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Math Wars


How long was the Hundred Years’ War? If you were asked that on a test, you’d probably giggle uncontrollably - until you discovered the England-France hostilities actually went on a little longer than that, from 1337 to 1453.

Meanwhile, the “math war” over traditional math instruction vs. discovery-based learning may seem like it’s gone on for a century; it’s actually been on the front burner since the late 2000s.
The new math seems to be tripping up not only students, but teachers and parents as well. While some teachers vigorously promote the new non-rote, student-focused approach, others are strongly against it.
One of the most vocal advocates is Stanford University’s Dan Meyer, who received a hero’s welcome in July as keynote speaker at the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education conference in Toronto.
Meyer insists case studies have proven the discovery method increases students’ understanding of math. In fact, he says he begins his class by presenting a problem the kids will likely be unable to solve.
“That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,” he told The Canadian Press. Or it may just leave them cold. Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg says the whole concept is garbage.
She wrote a report for the C.D. Howe Institute in June which refutes the tenets of discovery math, citing clear evidence that traditional instruction – with a modicum of creative method – works better. Few parents would disagree with her. In fact, in terms of ammunition, the traditional learning camp clearly has the advantage. A recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology concludes educators shouldn’t feel pressured to give in to the new fad, because it simply doesn’t work. And that research was based on two meta-analyses of 165 other studies.
Local retired professor Herbert Gaskill has spoken up frequently about the folly of discovery math. In his most recent letter to the editor, he also points to research that refutes the practice.
“The most direct analysis of why unguided instruction does not work for novice learners is contained in a readable paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, three eminent cognitive scientists,” he wrote. “A central point of their paper is that discovery learning is in conflict with what is known from neuroscience about learning.”
Meanwhile, opaque provincial curriculum guides offer little help to teachers looking for a little clarity on the issue. Here’s a typical vague directive from the provincial guide for Grade 6 math:
“Problem solving is a powerful teaching tool that fosters multiple, creative and innovative solutions. Creating an environment where students openly seek and engage in a variety of strategies for solving problems empowers students to explore alternatives and develops confident, cognitive mathematical risk takers.”

Meanwhile, the “math war” over traditional math instruction vs. discovery-based learning may seem like it’s gone on for a century; it’s actually been on the front burner since the late 2000s.
The new math seems to be tripping up not only students, but teachers and parents as well. While some teachers vigorously promote the new non-rote, student-focused approach, others are strongly against it.
One of the most vocal advocates is Stanford University’s Dan Meyer, who received a hero’s welcome in July as keynote speaker at the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education conference in Toronto.
Meyer insists case studies have proven the discovery method increases students’ understanding of math. In fact, he says he begins his class by presenting a problem the kids will likely be unable to solve.
“That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,” he told The Canadian Press. Or it may just leave them cold. Anna Stokke of the University of Winnipeg says the whole concept is garbage.
She wrote a report for the C.D. Howe Institute in June which refutes the tenets of discovery math, citing clear evidence that traditional instruction – with a modicum of creative method – works better. Few parents would disagree with her. In fact, in terms of ammunition, the traditional learning camp clearly has the advantage. A recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology concludes educators shouldn’t feel pressured to give in to the new fad, because it simply doesn’t work. And that research was based on two meta-analyses of 165 other studies.
Local retired professor Herbert Gaskill has spoken up frequently about the folly of discovery math. In his most recent letter to the editor, he also points to research that refutes the practice.
“The most direct analysis of why unguided instruction does not work for novice learners is contained in a readable paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, three eminent cognitive scientists,” he wrote. “A central point of their paper is that discovery learning is in conflict with what is known from neuroscience about learning.”
Meanwhile, opaque provincial curriculum guides offer little help to teachers looking for a little clarity on the issue. Here’s a typical vague directive from the provincial guide for Grade 6 math:
“Problem solving is a powerful teaching tool that fosters multiple, creative and innovative solutions. Creating an environment where students openly seek and engage in a variety of strategies for solving problems empowers students to explore alternatives and develops confident, cognitive mathematical risk takers.”

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