Saturday, December 28, 2013

A view from another David

Edmonton Journal's David Staples has been writing about 
Grade inflation and flex time harm education, high school teacher warns
Alberta schools are no longer the best

 and most recently, 

Students ‘cheated’ by way math is taught, say educators and parents

If you read all these articles, you will notice one important commonality...Staples refuses to write about the "other side" of the story.  Thus I offer a view from another David.

I invite you to read his articles to see one side, and then read below to see the other.

First, Staples wrote:

It’s common for students to get much higher marks in their classroom than they get on their diploma exams...the number of EPSB students who have been graded as “excellent” or “acceptable” on provincewide diploma exams has dropped by 1.9 per cent. In the classroom, however, the number who have been graded “excellent” or “acceptable” has gone up by seven per cent.
He creates an idea that this should not be the norm and the teacher mark should be the same on the diploma.  This is great in theory, but before you nod your head I ask you to remember some minor details: 

  • The teacher spends almost 5 months with your child, while the diploma spends 3 hours.  
  • The teacher has met, talked, and learned about the interests of your child, while the diploma was made in an office by people who have, most likely, never met your child.  
  • Your child is allowed to use real word devices, such as Dictionaries, Apps, Blogs, Web Articles, etc, in the classroom, while the diploma creates a false sense that knowledge is only valuable if you can memorize it, not apply it.
  • Lastly, because Staples writes about the Math diploma, the teacher gives various types of questions, in various formats, in various ways to your child, while the diploma only asks Multiple Choice and Numerical Response.
Now I ask, which mark should have more merit?  I pose a different problem... Why is the diploma mark lower than the mark given by the teacher?  Isn't it time we change our standardized assessment strategies? 

Next, Staples writes:

 Alberta students used to be ranked at the top of the world academically, but they are sliding...In 2000, Alberta ranked top worldwide in reading, third overall in science and math. Our teachers and curriculum were top notch and our accountability, through provincial exams, was state-of-the-art....Since then, however, Alberta has steadily dropped. This week when the 2012 PISA results came out, we ranked 11th in math, fifth in reading and fourth in science...

First, I don't believe we can put our faith in a two-hour exam, as my arguments from above still stand, however lets go beyond that.  

Staples will have you believe that this drop is due to the fact that the math curriculum has changed, and even that we need better teachers in the classrooms to be educating your child.  When I read this, I remember back to my Science class when we learned about constant, dependent, and independent variables.

Before we go witch hunting on the teachers, lets remember that these teachers are the same ones who were instructing in 2000.  Unless I am unaware, the graduation requirements to become a teacher in 2000 are the same as they are now.   Thus, teachers would be the constant variable in this. Now that we can't blame teachers, we can ask what changed?

Sure the math curriculum changed, but was there more?  Class sizes over the last year have also increased, funding of AISI projects have been reduced to 0.  I don't understand how if more than one thing has changed (independent variables), how can we point our finger to one of them and ignore the rest? 

My last debate comes from the fact that Staples will have you believe that because we don't teach memorization of math facts students won't understand math.

The reality is that being told number facts, and forced to regurgitate these facts, will not create an environment which is conducive to deeper learning.  The best way a student can understand, not just recite, mathematics is through discovering the facts on their own.  For some, this discovery process can take seconds, while for others it may take an entire class.  The role the teacher plays in this is by acting as a tour guide.  By keeping the students on the “path” towards the discovery, it will ensure that all students create their own individual, and innovative, techniques in learning mathematics. 

I often ask myself, which skills do I want for my own children?  Do I want them to be taught the skills to memorize, and ultimately be able to complete algorithmic tasks, or the ability to create and design which will lead them down a road towards a career with heuristic tasks?  

The reality is that the age old saying that “Practice makes perfect”, does not apply to deep learning in mathematics.  Traditionally, students have been given worksheets which have multiplication facts on them and are given a strict time limit to complete these (named Mad Minutes), but in actuality the mark given on these “Mad” sheets really does not indicate to anyone as to knowledge of the student writing them.  

The weak students truly suffer the most from this model of proficiency-driven, because they find these tasks dull, repetitive, and entirely unusable in the world outside the walls of the classroom.  I would agree that sometimes, knowing facts as the days of the week are important, but these facts should be a by-product of use and application not out of necessity.  

Another fact is, by spending time forcing these facts to be memorized is truly interfering with a child’s innovative and creative ability.  Most of these worksheets require low level thinking and usually can lock the thought process of a student into understanding simple algorithms.  Eleanor Duckworth summed it up the best, 

“Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risk, and makes no demands.  It is automatic.  It is thoughtless.” 

Is this the environment in which math students should be learning? 

The new math curriculum believes, among many things, that:

·         Students learn by attaching meaning to what they do, and they need to construct their own meaning of mathematics.

·         Students need to explore problem-solving situations in order to develop personal strategies and become mathematically literate. They must realize that it is acceptable to solve problems in a variety of ways and that a variety of solutions may be acceptable.

·         Curiosity about mathematics is fostered when children are engaged in, and talking about, such activities as comparing quantities, searching for patterns, sorting objects, ordering objects,  creating designs and building with blocks

I end with a link to a petition asking the Edmonton Journal to stop writing one sided, bias, articles, and until they do so you agree to stop reading their paper.



  1. While I agree with your argument about both higher demands on teachers and out-dated ideas related to standardized testing, I'd argue Staples makes a reasonable point with regards to basic math skills. For the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time, creativity in determining why 63 minus 17 equals 46 is less important than actually being able to do it. I'm finding in my dealings with teens in the retail space that the new math systems aren't teaching them the absolute basics of math needed for the real world without resorting to an electronic assistant.

    Staples consistently references university math and science professors who are finding the same thing, which implies the math curriculum, at least, isn't teaching kids what they need to show basic real-world competence, or the essential skills that underlie the more complex maths required at higher levels.

    There is nothing wrong with simply and automatically knowing the right answer when it comes to basic math. I'd argue not having to think about the most fundamental aspects of math enable greater creativity and understanding at the higher levels since a mind doesn't get bogged down with unnecessary analysis at the lower levels.

  2. Actually, in an article I recently read, our students did very well with the "basic math" questions on PISA. It was the higher level thinking questions (the problem solving) where they scored lower.

    My problem is Staples is suffers from something called "fallacy attribution error". It's the belief that X has caused Y with an oversimplification of the issue. Scores went down. Teachers and the curriculum must suck. There can be no other factors according to him. As Mr. Martin has pointed out, this is a delusion. Class sizes, funding, etc are all things Staples dismisses. This is called "cognitive dissonance". When you are faced with information that doesn't fit your current belief, you simply dismiss it or reason it away.

    When you surround yourself with people who all think like you, you live your life in an echo chamber. But then again, he does like to listen to himself I think.