I have recently had interactions with two people who are passionate about math education. A few weeks ago I exchanged emails with Michael Zwaagstra. I wrote a whole post about that interaction. Last week, I met Joe Bower in person for the first time. I’ve been thinking a great deal about my conversations with them. Both Michael and Joe have strong beliefs about the state of math education in Western Canada. They are, however, at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Michael argues in favor of traditional teaching methods, tougher standards, and more standardized testing. Joe is opposed to all things standard, and advocates for more constructivist teaching methods.
After reflection, I can only conclude that I am solidly in the middle on this one.
Joe made me feel badly for admitting that I like our curriculum. Michael made me feel badly for admitting that I like our curriculum. Joe thinks it is too rigid and full of external standards. Michael thinks it advocates too much constructivism, and not enough rote learning. I think what both of these people are forgetting is that the WNCP curriculum is written by teachers. It is not a top-down process led by government employees who have no connection to education. Teachers are involved in its creation at every step. It is a good curriculum. I shouldn’t have to apologize for thinking that.
Joe made me feel badly for thinking it was OK to use exams to assess students. Michael made me feel badly for thinking it was OK to use more open tasks to assess students. I think any solid assessment program should include a mix and some student choice in terms of assessment types. To say testing is wrong or that performance based assessment is wrong is narrow-minded. To accurately assess our students against the curricular standards, we need a diverse set of assessments. I suspect that both people would argue that the standards are the problem, but Joe would say they are too rigid and Michael would say that they need more rigour.
I’ve been reflecting on how I feel about the provincial exams. I’m sure Joe would eliminate all of them, and Michael would introduce more of them. Once again, I find myself in the middle. Alberta students write province-wide exams in core subjects in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 12. I believe that these exams cause undue stress and fear to students in Grades 3 and 6. I suspect they do not necessarily assess what we think they do. I’m not sure how I feel about the grade 9 ones, but I believe that a grade 12 exit exam is not a bad thing. Perhaps 50% weighting is a bit excessive, but the notion of such an exam does not offend me.
Just like our curriculum is written by teachers, so too are our provincial exams. They are not written by a giant testing company in Toronto. They are the best exams that can be created, given our current parameters. I lament the loss of written response questions in a curriculum that emphasizes things like communication and deep understanding. I hope our government can find a way to get written response questions back on the exam. I don’t, however, believe we should scrap them at the grade 12 level.
Joe argues in favor of a constructivist approach, and Michael argues in favor of direct instruction. Both are solid teaching practices, which is why they should both appear in any differentiated classroom. There is a time for each of them, and neither of them should be used all the time. As educators, we have a responsibility to meet student needs in a variety of ways and using a variety of practices.
All I can conclude is that I am right in the middle of the beliefs of these two people. Our system isn’t broken. If Alberta was a country, we’d rank right up there with the Finlands and Koreas of the world. We’re doing a pretty good job. To swing too far one way or the other would be foolish.