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Has Ontario taught its high-school students not to think?

Elementary and high schools spend so much time on the content-laden curriculum that students are unprepared for the analytic and conceptual thinking they'll need at university

by Alan Slavin

Has Ontario's educational system taught a decade of students not to think? There is growing evidence that the combination of standardized testing with a content-intensive curriculum that's too advanced - both introduced by the Conservative government between 1997 and 1999 - has done exactly that.

A dramatic indication that there could be a serious problem was the performance of my introductory physics class on their November test last year. It was identical to one given in 1996, but the class average over this 10-year period had plummeted from 66 to 50 percent. There is about a five-percent fluctuation in this test grade from year to year due to variation in student ability and the difficulty of the questions but, when I looked at the class average over the many times I have taught the course since 1981, I found that four of the five lowest grades have occurred in the last four years, with the lowest this year. When I enquired elsewhere at Trent University, I found the same pattern in the mathematics department, where the first test in linear algebra was down some 15 percent from its historic mean, and the calculus average had dropped nine percent from the year before.

But this is not just a Trent phenomenon. Brock University has seen a significant increase in the failure rate for students in first-year physics with similar results in mathematics. Both Brock and Trent are considering remedial teaching this school year. The University of Guelph, where reliable data is also available, experienced a similar drop in performance in the first-year physics course. There is general dissatisfaction about student preparation from physics instructors at other Ontario universities although it is difficult to get reliable numerical data as course structure and instructors change relatively frequently, and final grades are often bell-curved to maintain an acceptable distribution.

In contrast, there is no evidence of the same rapid decline in other provinces, according to the four other physics departments I've contacted in the Atlantic provinces and British Columbia. This appears to be a made-in-Ontario phenomenon.

Professor James Côté and co-author, Anton Allahar, in their recent book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (see a review in this issue), blame a general student disengagement with learning as source of the problem. However, most of the students I see are not so much disengaged as poorly trained for university expectations. Students' ability to do analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization and regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. This is a complaint that I hear from instructors in senior high-school classes through to professors in the humanities. Trent philosophy professor, Bernie Hodgson, tells me that his students want "philosophy paint-by-numbers" - a memorized, fill-in-the-blanks approach to passing tests and writing assignments -- and this is exactly what I and many of my colleagues are seeing in science and mathematics disciplines. While we still get some students with excellent analytical ability, there has been a serious decline on average. In mathematics and physics, it means that students do not really understand what they are doing even when they have covered the material in high school. This problem is reflected in the learning approach of most students, which has changed along with their test performance. All term, students were asking me when I was going to teach them what they need to know for the exam, as though physics has only a fixed number of facts or kinds of problems that need to be memorized and fed back to the instructor.

However, memorization/regurgitation is not an approach that works in physics or in other analytical fields such as philosophy, English, mathematics or the visual arts, where the main emphasis is on constructing one's own knowledge and approaches. There is always a certain amount of material that must be memorized, but knowledge of facts makes up only a small component of one's learning. More important is the ability to relate these facts in new ways, to see them in a new light, and to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve new problems or create new forms of art. This ability to analyze and synthesize is what makes good scientists, writers, philosophers and artists. It is the ability needed to drive a knowledge-based economy.

The dependence on memorization also affects work habits, with a third of students in some university classes not handing in assignments or failing to pick up graded work to find out where they've gone wrong. Why should they, if they believe the way to better grades is to memorize more material rather than understand? The resulting high failure/drop-out rate in the first two years of university has enormous cost to society, although the students who do persevere and graduate clearly have or develop the requisite skills.

What could have caused this dramatic shift in the approach of our students? I do not believe the problem is with the teachers, who are generally well trained and dedicated. The main possible explanations seem to be the following:

