Manitoba Education officially released information to the general public about revisions to our K-8 mathematics curriculum document today. Their media release highlights that the “new, revised curriculum strikes the right balance between developing math skills, procedural thinking, conceptual understanding and problem solving to ensure students are getting a solid foundation in math” (quote from the release credited to Nancy Allan, Minister of Education).

Prior to this official media release, representatives from every division in the province were invited to attend a two-day session with the objectives of reviewing the revisions, developing a network of provincial numeracy leaders, and providing opportunity for divisions to plan for September when the revisions take effect.

What followed today’s media release were a flurry of online, print, and TV stories about “returning back to the basics” and “the importance of doing math in your head”. I listened to Minister Allan’s interview on CBC Radio 2 over the noon hour, where she stated that “we’re going back to the math we used many years ago”. As the interview progressed, she explained to listeners that the current revisions “didn’t have to do with a research study” but were based on feedback she received while campaigning for the election in 2011.

What has somehow gotten lost in the flurry of media coverage are a few important points:

1. “basics” have always been in the curriculum – that is, if we are defining “basics” as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. What most of the media response around this phrase of “back to basics” seems to be referring to is that the revision now specifically points to the expectation that students “know their facts” by the end of certain grade levels. Unfortunate that media outlets, reporters, and the WISE group have asserted that “knowing facts” was not part of the previous document or that it was not being taught.

2. “doing math in your head” has also always been in the curriculum – that is, if we are defining “head math” as mental mathematics without the use of technology (calculator or otherwise). Again, it is unfortunate that media outlets, reporters, and the WISE group have asserted that “doing math in your head” was not part of the previous document or that it was not being taught.

3. “we’re going back to the math we used many years ago” is most certainly not the case. In the past 20 years of curriculum revisions, mathematics expectations for students (in the form of outcomes written in curriculum documents) have been revised to include topics in high school mathematics that prior to 1990 were topics reserved for university level course work.

Anna Stokke, University of Winnipeg professor, states that “she believes students are capable of achieving more than the current curriculum asks of them” (Winnipeg Free Press article). What she and the WISE group have pressed Manitoba Education for, and the “more” that both she and WISE are referring to, is “the importance of practice, efficient computation and knowing math facts automatically” (Winnipeg Free Press article).

I deeply appreciate what is referred to as the “front matter” of Manitoba’s mathematics curriculum documents. In this front matter, there are seven math processes, described as “critical components that students must encounter in a mathematics program in order to achieve the goals of mathematics education and encourage lifelong learning in mathematics” (Conceptual Framework for K-9 Mathematics, p.11). These seven processes are communication (of mathematical ideas),connections (to and among topics), mental mathematics and estimation, problem solving, reasoning, using technology appropriately, and visualization. These processes are “intended to permeate teaching and learning”. Exactly.

I deeply appreciate that the “new, revised curriculum strikes the right balance between developing math skills, procedural thinking, conceptual understanding and problem solving to ensure students are getting a solid foundation in math” (quote from the MB Ed news release credited to Nancy Allan, Minister of Education).

I deeply appreciate the myriad of dedicated, knowledgeable, professional mathematics educators I have worked with over the past 20 years in Manitoba.

Unfortunate that with the Minister’s noon-hour interview, Professor Stokke, WISE, some members of the media, and some people in the general public just don’t know enough about the details of the previously incredibly well-written mathematics curriculum to fully appreciate its true potential. Unfortunate that this announcement, and how the media handled it, might cause another pendulum swing – something which the Minister, the Professor, and WISE have all stated they hoped to avoid.

Thanks, Tanis! Many of your points echoed my thoughts exactly. The media has blown this completely out of proportion. As I read about the changes to the curriculum, I felt frustrated because I have already been including many of these practices in my teaching. The media and public seem to think that we have somehow been teaching math “wrong” and that students are not learning any math skills. In actuality, I feel like things have improved since I was in elementary school, as students need to understand why an operation works and be able to explain their thinking.

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Andrea. I continue to be hopeful that the intent of the processes in the curriculum will continue to be the real focus for teachers, not the erroneous media conclusions from today’s coverage.

Thanks for this post. I, too, was concerned by the tone that was taken by the media coverage. I have reviewed the updates online, and I found that my colleagues and I have taught exactly those skills touted as ‘newly added’ as part of both our understanding of how children learn mathematical concepts and the existing curriculum expectations. I hope today’s news coverage does not cause our families to doubt the quality of the math education their children are receiving in our classrooms. Thanks for taking to time to articulate these ideas.

