Long-term harm to students and province could result if government’s plan implemented, say education experts

Oct. 1, 2021

Albertans deserve ‘re-do’ of proposed K-6 math curriculum

Long-term harm to students and province could result if government’s plan implemented, say education experts

A team of experts in mathematics, teaching and classroom resource development took a deep dive into Alberta Education’s proposed K-6 curriculum and found it to be, in a word, indefensible.

Math Minds, a partnership between researchers in the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, multiple school districts in the Calgary area, and a not-for-profit resource developer, shares the government’s view that a revision of the mathematics curriculum is necessary, and set out to provide critical, but supportive insight.

Their in-depth analysis — A Response to Alberta’s Proposed K–6 Mathematics Curriculum — did find some positives in the province’s draft, including a commitment to a knowledge-rich curriculum and a departure from unsubstantiated notions of personalized strategies for learning toward an increased emphasis on broadly accepted procedures.

“A focus on specific established methods, especially ones that are familiar to a broad swath of the population, can enable productive discussion among learners,” says Dr. Brent Davis, PhD, a professor in the Werklund School.

Superficial inclusion

That said, Davis and his partners found cognitive, structural and content problems in the draft, including the following:

  • Conceptual understanding underemphasized. There is an assumption that an emphasis on procedural understandings will eventually support the emergence of conceptual understandings. Davis’s team says there is no evidence to support this. On the contrary, there is an abundance of evidence that suggests an initial emphasis on memorized rules and algorithms is more likely to impede the development of conceptual understanding. Procedural competence is important, but only if engaged in the service of conceptual understanding.
  • Flaws in how content is presented. Multiple topics have moved to earlier grades, increasing demands on teachers and learners while sidestepping opportunities to develop foundational understandings. For example, adding and subtracting fractions was previously taught in Grade 7. In this curriculum, students are introduced to fractions of an object, fractional notation, position on a number line, and comparison of fractions in Grade 3.Students also look at fractions as products of natural numbers and unit fractions, add, and subtract fractions with the same denominators, including in word problem context. The team says this is too much for a single year. As a result, the concept of fractions is bound to be studied superficially, by rote, instead of instilling joy and wonder in mathematics.
  • Curriculum developers inattentive to the role of mathematics in and across the cultures encountered in and served by the schooling system. To illustrate, there are only 14 mentions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit content across seven grades. In fact, most of the mentions are in the lower grades, and they verge on the tokenistic. In the proposed curriculum, mathematics is presented as a-cultural and a-political. The team calls this a naïve, culturally arrogant, colonialist attitude.

The Alberta dis-advantage

Possibly the most unforgivable fault is the Ministry’s failure to take advantage of current evidence-based knowledge in the design of a mathematics curriculum. “We regard the apparent lack of awareness of research literature as indefensible, especially in an era marked by worrisome and destructive scientific skepticism.

“We worry that this omission might adversely affect children’s learning while placing Alberta at a disadvantage relative to jurisdictions that are being more deliberate about structuring their mathematics curricula around emergent insights into mathematics and cognition.”

So, what does Math Minds advise going forward?

“We cannot perceive a simple remedy to the situation. On the contrary, in our assessment, addressing the situation would require a complete rethinking of the proposed curriculum,” says the Math Minds team. “The province, educators, and students deserve a re-do that is informed by sound theory and robust evidence. This version lacks both.”

Alumni All-Access

Countering a Regressive Curriculum: A Dialogue on Nurturing Student Success and Learning

A panel of academics from the Werklund School of Education will discuss the challenges and opportunities in the new K-6 curriculum. Joined by ATA President Jason Schilling, researchers and practitioners will discuss ways of navigating the proposed curriculum with the aim of ensuring student success.

Date: Monday, Oct. 4, 2021
Time: 6:30 - 8 p.m.
Delivery: Online