The OECD’s most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have triggered fear among Albertans that children are being used as guinea pigs for a “fuzzy” and “unproven” experiment with “discovery” learning. This fear has been exacerbated by a dominant voice in the media and politically charged critiques. The result is that teachers and parents alike have been asked to declare allegiance to either “old” math or “new” math and to defend their respective positions publicly. Advocating for more thoughtful pedagogy while under attack can be difficult and many voices in this conversation have for the most part remained silent until now. We are a group of Alberta teachers who would like to acknowledge support for our province’s recent shift away from mechanistic pedagogy and teaching strictly through rote memorization and repetitive worksheets.
While the OECD’s reported decline of Canadian student performance is not to be disregarded, the information presented by PISA is too complex to be adequately summarized in a sentence. The OECD admits that the sample data includes some “uncertainty” with respect to results and that a “large variation in single (country) ranking positions is likely.” They are also careful to clarify that PISA provides a much deeper and more nuanced analysis than mere rankings and acknowledge that it is troubling that headline rankings tend to be where most interpretations of PISA scores end. Though Canadian performance on 2012 PISA tests dropped by small margins in mathematics, reading and science, the bulk of this decline was attributed to difficulty with problem solving and critical analysis while our basic skills performance (92%) could not be substantiated as a major issue. It is also worth noting that PISA scales providing detailed information on school governance and learning environments suggested that Canadian teachers and principals felt they had very little autonomy over curriculum and assessment compared to educators in other top-performing countries. If the recent PISA report makes a strong case for anything it is for developing increased support of and trust in teaching professionals.
The “math wars” dominating educational conversation in Alberta are distracting and unproductive. As Albertans, we understand that today’s curriculum does not preclude the memorization of times tables, just as mandating “memorization” will not ensure that every child is able to commit basic multiplication to memory. It is our understanding that effective discipline-based inquiry provides space for both practice and problem solving while an overemphasis on rote memorization often becomes a substitute rather than supplement for the cultivation of deep understanding. Ultimately, we propose that the real way forward is to continue to engage all stakeholders in thoughtful dialogue that respects and acknowledges the expertise and professionalism of those who have committed their lives to teaching children in the classroom.