Updated: Outcry from Alberta educators over flawed “discovery” math curriculum

Alberta teachers, tutors and professors are standing up against the fuzzy discovery math curriculum adopted by the Alberta government.

More than 50 professors and teachers have now signed a petition calling for a return to the conventional teaching  of arithmetic, with a focus on students learning, practicing and mastering the basics of math in elementary school.

Here’s Dawn Arnold, a high school math teacher in Tofield. “I am seeing the results of the ‘discovery’ method coming into my senior high math classes and it is very disturbing.”

And John O’Connor, a math instructor in Edmonton: “I have been teaching University level Mathematics for many years and have seen first-hand the harm that has been caused by the high-school Math curriculum. Students have been cheated by not having been taught the basic fundamental skills that are essential to an understanding of the subject. Memorizing multiplication tables and mastering long division are as fundamental to Math as learning the alphabet is to reading and writing.”

This public outcry is no surprise to me.  Due to my position as a newspaper columnist, many teachers have  contacted me in private in recent years, many of them with grave concerns about the educational system, from grade inflation to the No Zeros policy, from the new math program to Alberta Education’s current obsession with “discovery learning.”

These teachers fear speaking out in public, though, lest they get fired. That’s what happened to Lynden Dorval, who got fired when he insisted on giving the grade of zero to students who insisted they weren’t going to do a particular test or assignment.

The good news is that many educators will stand up in public when the stakes get high enough, and that’s what is now happening with our math curriculum.

It’s no longer mandatory for our K-6 grade students in Alberta to be taught the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Instead, they’re being taught “discovery math” or “fuzzy math.”

Here is a website devoted to the issue.

Here is an Edmonton Journal article on the issue, with a explanation from Alberta Education on why new math was introduced here.

In this new system, our children, the new masters of their own learning, are asked to somehow discover the ways of arithmetic by trying to figure out wordy math problems. Today’s math isn’t about numbers, it’s about words and theories, as if the curriculum was written by folks who hate the clear logic of pure mathematics.

It is little wonder that Edmonton parents are flocking to private learning programs like Kumon, or to special public school programs like Cogito, where the slow but satisfying mastery of arithmetic is the focus.

Where does that leave parents who can’t afford Kumon, or others who can’t get their kids into a popular program like Cogito? It leaves them stuck on the second rung of a two-tier educational system.

If you don’t want to believe me on any of this (for after all, I am just one parent with children in the system), here is what a number of educators have written on the on-line petition started up by Calmar parent Nhung Tran-Davies, which already has700,  1,570,  2,300 signatures.

Gordon Swaters EDMONTON
In addition to having an 11 year old daughter in the school system and seeing the math she brings home, I am a U of A Math prof who sees the declining the ability of first year students to do basic math.

Donna Nixon ST. ALBERT
I am a junior high math teacher. More and more grade 7 students are coming in with no basic math skills – they don’t even know their basic addition and subtraction facts, never mind multiplication or division!!!

John Shepherd SURREY, B.C.
As a university accounting instructor, failing large numbers of accounting students, mainly due to their weak math skills and dislike of math, is frustrating. Student math skills, even in basic math like ratios, seems to be falling.

I am a parent of 7 year old twins, and a math prof at the U of Alberta. As a parent, an educator and indeed a mathematician, I know a balanced approach is fundamental. From what I have seen with my children’s education, there is no balance in mathematics education in our schools today.

Borbala Kommes OKOTOKS, CANADA

As a grade 5 math teacher, it is clearly visible to me that students who know their basic math facts and strategies, through repetitive practice, are far better equiped to apply those skills to problem solving and critical thinking. Just as in reading, a student must know the alphabet, before reading words, so too math students must know their basic facts and arithmetic before being able to apply them to problem solving.

Peter Zajiczek` CALGARY, CANADA

I am a mathematics teacher and our children are so ill-prepared for higher level mathematics it is frightening. Students need basic math facts memorized to focus on higher level concepts.

I’m a teacher and am totally opposed to the new “method” of “teaching” which does not provide the scaffolding that prepares the student for problem solving.

