A New Ontario Math Curriculum

The Ontario Ministry of Education just released a revamped math curriculum for Grade 1 to 8 to be introduced in schools in September. I read through their outline and peeked in on the more detailed breakdowns.

The immediate question arises because of the timing. Who thought it was a good idea to try re-writing the curriculum during a pandemic when schools aren’t even able to commit to being “open” in September? As far as I can see, they have made no effort acknowledge this.

My best (and most charitable) guess is that this is part of a longer timeline stretching forward into the future. As the students experience the new curriculum and age into high school, they will need to release a new curriculum year by year for grades 9-12. And that also means re-printing textbooks along the way.

Aside: Made further complicated because high school is divided into streams “academic” and “applied”. The political-speak is that “applied” courses are rarely anything more than easier versions of their “academic” cousins with the tradeoff being that taking “applied” courses can shut you out of pre-requisites needed to apply for post-secondary education.

Which means this is, at minimum, a 5-year plan. And five years is longer than the typical election cycle. Ontario’s provincial politics is essentially a game of ping-pong between the rural conservative areas and the liberal metropolitan cities, like Toronto. After long enough, one side will get angry enough to vote the other out, and it continues back and forth. Currently we have a conservative government led by Doug Ford (only slightly less boorish than his brother, the late crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford.)

So with that, let’s look at this mixed bag of a curriculum.


The most obvious change is that each grade now has a new unit on coding. On the surface, this is something that I entirely support. I took electives in programming in Grades 10 and 11 and even though I forget the details of where brackets and semicolons go, learning about how computers take in, process, and output information is incredibly valuable. Essentially learning that computers are like super efficient idiots, they will do exactly what you say, nothing more, nothing less. And if you tell them to do the wrong thing or give them incorrect inputs they may do something completely useless or frustrating. So weaving this kind of learning throughout the school experience sounds like a fabulous idea.

That being said, good intentions and good ideas only get you so far. You also need to implement or it doesn’t count. As far as I can tell, they’ve just added an entire element to the curriculum that no one is qualified to teach. I took math all through elementary and high school and undergrad and I don’t even have the slightest clue what software or programming language they would use. Who is teaching the teachers to teach this? Because if this is being pulled out of thin air without planning, then a precocious student could easily find themselves in the situation of knowing more about the subject than the teachers. There is also the minor practical challenge of what computers are these kids using? Who is paying for them? Are  we giving six year olds (Grade 1) email addresses so they can submit their assignments to their teachers by email?

I get the very real sense from reading these releases that some committee came up with guidelines and they announced them before checking to see that their guidelines were actually implementable.

An Emphasis on Financial  Literacy

As far as I can tell, this is just smoke and mirrors. We had plastic pretend coins that we counted in elementary school. We learned how to answer word problems  using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division using division and learned how to calculate percentages (sales taxes, interest rates.)

In elementary school, it won’t really matter. It will only matter if when they get to the corresponding high school revisions to see if they put in more practical things. Grade 11 already has a unit on compound interest, present value and annuities. And when that’s introduced, that’s incorporating exponent laws so to be able to teach it properly in earlier grades is unrealistic. And even then, you never get to something as practical as, say, a mortgage on a house.

An Increased Emphasis on Algebra

This is just a stupid idea. There’s no nicer way to say this. The way they want to sneak this in is trying to get students to run before they can walk. The higher up in math you get, the more abstract it gets. Trying to sneak in more abstraction earlier when they clearly don’t have enough time in the curriculum a already to  teach them the stuff leading  up to it (in such a way that they don’t forget it straight after and won’t have it to hand when they need it again in high school.)

An Increased Emphasis on Mental Health

This I just can’t make heads or tails of. I might refer them to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s great 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mindto point out that this kind of approach just imprints on kids that they are helpless fragile flowers that can’t cope with adversity.  But the idea that I would take time out of my math class to “develop [my] sense of identity” is something that should be reserved for Monty Python sketches.

Actually, The Simpsons did it already when they tried having separate math classes for boys and girls:

How do numbers make you feel? What does a plus sign smell like? Is the number seven odd? Or just different?

Compare that to this excerpt from their summary from

Social emotional learning skills and mathematical processes
Students identify to learn and manage emotions that they may feel such as pride, confusion, fear and excitement. For example, in algebra as they create and execute code that represents a mathematical situation.

For the record, I have now won four drinks and a sushi lunch off of people by getting them to bet on what grade that excerpt was pulled from. (The answer is grade 3. The lowest anyone was willing to venture a guess on was grade 5.) It boggles the mind that this sentence passed through any kind of adult proof-reading process.

It makes it difficult to believe that there was anyone on this committee who would have been mindful of practical challenges (like the many listed above.) Which just stands to reduce the confidence anyone can have in the Ministry’s ability to pull any of this off in a successful way.

Final Thoughts

Having only specialized in and spent time tutoring math, I can’t speak to other subjects. But the challenges of teaching math aren’t solved by re-writing the curriculum — at least not in any way that tries to include more material in the already limited time. Kids are bad at math because they have teachers that are not confident in their own mathematical ability and so teach the material with limited enthusiasm. Or because they are trying to teach too much because they have standardized tests coming up at the end of certain grades.

In English, new age appropriate books get written and the way we look for material online changes, so there is room for revision. Science actually discovers new things. But there is no cutting edge version of multiplying fractions. We’ve got math settled.

The problem with math is that it is cumulative. You are never allowed to forget anything taught ever. It all returns in later grades to be used as important parts of more complicated problems. So if you teach in a rushed way so that kids are able to learn, demonstrate, then promptly forget then future math will be a source of frustration and discouragement. Trying to be more clever about teaching them to use variables a few years earlier, or making more of the questions about money don’t do anything to help.

Math is also one of the most difficult subjects out there. When you think about the question “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” you learn learn to count (including numbers with decimals if you want to do money) and you learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide and maybe exponents and brackets. That gets you through most of “everyday” life. Exponential growth (of particular interest in a pandemic) is in grade 11. But really anything other than that you might want for some kind of  career in STEM, you need calculus to understand. And really all of high school (minus a brief side track learning how to calculate angles in triangles with trig) is just the long slog of getting you up to the point of starting calculus. It’s the equivalent of wanting to play basketball and learning to dribble, then being forced to do nothing but jump rope and pushups for four years before you’re allowed to learn how to shoot baskets.

So assuming they can figure out the implementation of coding, then this might be interesting. It’s been advertised as “back to basics” but there’s no point in the past 30 years where they weren’t teaching basics. Otherwise there’s not really anything to see here.

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