It turns out I wasn’t done. There is one more thing I need to look at regarding the PISA results in Alberta, because now our curriculum is being blamed by some Alberta parents and Manitoba mathematicians.
First of all, it needs to be pointed out that the students in Alberta who wrote PISA in 2012 came all the way through elementary school on the old math curriculum. Their curriculum included all the “back to the basics” stuff that some parents and some mathematicians want us to emphasize. The Alberta students who wrote PISA in 2012 had timed multiplication facts on their grade 3 PAT. If their PISA results are because of poor foundational skills, those skills were learned (or not learned) under our old program of studies.
Note: I used this implementation table, and counted back to grade 1 for students who were 15 in 2012.
Based on that same table, the 2021 writing of PISA will be the first time that Alberta students who have been on the revised curriculum since kindergarten will be assessed internationally.
I just don’t think that the curriculum is a problem. I don’t believe that if we reverted to curricula from the 1980’s that all students would suddenly thrive in math. Alberta classrooms are evolving, complicated environments. Since the beginning of my time in education (1975 – Joseph Welsh Elementary School), I have seen that many students struggle with math in grade school. I have seen many students who did well in grade school math struggle with University math. These are not new phenomena.
Further, it is important that Alberta parents (and Manitoba mathematicians) realize that Alberta stepped out of the WNCP curriculum in a number of key places.
This document highlights some of the key changes Alberta made to the K-9 curriculum that make it different from the curriculum elsewhere in the WNCP. A couple that I’d like to highlight for the “back to the basics” movement are below.
- Alberta added this statement, which clearly indicates that recall of number facts (ie. ability to multiply without a calculator) is important. “Mastery of number facts is expected to be attained by students as they develop their number sense. This mastery allows for facility with more complex computations but should not be attained at the expense of an understanding of number.”
- In grade 5, Alberta changed the phrase, “determine answers for basic multiplication facts” to this phrase, which clearly indicates that recall must be efficient, “determine, with fluency, answers for basic multiplication facts.”
I spent some time on the Singapore Ministry of Education site. Singapore is being held up as a country that is doing a better job than us. This quote from their own curriculum says essentially the same thing that Alberta’s curriculum does in the bullets above. In fact, their entire curriculum is strikingly similar to ours.
The development of skill proficiencies in students is essential in the learning and application of mathematics. Although students should become competent in the various mathematical skills, over-emphasising procedural skills without understanding the underlying mathematical principles should be avoided.
In my high school world, Alberta significantly modified the -2 stream (Foundations of Mathematics elsewhere in the WNCP). In Alberta, this stream contains much more Algebra. The intent was to get wider acceptance for that stream to programs in University that do not require calculus. It seems to have worked.
The problem with blaming a curriculum is that it is an ideological debate that is hard to prove definitively one way or another. Compound that with the fact that curriculum implementation is a long, slow process, and reacting too quickly to one measure (PISA results) can lead to some rash decisions being made. We face way bigger challenges in educating Alberta’s future than how we teach division algorithms.