Elizabeth Lund SLAVE LAKE
As a teacher myself, I find this new curriculum confusing, and lacks the basic skills. I want my children to be prepared for post secondary school, and these studies are findings are highly disturbing. The education of my children is important to me, and would like to see this curriculum changed, to give our children the best math skills possible.

Patricia Edwards CALGARY
Taught grade four one year, then high school Math for many years. My grandkids are now starting school (oldest grade 4) and I absolutely believe they need to learn the basics!!

Vivian Bell, Edmonton

As a teacher I know that the new math curriculum is wrong for the overwhelming majority of students. The new curriculum taught in its pure form without an experienced teacher mitigating its effects by keeping in mastery of fundamentals results in the majority of students becoming frustrated and losing their math confidence entirely. The students who can problem solve and enjoy math games are also the ones that know their basic facts. Multiple strategies and discovering their own strategies confuses most students. This is not to say that you don’t accept different ways of solving problems,  you do, but again, the ones who can do this are the same ones who master and memorize their basic facts, who master fundamental algorithms. You can show them why algorithms work, but they want the simplicity and ease of established algorithms – this has been proven to me time and again by students.

Christian Rios, Calgary

I am a mathematician at the University of Calgary, and I have children in the school system. Currently math education is creating more confusion than enlightenment. The main problem is the concept that synthesis (what they call “making sense”) may come before proficiency. This is an upside down approach to learning. Mathematics should be learned the way we learn our native language: First we memorize a few words and their basic meaning, we learn how to put together basic sentences allowing us to communicate. Much later in this process we get to the point of analyzing syntax, parts of speech, and symbolism.

The current approach to learning mathematics pretends to start with the analytic stage. This creates confusion in students, that leads to chronic frustration, and finally creates aversion to everything mathematical.

Sonia Atwal, Edmonton

Like many parents signing the petition, we have been baffled by the way in which math is being taught. I am an English professor, my husband is an engineer and we both realized that we needed to teach our children basic math facts. In fact, teachers now encourage parents to do this at home…is this because they know the curriculum has short-comings?

Olia Libicz Pavlin EDMONTON
I’m an ex – teacher with 2 elementary aged kids. They are not learning real math at school and I end up teaching them at home. What happens the the kids whose parents don’t like math and can’t explain math to their kids. I am very concerned with the whole discovery way of learning and that is why I left teaching. I have to teach my kids at home after school and there is no energy left at the end of the day to teach your own kids when you just worked with 31 kids.

Robin Westervelt EDMONTON
Having taught elementary and now having my own young children, I agree 100% the curriculum is failing our children. I know where the cracks are and how to help my own children, but not everyone else does. No child should be left behind!

Betty Zabel, Lamont

Substitute teach. Kids need the tools before they get creative in figuring out math problems.

Marc Van Sluys, Calgary

As a teacher, I can see the advantages of teaching math fundamentals. Since the new math curriculum has been introduced, I have seen the slow decline of fundamental math knowledge in my students. They struggle with simple addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division. It seems to me that as an adult, I use the above skills more than the current skills being taught by the new curriculum.

Karen Hunter EDMONTON
I am a university professor, and regularly hear my colleagues commenting that undergrads lack the basic math skills and algebra fluency to succeed in university math. My son, now 7, will be receiving supplemental lessons at home to ensure that he has a solid grounding in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and can do this work independently, because group work and creative problem solving does not sufficiently promote numeracy skills.

Devra Drysdale CALGARY
As a guidance counsellor, I have witnessed the over reliance on calculators and the lack of math basics in students. We are failing our students!

DeeAnn Daniels, Eckville

I work in a middle school and assist in Math in Gr 8. It is very difficult, and more students are failing than succeeding in middle and high school. I have a daughter in Gr 11 who is struggling in math but is otherwise an honours student and I also have a daughter in Kindergarten and I am not looking forward to her struggling with the math curriculum

Deborah Younger, Edmonton

I am a high school math teacher. I am noticing that an increasingly larger number of my Grade 10 students do not know basic times table facts, nor do they understand operations with fractions or integers. These are fundamental to successful completion of most high school math courses.

