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Alberta Education clarifies math curriculum

By: Allison Chorney

  |  Posted: Thursday, Jul 03, 2014 02:43 pm

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Alberta Minister of Education Jeff Johnson said the department will be implementing some clarifications to the kindergarten to Grade 9 math curriculum and related teaching resources in September to make it clearer and more explicit what students will learn.

“We’re looking at a whole number of things with math in particular,” he said of the curriculum redesign the department is in the process of developing.

He said math was one area they wanted to target in particular because of the downward trend in Canadian math scores.

Math scores in Alberta slipped from eighth place in the world in 2009 to 11th place in 2012, according to international educational ranking from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is administered every three years.

However, in recent months Alberta Education has received criticism for the perceived move away from basic math such as multiplication tables and towards a more “discovery-based learning” where critics say no one method is mastered.

“(The clarifications are) also in response to concerns from parents and educators that feel the curriculum is confusing or may not be explicit enough,” Johnson said.

Clarifications to the curriculum outline specific outcomes in grades 1 to 5 to clarify expectations regarding the mastering of basic math.

Students are expected to recall, understand and apply their number facts, including multiplication facts (multiplication tables).

Students investigate a variety of strategies and become proficient in at least one appropriate and efficient strategy that they understand. Strategies may include traditional algorithms such as long division and vertical addition; however, specific strategies are not prescribed in the outcomes.

The teaching professional has the flexibility and responsibility to meet the learning needs of each of his or her students. Programs of study identify “what” students are to learn; teachers are the professional who determine the “how.”

“We want a good balance between teaching our kids problem solving and teaching them the basics. We want to teach both, not one or the other,” Johnson said. “I think this is a good balance.”

He said the Province does not dictate how teachers should teach only what to teach because each child has a different learning style and there is not a one-size-fits-all learning method.

“We feel the ‘what’ you learn should be really clear and explicit, but the ‘how’ you learn and instruction methods should be left up to the teacher who is the professional,” Johnson said.

Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) President Mark Ramsankar agrees with the decision.

“This was a great move by the department to really clarify how the debate about curriculum is going,” Ramsankar said.

“More importantly, teachers now have the flexibility to reach the individual needs of students.”

However, not everyone is totally satisfied with the clarifications.

Physician Nhubg Tran-Davies, who started a “Back to Basics: Mastering the fundamentals of mathematics” petition in December 2013, said in an email to the nearly 17,000 petition supporters she is pleased with many of the clarifications but would like to see standard algorithms made mandatory.

“Like the times tables, the standard algorithms (long division/multiplication, vertical addition/subtraction) are such essential tools to mastering basic math skills that it cannot be left on the sidelines as just an option,” she wrote.

Chestermere-Rockyview MLA and Education Critic Bruce McAllister issued a similar statement to Tran-Davies saying he is pleased with the clarifications, which he said reestablish a focus on teaching the basics of math, but suggests further changes are still needed.

“In addition to times tables, our children must learn long division and vertical addition and subtraction,” he said in a press release. “It is still not mandatory to learn these algorithms, even with these changes.”

Johnson said for every critic there is also an educational expert praising the flexible learning methods, but he added the standard algorithms may be incorporated into mandatory learning if there is evidence to suggest it would improve learning.

“There’s a broader look at math curriculum happening as well, so we could see changes in the future,” he said.

“These changes won’t be made unless we’re sure they will improve education.”

Alberta Education recently uploaded five videos for parents that show how elementary students will be communicating, solving problems, using technology and applying strategies in math.

To view the videos, visit education.alberta.ca and search “Math Video Series.” The videos are included in the “My Child’s Math” series.

“Parents can feel really comfortable with the education system in Alberta,” Johnson said.

“It’s one of the best in the world.”


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