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Learning to Be Wrong

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Ontario has released the latest results of its public school standardized tests. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that kids' literacy skills are improving. In the Toronto District School Board, the province's largest ed board, the percentage of Grade 6 students meeting the provincial writing standard increased from 67% in 2008-2009 to 79% in 2012-2013. Also in the TDSB, the percentage of students meeting the provincial reading standard increased from 67% in 2008-2009 to 77% in 2012-2013. A similar trend was seen across Ontario as a whole. Clearly the focus the province has put on reading and writing is paying off.

The bad news is that the story is the opposite when it comes to math. The percentage of Grade 6 students at or above the provincial math standard has declined over the past five years, to the point where nearly one in five of these kids is now below the desired level. That's a real problem.

As soon as such scores are released, there is always a chorus of naysaying. Critics say things like, "A student's holistic learning can't be measured by a standardized test." "School is about more than how well a child performs in a stressful situation on a few days of the year." "These assessments measure test-taking abilities more than they do knowledge and skills."

There's some truth to all these cautions. As anyone who's ever bombed a test despite knowing the material (or seen his child do the same) will tell you, a score can be misleading. I believe that anyone who's ever experienced a gifted teacher will also attest that the greatest satisfactions of learning are often not reflected in a student's performance on an exam. And the social skills and curiosity that school can and should nurture are obviously not being taken into account by these assessments.

However, for as long as we continue to view the primary mandate of the public education system as being to teach kids to read, write and do math -- which is what most parents still want, even if many educational theorists seem not to -- standardized tests remain one of the best tools we have to figure out how things are going. Are they a perfect picture of the education kids are receiving? No. But do they highlight important trends and call attention to problem areas? Yes. And math is one of those problem areas. So why the backward slide? And what can be done about it?

Ontario's education minister Liz Sandals has suggested that the issue is that teachers just aren't comfortable teaching math because they tend to come from arts backgrounds themselves. She may be right, but I hope not. Remember that we're not talking about calculus or trigonometry here. We're talking about Grade six math. That means multiplying and dividing whole numbers. Solving simple equations with at most one variable. Measuring right angles. It shouldn't take a math or science degree to be comfortable conveying these concepts. If the people who end up with teaching degrees have themselves made it through high school and university without the numeracy skills to confidently add a couple large whole numbers, we may have an even bigger problem than we thought.

Realistically, I suspect the problem actually has more to do with the way our kids are taught in the very early grades, and even at home before reaching school. We are trying so hard to encourage them and give them room to explore their own ideas -- valiant goals, both -- that we hesitate to tell them they are wrong. "That's a creative way of looking at the problem, Aidan!" "I'd never have thought of that solution, Sophie!" The result: They often reach Grade one with no idea how to handle being flat-out, undeniably incorrect.

That's a problem for two reasons: 1) Being flat-out, undeniably incorrect is a necessary part of life, so discovering how to do so gracefully and without feeling that disaster has struck is important in general. And more germane to this discussion: 2) Being flat-out, undeniably incorrect is a necessary part of learning basic math, so discovering how to do so gracefully and without feeling that disaster has struck is important for the development of numeracy.

Bottom line: Elementary-level math involves failure. It has to. You can have kids show their work all you like; there are still going to be right and wrong answers. And the difference between them is more obvious than it is with reading and writing. Which is fine. Unless you happen to be raising a generation of young people who are so unused to being told they've erred that the prospect of being wrong stresses them out completely. Which I think we are doing.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sympathetic to the notion of loosening up the curriculum enough to allow kids to enjoy learning. And having tutored math for several years, I'm aware of the very real problem (and pain) of math anxiety. It's just that there's a certain point at which trying to avoid pointing out kids' mistakes becomes counterproductive. The latest Ontario math results suggest we've reached that point.

So what will Ontario's education establishment do with this information? Be a model for students, I hope. Which is to say, don't proffer a set of excuses when confronted with a mistake. Admit it. Then figure out how to arrive at the right answer next time.

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