Viena Stastna, Calgary

I teach Calculus 1 at the university so I see the consequences.

Koreyan Peterson MINBURN
I have been teaching 6th grade for the past 5 years and have noticed a significant decrease in the ability of students to do more complicated math because they do not have basic math facts easily accessible. We only have so much time in the classroom to teach all of the required material and if the students are not coming in prepared, it means we spend the time preparing them. In turn, we then don’t have the time to spend to make sure they fully understand the outcomes they need to know for the next level because we are busy playing catch up. I feel like the students would be more successful if they were able to practice their facts until they not only understood them, but also had them memorized and could use them for more advanced operations.

Allan Lariviere FOX CREEK
I am a substitute teacher. I walk into a grade seven math class and am appauled at the lack of any basic math skill the students show. The students are frustrated as well. I can teach simple integer concepts in 5 minutes what the curriculum takes two weeks to do. Once the students know some simple rules to follow they can do their assignments easily and accurately.

Carson Beran EDSON

I am a Math (Alberta Certified) and have witnessed the effects first hand on the change over in curriculum. To summarize my thoughts and experiences on the changes: I have seen a severe reduction on independent thinking and an increase in what I call “Spoon Feeding” the students. When I bad mouth the new curriculum, I am told to keep my mouth shut, especially the with regards to Math 10 Common. I have always maintained decisions regarding the Math Curriculum changes have been made by non-Math people or people who have not been in the trenches for a very long time (the disillusioned). I have seen a reduction in students attending post-secondary institutions, and a further reduction in former students surviving beyond the first year, especially in Math dependent curriculum. I have taken it upon myself to take the education of my kids in Math and Science into my own hands and I will not risk their post-secondary aspirations in the hands of the current Alberta Curriculum. The only students who stand a chance are the ones currently in an IB program. I am disgusted with Alberta Eds approach to “How Math should be taught?” and secretly, so are a lot of other Math teachers. The only people who are for this curriculum are the education psychologists who couldn’t survive, or didn’t have to survive a real post-secondary Math course. It makes me sad when I have seen high end Math and Science students who I expected to go on to great things falter at a post-secondary level.

Jacqueline Fern RED DEER

As a teacher of mathematics, teaching grades 6 – 12, I am seeing first hand how weak students have become in Mathematics due to the new curriculum. For example, students cannot factor Polynomials simply because they do not know their basic facts. I get students in Math 6 who have absolutely no knowledge of basic facts. Please, Honourable Jeff Johnson, get this rectified NOW!!

I teach at the post secondary level and the students have to be taught the basics before I can move them forward. It is frustrating as well as time consuming.

I am a teacher, now retired, who was required to teach Math in this way and I have seen the confusion it creates for students. I know from my own practice that there are ways to ensure mastery of the basics while ensuring students develop a deep understanding if the underlying Mathematical principles.

I teach undergraduate economics and deal with the fallout from this every day. Simple algebraic operations escape my students. Clearly they have not “discovered” the methods.

Ken Corbett, Richmond, CANADA

I am a math teacher who has witnessed the constant flow of change for the sake of change over my 40 year career. Many of the expensive changes in math education made by Ministries of Education have severely damaged the ability of Canadian students. For shame.


As a post secondary educator (engineering technologies) for the past 25 years, I have noticed a huge decline in the match skills of students over the years but more so over the last 10. I firmly believe they are seriously lacking the basic math skills to be successful. I find myself having to explain basic math skills (trig and algebra) far to often which takes away from the objectives we are trying to achieve. Math (pre calc) has been one of the hardest courses for students to pass and carry on with their programs. A lot of students definitely do not have the level of math skills they need to be successful.

Roberta & Peter McDonald CALGARY, CANADA
I can attest to the weakening of math skills from my extensive experience over 45 years of classroom. Many students often come to tears trying to understand the “New Math” systems which have changed several times. Parents mostly have to give up trying to help because they were taught a different system.

