Does Notley know “discovery math” doesn’t add up?

As Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government announced this past week a six-year review of Alberta’s education system...

As Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government announced this past week a six-year review of Alberta’s education system, those in sitting in the pews hope the government approaches the review with a practical frame of mind.

One of the most serious problems plaguing the education system in this province over the past several years are declining test scores, particularly in math and to a lesser extent, science.

Are Alberta’s kids dumber than other places in Canada or North America? Last fall, former Education Minister David Eggen mumbled a few words to the extent that he was sort of concerned about Alberta elementary student’s math scores falling, but also minimized concerns by telling the Calgary Herald its, “part of a North American trend.”

In 2012 Canada fell out of the top 10 nations in the OECD analysis which, every three years, gauges pre-high school students in their problem-solving abilities, especially in the areas of math, science and literacy. A report written for the C.D. Howe Institute about a year ago elaborated on the problem of academic performance, noting that, of all Canadian provinces, Alberta and Manitoba had the largest drops in math scores compared to 2003 test results.

Associate professor Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg, who wrote the C.D. Howe report, stated Alberta students declining math scores were “statistically significant.” If universities in other provinces and international grading organizations know Alberta has a math, and school, problem, why don’t we?

Well, some people in Alberta actually are aware of the problem. One of the most vocal of them is Nhung Tran-Davies, a Calmar resident who has made a name for herself after calling foul on what Alberta Education refers to as “discovery learning.” Tran-Davies notes, in a nutshell, that discovery learning is not effective and kids either don’t learn anything at school through this technique or learn at a slower rate.

So, what is discovery learning, and where did it come from? This writer would love to blame Rachel Notley and her NDP government for it, but they didn’t introduce it. The previous Progressive Conservative regime did.

What is discovery learning? According to, “Discovery learning is an inquiry-based, constructivist learning theory that takes place in problem solving situations where the learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned.” So, for example, a six-year-old Albertan learning Grade 1 math shall draw on their personal experience to solve mathematical problems.

This weak, touchy-feely approach to learning isn’t new. During the Cold War western nations embraced a virtually identical philosophy called “new math,” defined by Wikipedia as “…often used now to describe any short-lived fad which quickly became highly discredited.” At its heart was a “Don’t teach the students, let the students tech themselves” approach that sounds nice when a motivational speaker or door-to-door salesman is pitching it, but in practice fails miserably when the core tenants are exposed. New math was introduced to counter an impression that Soviet science and math education was superior and that a “let children teach themselves” approach would create a generation of brilliant Einsteinian students who solved complex issues on their own and did not require teachers. By 1973 critics of new math were writing books pointing out that a new generation had indeed been created, but the confusing and spurious philosophy of new math had instead created a generation of dunces. New math was thrown in the trash can, until Alberta Education brought it back in the form of “discovery learning.”

Parents like Tran-Davies pointed out their kids were not learning math, and were also coming home with stress and anxiety issues. Brad Chalmers, an Edmonton parent, wrote on a petition spearheaded by Tran-Davies: “Doing 2-4 hours of homework a night just to teach basic facts (my daughter) should know.”

Sad to say when Alberta Education’s mission and responsibility is to educate Alberta children properly and effectively and give them the educational groundwork to make them productive members of Alberta society, not provide taxpayers’ children, as the C.D. Howe report points out, with a second-class education compared to other provinces in this country.

Will Notley’s government realize discovery learning will someday be described by Wikipedia the same way new math is?

Hopefully the premier can draw on her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned and thereby throw discovery learning in the trash can.

Where it belongs.


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