1. In 1997, the Ontario government introduced a new, content-intensive curriculum for grades K to 8 in mathematics and language, followed in 1998 by the science and technology curriculum. The design of this curriculum was top-down, unlike earlier curricula that had been designed by local teachers and their school boards under general guidelines from the Ministry of Education. Much of the new curriculum in the junior grades is considered by many experienced teachers to be beyond the mental development of students at that level. This encourages blind memorization rather than understanding. Moreover, the new curriculum significantly reduces time spent on the visual arts, and was so content-heavy that it greatly limited the amount of time available for developing analytical and conceptual-understanding skills from kindergarten on, even though the development of these skills was a stated goal of the curriculum. Students first exposed to the science curriculum in Grade 5 are now starting second year of university. Two high-school English teachers recently told me that this curriculum is the main cause for the loss of analytical ability. This problem was aggravated by the retirement, shortly after 1997, of many established teachers who understood the importance of developing analytical skills but had become disenchanted with the state of education. Then in 1999, a new four-year curriculum was imposed on high schools, starting with Grade 9 and advancing one year at a time to the 4U (4th-year, University-preparation) courses in Grade 12. As a result, 2003 saw the graduation of the "double cohort" of the 4U students and the last of the OAC five-year students.

2. In 1997, the Ontario government also introduced standardized province-wide testing in math and reading/writing in Grades 3 and 6, with a math test in Grade 9. I am told that much of the teaching at the elementary level is now directed to passing those tests, as schools are rated publicly on the results. Students must also pass a standardized literacy test to graduate from high school. This emphasis on passing standardized tests which cover too much material at too advanced a level increases the dependence on rote memorization and takes time away from the development of conceptual understanding and analytical skills.

3. With the elimination of the Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) high-school year (Grade 13) in 2003, our students entering university are a year younger. The teenage brain is still developing its "executive functions" during this time, so students enter university with a year's less ability to analyze and plan ahead.

4. Are we just admitting poorer students to university? The average entrance grade of students from high school has not declined over the last few years, but grade inflation is clearly present: the percentage of academic-stream Ontario Scholars, those graduating students with averages over 80 percent, has risen from about five percent of the graduating class in the early 1960s to almost 50 percent now.

5. The trend among young people to move away from reading and towards video and video games, means they spend less time developing reading/writing/analytical skills.

6. Young people's general belief that the web is the source of all knowledge puts a greater emphasis on memorizing facts and much less on the ability to develop one's personal ability to think. They do not appreciate that, even as students, they will be expected to develop new knowledge, not just regurgitate existing facts.

Of these explanations, the last three should have caused a gradual decline over the last 10 years, rather than a fairly abrupt change over the last five years; so, while contributors, these are not likely the main culprits. That our students are a year younger is not likely the main cause of the problem, as there was no obvious difference between the OAC and the 4U students in 2003-04 when they arrived at university together. Moreover, the younger age would have caused an abrupt shift in student performance in years 2003-05 which should have been constant after this, whereas the decrease in performance has been most apparent in 2006-07.

This leaves the first two options as the main causes of the decline in student performance. My personal belief is that it is the content-heavy curriculum that is the main culprit. When I speak to primary and secondary teachers with experience from before 1997, this is the outstanding complaint that they have with the educational system. A retired Grade 1 teacher whom I respect greatly for her expertise in teaching at this level tells me that they used to spend part of two weeks developing the idea of "fiveness" in her students. How many different ways can you make up five, using different objects as well as cuisenaire rods (coloured rods that come in varying lengths, such as 1, 2, or 3 cm). Which of several groupings is less than or greater than five? And so on. When they were done, students understood the number five at a broad conceptual level, and they carried this understanding to other numbers. She says there is now little time for such activities if a student is to be ready to pass the standard tests which are tied to the new curriculum; all a student has to do is memorize that 2+2+1=5.

This view of the curriculum is not restricted to teachers at the K-12 level. A review panel of university physics professors has just recommended that some 30 percent of the Ontario high-school physics curriculum be removed to allow more time for the development of conceptual understanding and analytical skills. Moreover, the review teams for all of physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences agreed that: "a) The existing curriculum is too ambitious and focuses on breadth instead of depth; b) Some topics are clearly too advanced for grade 11/12 students and should be dropped; c) There is a yawning gap between the ambition of the curriculum and the reality of students entering University. Students continue to demonstrate serious deficiencies in problem solving skills, basic math skills, and hands-on laboratory skills when they arrive at the university level."

These potential problems with the curriculum were, of course, pointed out years ago. For example, in 2000 Margaret McNay, at Western's Faculty of Education, wrote an article on the new curriculum in the Journal of Curriculum Studies in which she said, "Grade 1 students can learn to parrot 'right' answers, and grade 7 students to memorize incomprehensible definitions, but no educational advantage is gained when the conceptual demands of what is taught are beyond the comprehension of the students."

