Bill Gates said in 2009 that it would take 10 years before we knew if any of the education reforms he is pushing is working or not. We may not have to wait for Common Core math as a report was just released by the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada that demonstrates discovery learning has brought about a decline in Canadian students’ math skills.

*The National Post* reports:

Canadian students’ math skills have been on a decade-long decline because rote learning was replaced by discovery-based methods that promoted multiple strategies and estimations, according to a new report that calls for a return to tradition.

“You know what’s the worst kind of instruction? The kind of instruction that makes kids feel stupid. And that’s what a lot of that discovery stuff does; their working memory gets overloaded, they’re confused. That’s bad instruction,” said Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s department of mathematics and statistics, who wrote the C.D. Howe Institute report.

Sound familiar? The article continues:

The report puts a good deal of the blame on discovery or experimental learning approaches that encourage students to explore different ways to solve math problems instead of using a single standard algorithm and often promote concrete tools such as drawing pictures, or using blocks or tiles to represent math concepts. The idea is students will gain a deeper understanding of math and be better equipped to apply it to a variety of situations.

What really happens, though, says the report, is students’ working memories get overwhelmed if they don’t know their times tables and can’t quickly put a standard algorithm to work to solve a more complex problem, both features of what’s known as “direct instruction.” Key operations, such as addition and subtraction of fractions, are overly delayed until the middle school years, just as students need that facility to tackle algebra.

According to the report Discovery Learning has the following characteristics that is very similar to what we see with Common Core math.

- minimal guidance from the teacher and few explicit teacher explanations;
- open-ended problems with multiple solutions (Example: The answer to my question is 37. What might my question be?);
- frequent use of hands-on materials such as blocks, fraction strips and algebra tiles or drawing pictures to solve problems;
- use of multiple, preferably student-invented, strategies;
- minimal worksheet practice or written symbolic work;
- memorization of math facts is deprioritized;
- standard methods such as column addition or long division are downplayed;
- a top-down approach in which students work on complex problems, even though foundational skills might not be present.

Granted there are differences between discovery learning and Common Core, but this just another example of how fads in education don’t actually help education students. In fact for lower performing students it makes them worse.

The report notes on page 8, “A particularly disturbing finding, from a number of studies, is that low-aptitude students perform worse on post-test measures after receiving discovery based instruction than they do on pre-test measures. In other words, discovery-based instruction might result in learning losses and widen the gap between low- and high-performing students.”

HT: Richard Innes

Heidi Sampson says

As a veteran home educator, I certainly have used some of the above mentioned methods to introduce abstract concepts using concrete examples such as fraction strips or blocks. But that is not where this must end, it’s just the starting point where those concrete examples must then be incorporated into the abstract by using symbols (numbers and signs) to use in the traditional algorithm. When the student has the concept in their minds-eye, they must then have to learn to work it effectively using paper and pencil and algorithms that are appropriate for solving the various problems. Any good teacher will use a variety of methods to help students grasp a math concept, but don’t leave them there. Unfortunately, the above mentioned approach to Math throws out the baby with the bath water.