Thank you for your comments, Dina. I will continue to watch Manitoba Education and Minister Allan’s next steps, blogging about it as always!

Thank-you Tanis, as always your response was both thoughtful and right on the money!

Thank you for commenting, Deb.

Since my name has been written here, and I have been misrepresented, I’d like to chime in.

You wrote: “Anna Stokke, University of Winnipeg professor, states that “she believes students are capable of achieving more than the current curriculum asks of them” (Winnipeg Free Press article). What she and the WISE group have pressed Manitoba Education for, and the “more” that both she and WISE are referring to, is “the importance of practice, efficient computation and knowing math facts automatically” (Winnipeg Free Press article).”

It is correct that I said that “students are capable of achieving more than the current curriculum asks of them”. However, I did not say, and the article does not say, that the “more” that I’m referring to is “the importance of practice, efficient computation and knowing math facts automatically”. Although the latter is, indeed, something that my colleagues and I have pressed for, it does not follow that this is the “more” that I was referring to in the quoted sentence.

In fact, the quoted sentence, “students are capable of achieving more than the current curriculum asks of them”, refers to my disappointment over the placement of the outcomes in the WNCP document. My opinion is that children need to have mastered fundamental skills early so that they may be adequately equipped to do more complex mathematics and problem-solving. Of the curriculums that I’ve studied (for example, Ontario, Common Core, Singapore), the WNCP is the weakest in terms of where outcomes are placed.

For example, in WNCP, automatic recall of times table facts, up to 9×9, is placed in Grade 5. In my opinion, this outcome should be in Grade 3, or at the very least, Grade 4. I have not found a curriculum that lists this outcome as late as WNCP. Multi-digit addition and subtraction (with standard algorithms) is listed at Grade 4. Multi-digit multiplication and division are placed at Grade 5. In my opinion, these outcomes should appear 2-3 years earlier and the current placement puts us behind other high-performing jurisdictions. Shockingly, fraction arithmetic is not listed as an outcome in WNCP until Grade 7!! This is despite that fact that decimal arithmetic is listed in Grade 5 (and this curriculum is supposed to promote understanding – how does one teach decimal arithmetic properly if fraction arithmetic has not been covered?). Did the curriculum writers really think that our students cannot handle fraction arithmetic until Grade 7? I certainly stand by my statement that “students are capable of achieving more than the current curriculum asks of them”.

My colleagues and I have been studying the WNCP curriculum for quite some time and, along with other groups, have been meeting with Ministry officials to discuss these issues for the past couple of years. I’m not sure what you mean by the statement “Professor Stokke …. and some people in the general public just don’t know enough about the details of the previously incredibly well-written mathematics curriculum to fully appreciate its true potential”.

Thank you for responding to my reflection on the media rollout of the K-8 mathematics curriculum changes in Manitoba. Thank you also for your clarification regarding being “misrepresented”. Your clarification further confirms the frustration I and many of my colleagues have had with misrepresentation in the media.

Media reports from yesterday (including reports on your work and the work of WISE), and the noon hour interview of the Minister of Education on CBC Radio, may have further solidified in the public’s mind that the curriculum did not address “the basics” and mental mathematics, including what are referred to as the “standard” or “traditional” algorithms for the four operations, prior to the revisions. This is definitely not the case, as the curriculum prior to the revisions had within it the requirement of multiple strategies and mental mathematics.

I appreciate the revisions. The revisions are minor clarifications of a well written document. I appreciate the Minister’s statement in the press release that the document “strikes the right balance between developing math skills, procedural thinking, conceptual understanding and problem solving to ensure students are getting a solid foundation in math”. In my opinion, the front matter of the curriculum addresses this balance best.

Hello Andrea. I am R. Craigen, Dr. STokke’s co-founder of WISE Math. The first word of the (complete) name “WISE Math”, by the way, stands for “Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in …” Please use the full name. We are mere professional mathematicians — we do not presume to address the entire system of education; we work within the domain of our subject matter expertise. It would more be more accurate to describe us using the complete name.

