skill or equation successfully is a huge achievement without also having to understand the reasoning behind it. While many Ontario school boards pay lip service to focusing on student mental health and well-being, this isn't always born out in practice. Students most likely to suffer from depression and anxiety would have benefited from doing creative- and arts-based activities during the period of online instruction caused by the COVID-19 quarantine; instead, many became despondent over having to learn online Math (which, along with Language and Science, were prioritized subjects), and did not actively engage in their learning at all. Mandating social-emotional learning skills as an explicit part of the Math curriculum to promote the government's economic agenda, and not as part of the larger school experience, feels insincere.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy is a critical component of math instruction that introduces students to practical knowledge they can use in everyday life. Students in grades 7 and 8 will learn to compare exchange rates and convert foreign currencies; create budgets to meet long-term goals; examine the impact interest rates have on savings, investments, and the cost of borrowing; and analyze the interest rates, fees, and rewards offered by various credit card companies. Teaching students these skills will prepare them for when they need to make important financial decisions. However, good teachers are already teaching these skills to their students. Comparing smartphone plans and using spreadsheets to calculate interest rates have been popular tasks for grade 8 students for many years. When teaching students with learning disabilities as well as high performance students, I've used toy money in conjunction with word problems to teach students various tasks, including how to compare prices and make change. So while financial literacy is a welcome addition to the curriculum, good teachers have always incorporated money management activities in their instruction.


The story of two or three young, male entrepreneurs creating a digital startup in their college dorm room that goes on to make them money beyond their wildest imaginations is the digital fairy tale equivalent to getting rich on Wall Street.

To put it bluntly, coding is trending because Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter), the scions of the tech industry, are evidence that obscene amounts of money can be made from computer programming. Many startups seek talented engineers to work for them, meaning the tech industry can be a tantalizing career opportunity for students. Should coding be taught in elementary school? Sure. But so should the fact that a growing number of job losses are a direct result of having a person's specialized role taken over by a machine. In his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman writes presciently:

The computer is almost all process. There are, for example, no "great computerers," as there are great writers, painters, or musicians. There are "great programs" and "great programmers." but their greatness lies in their ingenuity either in simulating a human function or in creating new possibilities of calculation, speed, and volume.

This brings to mind media theorist Douglas Rushkoff's description of the digital economy in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus as "digitally accelerated capitalism." In a virtual economy, growth can expand infinitely. Those at the top will continue to accumulate wealth without creating any value while money ceases to flow to those at the bottom. This is the system the current government wants students to buy into. There is an assumption in education that "technology" equals "cool." But technology is any tool designed to make our lives easier. Textbooks, pencils, and calculators are all technology. The difference is that being connected to digital technology means being coopted into a system which draws on our time, attention, and personal data for economic sustenance. By encouraging active engagement in the digital age are we unwittingly fuelling students' addiction to social media, and the subsequent mental health consequences we claim to care so much about?

Return to basics?

Calling the 2020-21 Math curriculum a return to basics is selling it short. The social-emotional and financial literacy components, though not revolutionary ideas, are positive additions. As for rote learning skills, good teachers want their students to memorize their multiplication tables, but mandating it will not magically make it so. But the concrete-abstract pendulum does not have to swing from one extreme to the other; teachers could and should employ hands-on tasks and even drill exercises and rote learning worksheets to embed learning. Some students won't need them, but others will.

It's important to remember that Math curriculums are written with the economy in mind. Economics is about the pursuit of happiness. Students who are already proficient at math and science will be fine, but those who aren't, or who have no interest in these areas of study, won't be. That's because society has neglected them and governments have defunded the arts. We spend so much time, money, and resources trying to get these students to improve at math instead of nurturing their passion and creating job opportunities for whatever it is they are passionate about, and then wonder why they are anxious, frustrated, and depressed. It's one thing to say that students must be prepared for the society that awaits them. But it takes courage, conviction, and planning to change that society into one where all students can thrive.


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