The question arises as to why we are only now becoming aware of this problem at universities, 10 years after the new curriculum was introduced. One would not expect that the shift in a student's mode of learning, from one based on understanding to one based on memorization, would occur instantly, and many teachers continued to teach the way they always had, regardless of the new curriculum. However, a student first exposed to the new science curriculum in Grade 5 in 1998 is now entering second year of university. I believe that the rapid decline in performance over the last five years has its roots in the teaching at the elementary level; a university student's ability to think decreases with the length of time they were exposed to the new curriculum.

I recently reviewed the drop-out rate from my introductory physics class that I have taught quite regularly from the 1980s. Over this time, the drop-out rate has increased gradually from eight percent in the early 1980s to more than 20 percent now, with one glaring exception. In the Ontario double-cohort year of 2003-04 and the next year, (which included about 25 percent of the four-year students who stayed in high school for an optional fifth year), the drop-out rate plummeted to eight and 10 percent, even though the class performance was not exceptional. Similar results were seen at Brock and Guelph universities. The best explanation is that these students were told that they would have to work very hard to gain one of the limited places at university. The work and study habits they developed then carried into university, and helped them through their first year. The lesson is that at least some student problems can be reversed very rapidly if the incentive is large enough.

The indications are strong that we have taught students to memorize and not to think. If we do have such a problem, we must move quickly to determine its magnitude, and deal with its causes. A new Ontario curriculum was introduced for K-8 in Mathematics and English in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and a new high-school science curriculum is currently under review as mentioned above. Let's hope that local teachers and school boards are bringing their expertise to the development of this new curriculum, and will be involved in its monitoring and evaluation. There may be 10 years of students who have been taught not to think, and reversing that effect will be not be easy without a determined effort.

Alan Slavin is professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Trent University. He holds two national teaching awards: a 3M Teaching Fellowship and a medal from the Canadian Association of Physicists.

Read about how in 2010, there is a big drop in math skills of entering students.

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Comments on this Article

As a 1st year university student, I am going to say that whatever that is not broken, leave it be, and truth be told yes, I did memorize some facts and stuff because there was too much and many quizzes to cover up the fact that I was memorizing, there should be a critical thinking course in highschool, but I think that that was English now that I think of it. In elementary school I think we had to memorize the equations of a cylinder and the circumference of a circle... and to this day I still do not understand on HOW those equations came to be.
darned rich parents altering the education system so then they pass every grade. I mean if their kid fails in university they got money to spare what about the middle/low income class ones? get in debt at university, then drop out because they cant overcome this barrier and truly get screwed over.I am struggling so hard at university right now and I for one prefer to struggle in high school and fail when the stakes were less.(please excuse my language, I don't know how I can rephrase this. But, feel free to edit my comment.)
to the level of difficulty from high school: university is staggering. I recall that once I asked in my advanced functions class WHY does when x>m then horizontal asymptote =0 if y= coefficient of x^n term /coefficient of y term.
and I dimly recall ( these aren't exact words but I think this is what the teacher said. it has something to do with a limit and it approaches 0 and that ill learn it in calculus ) now, in calculus I remember having a tiny quiz after learning a week full of concepts. As a student I think they should revert back to the old system. Teachers know best how to teach, don't subsidize this by showing them how to do it. I feel as if a rug has been pulled out from under me and if they don't change it back, may change my mind on who to vote.