I am surprised that you appeal to misrepresentation in the media to explain your inaccuracies. As a curriculum consultant and administrator, and having taken part in the briefings, you are well-positioned to know what is going on and should not be relying on secondary sources. As for our positions, we post openly, publicly and liberally on our web site, http://wisemath.org. Where we are silent, we largely support the comprehensive findings and recommendations of the 2008 NMAP report, which we link to and quote from. If there is anything unclear about what we have written there we are happy to explain ourselves to anyone who asks. We are not a secret cabal. If you’re unsure, please ask.

Anna did not list every way in which you have misrepresented our position. I’ll mention one more; we do not have the position that the current curriculum does not support “mental math”, as you seem to believe:

“Again, it is unfortunate that media outlets, reporters, and the WISE group have asserted that ‘doing math in your head’ was not part of the previous document or that it was not being taught.”

This is nonsense. The previous document was full of instructions pertaining to mental math. Implicitly or explicitly this has been part of mathematics since the dark ages. And since the work of Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci), memorized times tables and small-number mental calculations have been an essential precursor to arithmetic in the learning of math. Why anyone connected with the ministry would speak of it otherwise, I do not know — I have my guesses, but you’ll have to ask them.

Further, anyone who has seen the new report cards knows that “Mental math and estimation” now (starting prior to the revisions!) comprises 1/3 of each student’s mark from Grade 1 through Grade 8. When the ministry asked us what we thought of the cards we said that this is excessive. It distorts mathematical education by overemphasizing some relatively minor skills and stretching that emphasis over too many years. But it does accurately reflect the same imbalance that manifests in the curriculum itself.

Let me be clear about our position: We do not denigrate mental math skills. They are an important foundation for success in mathematics. But the paper-and-pencil skills which they support are far more important. You cannot (and even if they can, most people SHOULD not) perform simple multi-stage algebraic problems in your head. It is not so much that we object to students being credited for having good single-digit fluency and are adept at taking simple mental shortcuts in the middle of long calculations, but why are we basing 1/3 of a student’s mark on this in Grade 8? The memorization of math fact, automatic recall, and automatic performance of simple one-and-two-digit arithmetic in one’s head is essential, but these are a foundation to build upon, not the essential structure itself! Students must master these skills and move on. As early as it is realistic for them to do.

This is another example of how the existing curriculum (both before and after the revisions) condescends, even infantilizes students, expecting far too little progress from them, and leaving them well behind their peers in the higher-performing jurisdictions. It is no surprise that in the 2011 TIMSS assessment, Singapore students (whom many take to be the standard for comparison) outperformed students learning under WNCP by a ridiculous degree: 48% of Singapore students attained the “Advanced” benchmark in Grade 8, compared to 3% of WNCP students. At the “High” benchmark, 78% of Singapore students versus 24% of WNCP students.

At the “Intermediate benchmark, 92% (Singapore) versus 69% (WNCP) and while, at least, 94% of WNCP students attained the “Low” benchmark, 99% of Singapore students did so.

And Singapore is not alone. There is a cluster of high-performing jurisdictions that compare in this way to WNCP performance, which is decidedly mediocre. These places do not have superhuman students. They are simply learning conventional math, structured well, taught by excellent materials and well-trained teachers. Our students are not dumb. They are being taught down to by a curriculum that has low expectations.

The scores for every participating Canadian jurisdiction except one have fallen over the last 3 assessment periods (the last decade) in PISA, TIMSS and PCAP. And every one of these jurisdictions has implemented a strict so-called “reform” agenda in Mathematics. Only one province has maintained, even doubled down, on conventional mathematics instruction, namely Quebec. Quebec’s performance during the same period has been rising in the assessments; they are now the top-performing province in Canada, performing at the same level as the top countries in the Western Hemisphere. This is not rocket science; with common sense, building upon conventional wisdom, following the advice of subject-matter experts rather than educational theorists, and remaining wary of the prevailing educational fads, they have outstripped the provinces who have adopted math-du-jour.

As for whether the standard algorithms were present in the prior curriculum … they were not. Sorry, you’re flat wrong on this point. But if you’d like to argue the point, then please cite a particular page number or grade-level outcome. I don’t care whether you refer to the main WNCP Framework document or the Manitoba version — I work from both and am very familiar with both documents. The standard algorithms are not there, and their removal is deliberate. The infamous work of Kamii and Dominick concerning the “harm” done by teaching algorithms i cited therein as justification (see p. 153 of the Manitoba edition, K-8 or p. 163 of the WNCP main edition).

