C.D.Howe Report blaming “discovery” method for lack of math skills irresponsible

The CTV news piece by Michelle McQuigge of the Canadian Press, that a C.D. Howe Report (H/T Jack’s Newswatch # 2) blames “discovery” learning for the decline in math skills, is not only WRONG but irresponsible. It is irresponsible because “discovery” is simply the earliest introduction to the scientific method.

Put another way, “discovery” is about learning “how” to find answers, while the other is about memorizing knowledge about facts and skills — how to make an apple pie versus learning the parts of an apple.

The reality is that “discovery” or “inquiry” or “inspired” learning, whether it is part of a math program, language arts, or any other subject, is NOT a NEW instructional approach. In fact, it was part of Ontario’s Hall Dennis Report, which was big news back in 1968.

I would suggest that if the C.D. Howe Institute and parents and educators want to raise the PISA and OECD math test scores, by all means they need to advocate for classroom teachers to timetable at least 15 to 20 minutes a day (20% of the time rather than 80% of the time as Stokke recommends) on math skills and the memorization of facts (without the use of calculators).

However, they should NOT blame, forget or minimize the importance of using the various types of “discovery” and “inquiry” approaches to teach children “how to think.”

I mean, good grief, this is 2015, not 1955!!

If the public is angry with teachers, that is understandable given the mess that was made of “whole language” or “experiential language” back in the 1970s.  True, it may have been experiential but it definitely wasn’t whole at all, having left out the discrete teaching of phonics and word structures at the primary level.

But, let’s face it, the problem was not with the “whole language” method per se. The problem was with what was left out by far too many teachers — who were told by their administration not to teach those skills. I know because I was teaching then and had to incorporate formal subjects like grammar and spelling into the language experiences.

Anyway, let’s not make the same mistake in 2015 with math by ignoring the real problem, that schools today are not teaching discrete compulsory basic skills — like old fashioned times tables and adding and subtracting in your head.

The crux of the matter and the reason I say the Howe report is irresponsible is because it blames the wrong reason math skills and test scores are down.

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First posted May 20th at 4:04pm.
Updated and revised Saturday, May 30th at 10am.


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Sandy is a retired educator, author & former conservative political strategist. She operated the first "Crux of the Matter" from 2006 until 2017 and opened this "Crux of the Matter 2.0" blog in late August, 2018.

15 thoughts on “C.D.Howe Report blaming “discovery” method for lack of math skills irresponsible

  1. My buddy often works with high school grads that are engaged in ‘discovery’ learning. They didn’t learn how to use a tape measure in school and are now ‘discovering’ how to do so. According to him one such graduate described 9/16 as a little one after a big one. I tend to agree with the C. D. Howe.


  2. My son just finished his first year of university. His course load was exceptionally heavy, owing to a need for him and dozens of his peers having to attend remedial math and English classes in order to gain the skills their high schools never taught them. A number of years ago, two of my neighbours who taught at Wilfred Laurier and University of Waterloo, said first year remedial math was the biggest class their schools taught every September. These were non-credit courses required to provide skills the kids were not getting in high school. Contrasted to when I attended university in the late 70s, there is something drastically wrong with the math skill set being provided to our high school students. I’m not sure what the solution is, but unless we change how we are teaching these subjects, our kids will continue to be disadvantaged.


  3. school taught me algebra, geometry , chemistry and physics. my grand father taught me how to measure things and build things.


  4. 30 years experience “in the field” say the Howe Institute and I are right….and you are, most respectfully,…..wrong.


  5. IMO, the problem is not discovery, if it is done right, the problem is that the basic skills are not being taught discretely over and above the “learn-by-doing” approach.

    It is not discovery if the children don’t have the skills or a way to find out. For example, over the years many of you have said you are mostly self-taught.

    What does that mean exactly? Self-taught? Like when people are able to learn their jobs on-the-job. That is the type of inquiry learning I am talking about. No fancy terminology required.

    I guess I didn’t explain myself properly in this post but as long as researchers like Howe blame an instructional approach on the problem in the schools today, nothing will change.

    Simply teaching rote memorization is not the answer. 2015 is a very different world than when I went to school and likely many of you. We have rose colored glasses in that respect. I didn’t learn how to write an essay until I got to university either. And, geometry was a lost cause for me in the late 50s just as it is now. Sure, I could memorize the propositions but hadn’t a clue how to apply them. Still don’t. Yet, I’m a whiz at statistics — which I learned at university. Go figure. 😉

    Anyway, I can’t make excuses for the way some teachers are using “discovery.” I also can’t defend schools not teaching the traditional math facts and skills either. I understand Manitoba is ahead in that regard and has made such skills mandatory.