Posted by Vinh Nguyen The Le, Dec 20, 2013 7:44 PM

I have been working in Ontario for 20 years (~25 different companies) and prior to that I had worked in Europe for 15 years. And prior to that, in the high school, I was a state champion in Math and Physics in the country of 4 mil. people. I remember I had struggled in Math in the elementary school until one day my mother brought me two thick books full of mathematical problems, from easy ones to difficult ones, and one book which I still remember today "How to Solve It" by Pollya. I started to work on those problems one by one. In the 9th grade a teacher brought a sample of Mathematical and Physical Newsletter for high schools students, published monthly by a group of dedicated University professors. There were all sorts of problems and articles in this Newsletter and students all over the country would submit their solutions each month. The Newsletter would publish the names of all students with the exact problems they solved, and the name of their high school. I remember I was very proud to be the only student from my high school that published solutions to the problems. I remember I had the time to devote to this activity. The school started in 8am until 1pm or 1:30pm. Plenty of time. Not a single "essay", or single piece of paper "handed over" to distract (if one have to deal with enormous number of single papers during schooling how would one find the time for anything else??), only a textbook and plenty of Exercise workbooks that student can purchase in the bookstore as per his own choice. 11th grade Physics program: Electricity and Magnetism. 12th grade Physics program: Optics and Atoms Physics, and so on. The programs followed each other logically, from 9th grade (15yrs old) to 12th grade (18yrs old). Everybody had an equal chance to excel. The teacher would write the name of the unit he is teaching on the blackboard and underline it. Everybody knew what body of knowledge was to be studied in the particular semester. There were written and verbal examinations for each subject. There was no "Science". Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. were all separated from each other from the 6th grade elementary school onward. The s t r u c t u r e d approach is the common sense in the schooling of any type. The structured approach. The building of foundational conceptual network in the students brains gradually in the structured and logical way without stupid distractions.
The pace of curriculum was steady slow and common sense. There were no stupid "papers" and "essays" and other distractions (when they asked my failed son in the Ontario high school what did he learn in the particular course he said he learned good cut/copy/paste skills. I observed him doing exactly that for many, many years in the elementary, middle and now high school. Cut. Paste, Cut. Paste. A d i s a s t e r of a school system in Ontario. An unbelievable level of stupidity and ignorance and lack of common sense. The system designed to create the horde of attention deficit zombies, to destroy good minds in the public school system, while in the private school system they offer the very same quality education that I had enjoyed in the public system many, many decades ago, when I was young (the elementary school I had attended in 1964 in the country with the average income $2000 per year, even today looks like an architectural pearl compared to any Ontario elementary and high school, i.e. the country with 40 times more income. The walls of my high school were all painted by an academic abstract painter who happened to be - my professor of arts in the same school, and who had exhibitions all around Europe. My 8 years of free of charge music elementary school education I attended twice per week gave me the foundation so that at age of 50 I learned to play the piano all by myself)

Posted by vrna, Jun 29, 2013 10:17 AM

yea im one of those kids who still struggles with school im 21 and i still dont have my high school. everthing this guy said about how the cirriculum was teaching kids to comprehend something they couldnt spoke to me. to this day i still struggle to comprehend my school work. i have 22 credits but its no thanks to any of the teachers i had through the years of elementry or high school. its was when i was incarcerated for a year when i was 17 for some drug related offences. they took the time there to test me to see if i had any learning disabilities. and to no suprize i do and there they were able to give me the proper help i needed. that was 4 years ago i still dont have the rest of my credits. dont think hey this kids just a criminal messed up on the street guess that is not the case. there is no help for people like me i dont have money for someone to sit and help me learn a diffrent way. theres adult ed or a lazy highschool equivalent course. my school system failed me i never failed myself it is only now that im seeing this. i know im not the only one i have alot friends in the same spot we all went to them same school same classes SAME TEACHERS. yea i have a criminal history you can label me all you want but i think the real criminals are the teachers who didnt want to take the time and teach us the way were ment to be taught. and thats some REAL stuff from a guy still struggling from the goverments b.s. oh yea and when i was in grade 3 my teacher told my mom that i wasnt fit to take the standardized province-wide testing cause i probabley wouldnt be able to do it. hows that for failed school system.

Posted by sean mcgovern, Apr 7, 2013 4:07 PM

I am an Ontario high school teacher and I witness the tyranny of testing all the time. I teach a grade 12 class where we read primary sources (Plato, Augustine, Ignatius & Dorothy day) and it stuns me how unable many students are when asked to engage.

They have been trained through text books, powerpoints and tests to seek and scan and not much more.

The situation seems dire and many 'educators' rationalize their own complicity in the tyranny of testing.

A farce and a dabacle.

