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In Defence Of Provincial Exams And Content-Driven Curriculum

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SCHOOL EXAM
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As many people have heard, the British Columbia Ministry of Education has decided to eliminate all but two of the provincial exams (Math and Writing Skills). This is a continuation of the process that began with the elimination of the Grade 12 science exams in 2011. This elimination of the provincial exams is part of an ongoing process to modernize the education curriculum.

As a parent of three young children, and a practising scientist, I have some strong opinions about the direction of our education system and at this point I believe that we are heading in the wrong direction.

Don't get me wrong, I do not hearken back to the bad old days when students were taught by rote. But neither do I agree with the modern phenomena that emphasizes multiple strategies and processes to answer questions. This new system that emphasizes process over content, and cares more about how you get the answer than whether the answer is correct.

It has been argued that the education system is like a pendulum which swings one way and then another. While I am happy that we have swung away from the bad old days of memorization and cookie-cutter teaching, I fear instead that we have swung too far in the other direction.

To explain my concerns, consider one of the actors at the forefront of the drive towards a new education pedagogy: Dr. Don Krug a Professor in the Faculty of Education and the Department of Curriculum & Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Krug was all over the news this week. This is what he had to say about the provincial exams.

We've learned now that some of the provincial exams are basically mostly content driven and they don't necessarily reflect student learning that is actually beneficial for the students.

Yes, you read that right; his big complaint is that the exams are "mostly content-driven". That is they emphasize mastery of a specific curriculum over how students learn. The problem for academics like Dr. Krug is that eventually these students will leave academia and at that time they will need to master a curriculum.

I am not interested in a mechanic who cannot master how to install a set of brakes and I certainly am not going to hire a chemist who has not mastered the chemistry curriculum. The problem is that most of these academics did not study the physical and natural sciences and thus apparently do not understand that the law of gravity doesn't care about your pedagogy and differential equations don't care where you went to school.

Before you think I am completely against the new curriculum let me clear something up. The new math curriculum has a lot going for it. For example the new approach actually teaches kids to think about math the same way that I learned to do mental math, growing up in an era without hand-held calculators and needing to do complex calculations in my head.

That being said the new curriculum has some failings. The worst being that it has made teaching some critical math tools optional. Specifically, in K-7, parents cannot be guaranteed that their children will be taught to memorize their times tables.

You might say, why do we need to memorize in a world with calculators? Well the concept you are looking for is "automaticity of basic number facts". It means seeing the number 63 and instantly knowing its lowest common factors, because you know your times tables. Absent that automaticity, students get bogged down. Without your times tables, 63 becomes a daunting number that has to be repeatedly crunched to break down.

Going back to Dr. Krug, when he was asked whether the provincial exams made sure everybody was taught the same information to the same standard Dr. Krug's reply was:

Well that's one way of looking at it, I think that the other thing is that a lot of time has been taken in the past for people to learn particular content that wasn't necessarily going to be useful for them in the future. We know now that learning is more about the process of being engaged in what you are doing not so much about being able to remember small specifics that might be useful or might not be useful.

The problem is that the natural and physical sciences are made up of those small specifics, that "particular content". Learning science is an incremental task. You gain a mastery of basic knowledge and then build on it to acquire more knowledge. Those small specifics learned in high school are the foundation you build on at the next level.

Absent a solid foundation our future scientists cannot build themselves up taller and higher. To succeed our children need a strong foundation and the purveyors of the new curriculum have moved too far from the balanced education our children need: one that teaches processes but also includes a healthy emphasis on knowledge of content. To paraphrase a common computer coding joke: a "content-driven" provincial exam is not a bug, it is a feature.