    In other words, what I am trying to say is that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, we need to make sure the basic skills are taught BEFORE we get into discovery exercises.

    Otherwise, what some of you are suggesting is that the scientific method needs to be thrown out because that is the continuum folks. You can’t suddenly begin teaching inductive and deductive reasoning in university. Things are bad enough as they are.


  6. In university I had a statistics professor who taught facts. Assignments and examinations involved applying the facts to practical problems — discovery IMO. While I was very good at statistics the same method left me clueless when it came to physics.

    One size does not fit all situations.


  7. Heads up to my early commenters on this thread. I have slightly revised this post by removing my measurement example and adding a slightly new ending. I am recommending you re-read it and tell me if you still disagree. If you still do, we’ll simply have to agree to disagree. IMO, the Howe report is just too simplistic and ignores what “discovery” is if done right.

    It is obvious that there is a lot of anger out there which provincial governments are going to have to take into consideration and follow Manitoba’s lead by mandating the discrete teaching of the traditional math skills — along with inquiry approaches.


  8. I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a young mom who is close to me. I told her how upset I was that her young children (aged 4 and 6) would not be taught cursive writing. She looked at me and said “why do they need it?” When was the last time you used it? I had to think. Truthfully, it’s years since I used it. Everything is keyboarding now.

    So, yes, times are changing. And, all of us have to be taken kicking and screaming into the future. However, basic skills and facts are basic skills and facts, pre-requisite knowledge.

    When I explained to her the difference between teaching the basic facts and discovery, she said she wished someone had explained that to her before as she would have seen the difference.


  9. While I agree with Sandy that ‘Discovery’ is a very effective teaching method (for lack of a better term) it also requires talented teachers and students to carry it out. The problem is that not all teachers have that talent and thus their students suffer. Of course some of students lack the talent and again the students suffer.

    Thinking back on the time I spent in grade school (when I started we weren’t allowed to use ball point pens lest it destroy our penmanship) I had many teachers with various talents. One in particular used a method of ‘drawing out’ from the students. It worked very well for me but not so much for some of my classmates.

    Another teacher used the lecture method. That didn’t works so well for me but some of my classmates loved it. One teacher used what I would now consider the ‘discovery’ method and again it had mixed results. His class was physics and for those like me that loved physics the class was a joy. For others it was a source of frustration because they just couldn’t figure it out.

    In grade ten I helped some of those who didn’t get it by teaching them rote memory formulas. Unfortunately for our students we live in a time of conformity where one method is the only method and the teachers and students suffer.

    One thing I am very grateful for is the diversity of education choices that were allowed to enter the public system under Ralph. Three of my children are Asperger’s and the noisy group settings favoured at the time they entered school made learning impossible for them. Ralph freed the schools to set up their own learning environments and two schools in Edmonton went “Traditional”. The boy and girls lined up in separate queues before entering the school, they walked single file down the right side of the hallway. They sat in rows and were silent unless asked a question. They stood to ask a question and give an answer. All three went from failure to success overnight and two of them have gone on to pursue professional careers.


  10. I hear you Joe. As a teacher of teachers I can confirm that all teachers know that kids learn in different ways. For a good discovery/inquiry unit, a variety of activities and resources should be available. As one commenter said here, one size does not fit all.

    Yet, somehow, we need to move with the times while recognizing the importance of the traditional skills. In middle school and high school, the deductive experimental method is taught. Yet, inductive is just as necessary when the research questions are why or how related. That is where discovery is supposed to come in. But, if it is not done right …..


  11. Joe — We have talked about your children before and I am so glad to hear how well they have done.

    I used to have my desks in twos, whether at the elementary or secondary level. If it was inquiry and group oriented, students turned the desks to face those behind them. So, they became a group of 4. Similarly, if I wanted full attention and a teacher-directed class, the two desks set up could quickly become separate rows. I taught art on rotary so the groups of 4 arrangement worked well for managing supplies and clean up.

    In fact, I had a similar arrangement in my university seminars and the students always told me they appreciated the flexibility. Of course, lecture halls for part of each course didn’t allow for that. But, I somehow had students work with people beside them if a discussion was required to get a idea or theory across.

    It’s called flexibility.

    The strange thing is with white boards and Power Point being used so widely, you’d think today’s classroom would be more teacher directed — which frankly, can be a good thing for many children.


  12. I do not know who you are replying to, but I will suggest that until the basics are taught there will be insufficient background to discover anything.


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