Ken Craig
peterborough

Posted by ken craig, Feb 15, 2013 12:31 AM

i agree

Posted by john smith, Jan 24, 2013 12:29 PM

David, I see some of your points, but take issue with your #1. Developmental order and time frames are pretty well understood after years of research in the area. You can't make somebody who's not cognitively ready learn something simply by increasing funding for materials, or building in more study time, in the same way you can't make your kids walk earlier by buying them expensive walkers. The problem, of course, is that some kids hit some stages earlier than others, so there's always anecdotal evidence based on a few outliers. One of my sons read very early, but I wouldn't want the school system redesigned to expect that of everyone.
A more heretical concept: Why exactly do we need high school kids to know 100,000 facts, except to pass an easier to write test? If they need to know the capital of Bolivia, they can look it up. Better they should be taught where to find information, how to evaluate the source, and what to do with the information once they've found it.

Posted by Gerard, Jun 27, 2012 11:42 AM

My personal openion for Canadian school system is, They have excellent conceptional education system at primary level. but there after there is no gradual up gradation, they have a big Gap between 8 grade to 9th grade and there after huge Jump from Grade 10th to grade 11th, and big obstacle get on way when kids join university.that is the main reason kids getting drop out from high school,and unable to get field of there interest, and one important point also there, I would say their should be a gradual slope of curriculum of Ontario or Canada, which will help to boost up the quality of our education system. Its a system not Kids or Parents nor teachers.

Posted by Dr. Saeed Ali Syed, Mar 14, 2012 3:04 AM

Both my children are now in university and went through the Ontario school system. I can say that their elementary school was amazing and allowed them become independent thinkers. The school laid the foundation for their future successes.

Posted by Jennifer, Jan 14, 2012 3:36 PM

I just stumbled across this today and fully agree with many of its conclusions.

One omission (it is how i stumbled on it) is that students now have much more of an ability to cloister themselves into a single academic area and be exposed to only certain ways of teaching and thinking due to the high number of options now available. Thinking of my own high school before the present curriculum, I took OAC Biology, Chem, Kinesiology, 2 Histories, Accounting, English, and Economics. There are now MANY MANY more options available which encourages course hopping to find the "easiest" courses going in search of marks to boost the average to get into university.

This is not made easier in the Sciences, from what I can see by the fact that in terms of requirements, those applying to Science programs rarely have more than 2 optional courses, in some cases only 1 (2 Science courses, 2 maths, 1 English, plus an elective). This also, I think discourages learning for the sake of learning and to develop a wide range of skills than so I can get into a certain program.
At the same time, the willingness in some areas to accept M-Level courses (College/University Prep) on par with U (University level Prep) discourages students to work on developing those skills that are pertinent to their chosen direction in favour of an all encompassing generalist approach.

Stepping off the soap box now.

Posted by Don Bennie, Apr 23, 2011 12:16 PM

It was obvious to me how detrimental the (so-called) reforms (introduced by Harris et al) would be: I had known of the adverse cognitive impacts from experiences in Asia - where this is quite prevalent indeed.

Why not build upon the successes of others - rather than obscured failures.

Posted by M. Giggey, Dec 21, 2010 10:36 AM

Alan Slavin's article while intriguing is not news to those of us living this trend on the front lines. I am not prepared to blame parents, the students themselves or teachers for this shift, but it is undeniable that the "tell me exactly what to do to get an A+" discourse is certainly alive and well in our young people.

After only nine years in the profession, I see an extraordinary shift in students' perceptions of the requisite skills for academic success. There is a belief that learning can and should be compartmentalized into neat chunks which can be tested through simple and superficial assessments. Those of us who try to point out the limitations of this model of learning meet with student discomfort and increasingly antagonism. It’s as if any teaching which requires deep thinking is viewed as poor teaching because it does not involve telling students exactly what to think and say.

So in this sense, this trend is not only impacting the potential achievement of students in higher education, it is redefining their perception of what a quality education entails. As stated earlier, I do not place blame on the typical shoulders, but am vexed by this frightening shift.

There are those of us out there still fighting the good fight, but this is becoming an increasingly lonely position to hold.

Posted by English Teacher, Dec 5, 2010 3:49 PM

As a teacher and principal, I agree with Selma. I don't blame individual families, but the shift of values in our society as a whole. This has affected both families and the government-determined curricula. When looking after the development of children is driven by money, lack of money, or pursuit of profit, something has gone awry. Far too many families are caught up in improving their financial position or having more, and far too many school authorities are caught up in trying to do more, or even the same, with less money.

Starting earlier is not what fits child development. Teaching children to read at 3 and then giving them the choice to choose their courses and manage their time at 15 does not fit with child development. It fits what busy parents and cash-strapped school authorities want for themselves.

