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Rediscovering math

Sixteen years of discovery math aren't having the benefits that some once imagined.

by Glen Herbert

Discovery math was implemented in Ontario 2002, though, even 16 years out, the concept has yet to prove itself. Many educators, including Jeff Bavington, principal at Hudson College in Toronto, Ontario, feel, at best, it’s a disservice to students, though also misrepresents how we learn. He even takes issue with the name itself. By focusing on discovery, he says, “you’re reducing in importance the goals, especially in the early years, of numeracy and rote learning, and repetitive learning.”

Rote learning isn’t generally prized, to say the least, in education today. We associate it with desks in rows, and a passive regurgitation of facts and figures. And while it’s admittedly not a good way to learn history—there the true learning is an ability to process primary sources rather than memorize them—many believe that, in terms of math, it still not only has a place, but an essential one.

Repetitive math drills to build speed, accuracy, and mastery. Having the basics in hand allows a greater facility with more complex problems and functions. Because of the rise of discovery math, most students don’t. “The cumulative effect is, you arrive now at about age 10 and you start to look at an equation that contains different types of operations—remember your BEDMAS—most kids at a grade 5 and 6 level, if you ask them about that order of operations, and they stare at me like I’m making an archaic reference to 60s pop music or something. They just glaze over.”

“If that doesn’t get corrected in those very important middle years, that’s where you can get the classic case of being in Grade 7 and saying ‘I hate math.’”

In his experience, students lacking in strong numeracy simply don’t have the tools to approach basic concepts, beginning with a mixed operation problem, which in turn doesn’t bode well for learning beyond that point. “It really starts to bog you down, and start those emotional responses to how you feel about math.” The lesson, unfortunately, becomes that math is hard, stressful, and not for me. “If that doesn’t get corrected in those very important middle years, that’s where you can get the classic case of being in Grade 7 and saying ‘I hate math.’”

Best practices

Private and independent schools have more flexibility in deciding how to deliver the curriculum, and Hudson is a prime example of that. Rather than adopting a program, such as the ubiquitous Math Makes Sense, they developed their own. It began with a year-long study on the efficacy of the then current program headed by vice principal Rose Bastion. “The question I asked,” says Bastien, “was what are the skills needed to help our kids do well in high school? What skills should our kids have when going into middle school?” What she found was that kids not only need the academic skills, but also note taking, documentation, and executive functioning skills. And rote learning. The result was the adoption of Saxon math, which formalizes and consolidates those skills.

Which, Bavington feels, ironically achieves some of the goals that discovery math was based around. “It teaches them the language of math, and as they get older and advance through the grades, they actually discover and unlock the clues in the problem, because they understand what is being asked of them—the operations they’re being asked to group together or to pattern.” And it relies on rote learning which, as the results at Hudson have demonstrated, isn’t such a bad idea after all. In math, Hudson scores within the top 99.3 percentile nationally. “I love that,” says Bavington. No doubt the students’ parents do, too. 

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