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IN MY OPINION

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 | September 10, 2007

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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  1. Peter Monk / October 25, 2009 at 7:28 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)]

  2. David / December 13, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    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.

  3. T. Adam / January 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

    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.

  4. Conor / January 29, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    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…

  5. Julia / February 6, 2010 at 7:28 am

    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.

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