When enough people wake up to the fact that our current education, and societal, model is not working, and start changing their values to those that look after their child's healthy development, what the university professors see will begin to change, that is, unless we wait so long that the watering down goes all the way into the universities. And that is a scary thought.

Posted by Gary Ward, Nov 5, 2010 1:03 PM

To Selma i came from another country , and i find the elementary school system in Ontario ridiculous and the teachers very incompetents they are always ready to blame the parents or the ridiculous Ontario curriculum

Gennaro
Aerounatical Engineer and math tutor for hobby

Posted by Gennaro, Oct 22, 2010 3:07 PM

I read many of the comments here and was particulary interested in those made by teachers, both primary and secondary school. HELLO - did you read your comments before posting? Run on sentences, improper order of words and basic grammar errors that would be a fail in my class, had I a class (I would prefer not to teach under the eyes of the union).

I have 2 boys in secondary school, one about to graduate this year. Yes, there are no consequences for poor work but I blame the teachers as well. Going on strike when it is mose injurious to the students - not a great example of responsibility. Telling students the project, essay or whatever has a deadline date but not stating when the papers will be returned is not a good example of the leadership teachers used to have years ago.

This so-called education system is a process where the students and their futures appear to be the last consideration. I say scrap the whole thing, go back to a system where the teachers can be involved at their individual levels, and stop the cookie cutter approach to teachers and students. That is my rant for the year.

Posted by L. Sullivan, Oct 14, 2010 12:58 PM

We watched our daughter struggle through her first year at The University of Guelph. We predicted a poor outcome in Physics, and sadly we were correct. Despite a 90% mark in both Grades 11 and 12 Physics, she failed her first year course and was placed on academic probation. Unrealistic marks in high school? Too much (?!) knowledge, combined with poor thinking and study skills? You decide. Luckily, she persevered, changed programs, learned how to pick up the pieces, and is set to graduate shortly. Interestingly, she learned how to be a better student as a consequence of poor marks. Hmmm, that opens up a whole can of worms now, doesn't it?

On a different note: as a student many years ago, I would learn new concepts at school, practise them at home, and often connect them to the "real world" through play, work, or plain old thinking about it. Amid the hustle and bustle of sports teams, clubs, and work, many kids today don't get the quality "down" time they might need in order to get bored enough to think of how to amuse themselves without a referee or parent coach. It's all connected. Maybe kids today don't synthesize, analyze, or think critically because they're just too busy or they don't need to make decisions that count! As Wm. Henry Davies put it, " A poor life this if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare." Leisure time can be learning time, too!

Posted by Kathryn, Aug 20, 2010 5:27 PM

Here is a major part of the problem....parents have the final say (regardless of grades) as to whether they want their child to pass or fail. I teach in the elementary system and have experienced this scenario several times....
Students do not have to adhere to deadlines, there are no consequences for cheating or plagarism and, as teachers, we are not allowed to give consequences..they do no work at home and I cannot tell you how many kids show up in my classroom many years behind their peers because they should have failed in previous years and because they didn't are now severely behind and unable (and unwilling) to tackle the curriculum. when concerns are presented to administration, the child then is said to have a learning disability and is 'identified' .... it basically gives them a free ride to do no work and pass anyway.....while this is not true for all, it is sadly true for many.

Posted by Selma, Aug 4, 2010 11:23 PM

My experience with the elementary curriculum has been that it expects too much too soon from children. For example, in Jk they are expected to be able to print and even do basic reading, which is ambitious considering that some JK children are only three years old when they start. While some kids are able to handle those expectations, most aren`t, so that many children get frustrated with school early on and it`s downhill from there. Also, the math curriculum tries to teach grade 1 and 2 students abstract concepts they are not ready to comprehend. In other words, they are being taught to run before they can walk, and while it`s true that there are always those extemeley bright children who can handle this curriculum, many can`t and are turned off learning very early on in school.

Posted by Eva Smith, Apr 10, 2010 9:10 PM

I'm a university professor with two young children in primary school. My experience with the k-6 curriculum supports this piece. Month after month my bright grade 2 student comes home with page after page of single-digit addition to do. She doesn't make a single error, so why is it still assigned? Next year is standardized gr. 3 testing and the students are supposed to be fast. Mostly my daughter is learning to hate math and to disengage from the curriculum.