I have to say that I resent your statement, “WISE [Math] … just don’t know enough about the details of the previously incredibly well-written mathematics curriculum to fully appreciate its true potential.”

One in your position should know that I was the University representative on the Provincial Mathematics Curriculum Steering Committee from 2005 through 2009, at which time the committee’s work ended. Our job was ENTIRELY concerned with that curriculum, and I received, and worked from numerous updated versions of it over that time. Since helping found WISE Math in 2011, however, I have looked even more carefully through the document, comparing it, line-by-line, against curricula from around the world. I have performed statistical word studies on it to establish its emphases and analyzed it both linguistically and mathematically to determine its unique characteristics, its strengths and its weaknesses. Anna has done much the same, in some respects even more than I have, and is very knowledgeable about the subject.

We have made numerous presentations to ministry officials and others, citing the curriculum framework chapter and verse, to illustrate most points. Our analysis is thorough. We are not paid for this; it is a labour of love for us. At many of these meetings we interact with your fellow consultants, who are paid professionals whose job it is to know this stuff. While some of them are clearly knowledgeable, it is also common for their presentations to wander into bland generalities or dwell on philosophy of teaching and educational dogmas rather than deal with the issues at hand and the primary source documents on the table.

They casually toss out claims like “research has shown” but when we ask them for citations to said research, they generally draw a blank or refer us to someone else. They clearly have not read the research themselves, or know that they are misrepresenting it. Given the opportunity we are happy to discuss the specific findings of this “research”, such as it is. We are familiar with some of the main studies commonly referenced, and are able to discuss their relative merits. (We would be happy to discuss any studies you would like to raise here in this context.) I do not think we are any less informed about the contents of the curriculum than most of the consultants whom we have met. In some cases we appear to be considerably better-informed.

If the algorithms have been in the curriculum all along, then why are we getting hundreds of parents telling stories about teachers that told them to stop teaching the more efficient methods at home because they are “harming their children’s education”, and students being told that they are not allowed to use them in their coursework? Why are we getting anecdotes from teachers saying that a math consultant running a PD workshop told them that “studies have shown” that the algorithms are harmful? Why have at least two Manitoba school districts sent letters home to all parents explaining that they should not be surprised that their children are not learning “the familiar methods of doing arithmetic” in school because they are being taught “to understand” instead. Go to the “JOIN” page at wisemath.org and read some of the stories people leave there. The best ones are from professionals: Engineers, scientists, Mathematicians, Computer Scientist, who are aghast at what their children are (not) learning. These folks can articulate the issues accurately, and know very well the consequences of poorly laid foundations in math.

Finally, if you still maintain that the standard algorithms are there in the curriculum, deviously hidden away somewhere, then allow me to cite one of your fellow Manitoba Math Consultants. This is someone you surely know quite well, who was involved in writing the WNCP Math curriculum (as I consider her a friend I will not post her name here, but if you want to follow this up, contact me privately).

We were arguing — by email — about the need for the standard algorithms to appear in the curriculum. She was saying, essentially, that they will eventually be learned, when the students are good and ready, so there’s no need for the CURRICULUM to mention them. I said this is a recipe for chaos, that it will learn to wide gaps in learning, and some students who NEVER learn these most efficient and elegant procedures for elementary arithmetic. Students from poor home backgrounds will be severely disadvantaged if the algorithms are not taught to them in a timely manner. I have students at university, for example, who had never seen long division before entering my calculus class. I have a friend who teaches accounting at a local post-secondary institution, who says in the last few years there has been a precipitous drop in practical skills, and many of those students have no idea what long division is. “How can this happen?” He asked.

Here’s what your colleague wrote to me. This is a quotation, cut-and-pasted from her email:

“Even with this current curriculum it is implied but not specifically stated that most students will come to understand and use the standard algorithms. I don’t think that we need to have an outcome telling teachers to teach them though. Parents and older siblings do that for us. I have told [parents and teachers] that as long as a student can demonstrate their understanding of an operation in three different ways then they can use the standard algorithm…”

Parents and older siblings … we’re back to learning it on the playground. Shades of 1960’s sex education. Sorry, “it is implied but not specifically stated…” with the declaration that someone OTHER than their teacher in school is expected to teach this to them — and a litmus test before students are even ALLOWED to use the best methods — this all amounts to saying that the standard algorithms are not in the curriculum.