Balance not Blame: Mathematics and Public Accountability

Darrell LonsberryIMG_0630

With the release of the results on last June’s Provincial Achievement Tests Albertans again find themselves having to wade through misinformation and misdirection in trying to make sense of what are, undeniably, dropping results in mathematics. Of course, there will be the predictable chorus from those who espouse a back to basics approach to teaching mathematics. I cringe at the possibility that the Ministry of Education will use these results to justify what I would characterize as a step backward to a rote learning, back-to-basics curriculum. What is required, in my opinion, is more support for teachers in adopting an inquiry-based disposition toward their practice (NOT a “discovery learning” approach, despite the misinformation that Albertans have been inundated with for the past 2 years), standardized assessments that better measure the priorities that are central to the subject or discipline being studied and, perhaps most importantly, a constantly reflective disposition of educators where we are asking ourselves whether we have found an appropriate balance between focusing on procedural knowledge (i.e. the foundations or basics) and deeper conceptual understanding.

We have a Ministerial Order (MO) that is now the law for school jurisdictions in Alberta. The MO, in part, states that the goal of the ministerial order is to enable all students to, “discover, develop and apply competencies across subject and discipline areas for learning, work and life to enable students to:

  • know how to learn: to gain knowledge, understanding or skills through experience, study, and interaction with others;
  • think critically: conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate to construct knowledge;
  • identify and solve complex problems;
  • manage information: access, interpret, evaluate and use information effectively, efficiently, and ethically;
  • innovate: create, generate and apply new ideas or concepts.”

I believe, and Connect Charter School is based on the understanding that the most effective way to achieve those goals is not to return to a teaching methodology that existed 40 years ago, when the world context was a very different place in many fundamental respects. Rather, it is best achieved through a disposition of inquiry (again NOT discovery learning), where teachers and students engage in authentic, relevant, engaging questions that are deeply rooted in curriculum. Inquiry is not a free-for-all of learning but rather is very structured and planned; in my experience preparing for teaching in an inquiry-base setting is far more rigorous and demanding than it is in a traditional teacher-led, rote learning scenario. It is not a methodology or recipe for teaching, i.e. follow these steps and you, too, will be an inquiry-based teacher. We think of it at Connect Charter School as a disposition that one has toward their work – both students and teachers. Inquiry demands that students have a sound foundation of skills to build upon, and so the approach that we must have is not EITHER a back to basics approach to learning or an inquiry-based approach, but rather an AND approach of focusing on both the basics and deeper conceptual understanding.

To be clear, I concur that, as one of Alberta’s educators, we haven’t yet got it right in the province. We need more support in order to assist teachers in making a change in their practice and, if we are to be held to account on standardized tests (a concept which I welcome and is a fundamental measure of accountability as a public system of education), then those assessments must be modified to reflect the goals of the education system. With the change from Provincial Achievement Tests to the Student Learning Assessments we are hopefully seeing such a shift toward more relevant metrics of accountability. What we are talking about is not a new work routine or simply a change in expectations, the government has asked teachers across the province to change their practice to be aligned with the MO. This is a monumental undertaking and is not going to be accomplished in one or two years. Moreover, while teachers are being asked to make a fundamental shift in their practice, the means by which they are judged has not changed since 1982, when the first provincial achievement tests were administered.

So, where to from here? What I believe to the core of my being, based on my own experiences as a teacher and principal, is that hopping on the pendulum to a “back to basics” approach to learning at the expense of conceptual understanding would truly be a step backward for our province. Alberta Education, school jurisdictions, school administrators and our teaching colleagues must support the transition in teaching practices that we have been given a mandate for in the MO. Such an approach to teaching and learning (again, which has been mislabeled as “discovery learning”) is not exclusive of the necessity for all students to have a sound understanding of the basics, or foundations of the discipline of math. In fact, an inquiry-based disposition allows students to build deeper understanding of the true nature of the discipline, which is only possible because it is rooted in a strong foundation of procedural knowledge i.e. the basics.

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