Recently her homework was to build a hot air balloon. That sounded fun, and difficult, but it was neither. Turns out she was supposed to blow up a balloon and stick tape and string to it and hang a basket from underneath. Fine. But then I pointed out that we could move the tape to gain stability "NO!!!!" my daughter shrieked -- if i move it the teacher will be mad. Really? I said we could make lots of balloon baskets and try different things -- she wasn't interested ("I am only allowed to hand in one"). i said we could investigate how hot air balloons really worked and build a model with a garbage bag ("that will just get me into trouble and i won't get my class dollars"). Class dollars??? She finally agreed that if we didn't tell her teacher and i didn't make her take anything else to school that we could just have fun with the idea of hot air balloons.

So my experience hasn't been that the curriculum is super-challenging. i don't mind so much (she's little and I'd actually prefer her to be out playing spies or marbles anyway). But it's more frightening to see that it actively works against a child's natural curiosity to build and break, to be open to other ways to do things. And it's foolish to think that there are no consequences later to making grade 2 students rule-bound and grade-oriented.



Posted by Julia, Feb 6, 2010 7:28 AM

Another explanation as to the rapid increase in survival rates in the physics courses the year after the double cohort is that university professors realized their students were unable to handle the course's previous difficulty and made it easier...

Posted by Conor, Jan 29, 2010 7:51 PM

As a secondary school teacher in Ontario I can definitely attest to the fact there are major issues that need to be looked at regarding curriculum. However, I feel the real problem lies in the lack of responsibility that is being taught at a very young age. Regardless of whether the student learns the content-laden material or not, they are moved on to the next grade level. As you would predict they are starting behind, so more behind they get as the years go on.

With little to no consequences for not meeting the expectations set out in elementary school students enter high school with a very unresponsible mindframe. Students can't even remember to grab their gym shoes at the end of the day, expecting someone else to do it for them, let alone be expected to complete an essay by the assigned date.

Being a student of the OAC era I clearly remember getting some fails here and there, but totally understanding WHY I had failed. I did not do the work required to pass. I did not expect my mark to be changed or be given another chance. Rather I learned from the failure and tried to make sure it did not happen again. Without this learning process I do not think I could have had success in University, and I doubt other current students would either.

Posted by T. Adam, Jan 20, 2010 10:53 AM

1. I don't accept the argument that students are not mentally developed yet. In trying to solve the problem of a decreasing demonstrated level of education in students, the government took the obvious step of intensifying the curriculum. However, chances are the additional funding required for teachers / materials was provided. Furthermore, I don't think there was a corresponding increase in amount of time spent at home by the students and the parents on school work; educational habits both at school and at home needed to change, but didn't. As such it is easy to suggest instead that the curriculum is either too hard, or that students are not "developed" enough for it.

2. Although I didn't go through the system when there was standardized testing, I doubt that the test are "too hard", and rather instead would point to an under-resourcing of the system and an underemphasis on education at home by busy parents and students.

3. Since other provinces had 4 year high school I'm not sure how Ontario students comapre.

4. I would not be surprised to find that poorer students are being admitted - many parents assume / pressure their children to go into university studies, some of whom are not ready / suited for university at all.

5. I agree that more time should be spent reading and writing. The attention span required to properly understand a text and write critically about it is important to developing analytical skills.

6. I think a more important skill here would be to look at the information on the web critically. The fact that it is an important source of knowledge cannot be ignored, but what's crucial to instill in students is that any source of knowledge, from your instructor, a textbook, or the internet, can be wrong, can be critiqued, and can be analyzed. Perhaps a good assignment would be to print out an article on Wikipedia, and have students analyze and critique its content.

Posted by David, Dec 13, 2009 6:30 PM

As a high school math tutor, I have noticed that 'home assignments' are given too much weight in evaluating final grades. It is not uncommon to see 20 and 30 % of the overall mark coming from these after school assignments. Also, I have witnessed much of this home work being plagiarized, or completed by the parent or tutor.

I believe that more of the grading and evaluating should come from in- class testing, and less from home assignments.

Peter Monk

[ Math Tutor (junior and senior secondary-school curricula)]


Posted by Peter Monk, Oct 25, 2009 7:28 PM


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