I have three teen-aged kids in Alberta schools, and I am a Math professor myself. Comparing disciplines, I found that while Social, Science and LA are taught at an appropriate level, Math is taught at an extremely low level. Don’t be afraid of Math and use it to inspire our students!

Frances Slubik EDMONTON
As a teacher, I believe that children should have solid basic backgrounds in mathematics. Through the years what does it matter if they are taught quantum physics, if they don’t know why division works?

As a parent (child in grade 7) and university educator, I have found the methods and goals of the new math curriculum difficult (if not impossible) to understand. My daughter has seemed confused and exasperated – that is until she and I have sat down with the whiteboard and pens and worked things through the “old-fashioned” way!

Phil Davidson EDMONTON
I teach statistics to BComm students. On average my students educated here in Alberta are way behind my foreign students in basic math skills.

Theresa Balko, Cochrane

I used to teach in Alberta for many years and got terribly discouraged that I was teaching programs and not children any longer. I quit my teaching job and started a tutoring company in Cochrane, Alberta and have been unsurprisingly shocked at the number of students I am currently working with, specifically in Math. I have had multitudes of frustrated parents who feel that cannot help their children and just want them to have the basics. Since the “new math” inception years ago I have been greatly concerned and have voiced my concerns to the math department at my school district regarding the long term effects that are now being seen.

I am a returning teacher after having taken ten years off to raise my family. I am currently teaching part-time with two grade eight math classes. The only kids who are thriving in these classes are those bright ones who do not need any repetition. My own children sit down to mom’s math class after school regularly for basics practice. Multiple strategies are important to reach all the different kinds of learners, and estimation also is important, but the basics need stronger emphasis.

Roy Sharplin, Edmonton

I am an instructor in an engineering technology program at NAIT. We are seeing an increase in students who came to NAIT with high marks in high school math but struggle in our basic technology math courses.

Dr. John Barrington Leigh, Edmonton

I a remedial math specialist dealing with the 1/5 of students who cannot ‘get’ the current math curriculum. The new one is even harder for them. What’s missing is the repetition of teaching basics as used to be the case. Self-confidence is the primary goal. This is absent in well over 50% of cases. The whole approach to teaching math is at grave risk because of inadequacy in the math teachers’ competence in grades k-6, and often in JH. I was astonished to find teachers in JH asking me to suggest other ways of teaching trig or even addition and subtraction. The universities must be ordered to fix this for the future viability of our children in the modern world.

Billy Chan CALGARY

As an engineer who depends on fundamental mathematical skills both inside and outside of my practice, I am appalled by the lack of fundamental mathematical skills such as the multiplications tables being taught in the elementary schools of Alberta. These skills are the building block that allow students to focus their efforts on more complicated problem solving skills. If a child is forced to so-call “discover” their way to mathematical understanding, we are in essence denying our children of the established teaching methods that has been tried, tested, and proven for centuries. This simply has to stop.

I have a teaching degree and was exposed to this doctrine of ‘discovery-based learning’ back in the 1970′s. The theory is that you will retain an answer longer and better if you ‘discover’ it yourself. It was a confusing mishmash then. It led to – nothing. Get rid of this idea entirely. Eveen at the university level there was much resistance and no fun involved in this ‘process’. International results should be more than enough to consign your experiment to the trash heap of useless learning techniques.

Corry Mortensen TILLEY
I was a mathematics teacher and I see the effects on the students I taught and on my own children. I also firmly believe that if you introduce critical thinking problems you must also teach “how” to be critical thinkers – those skills aren’t automatic. Teaching 4 different ways to do something isn’t critical thinking, teaching skills so students can develop their own methods and techniques is.

I am a high school math tutor and home school mom who has had the opportunity to teach my own children the fundamentals from grade 1 to grade 9 without the problems most school children are faced with as I could choose the curriculum that best suited them through a traditional program rather than use the “new” math. Working with students in grade 9 through 12, I can see how many of them are struggling on the basics unlike my own children. It is time to change back to what works! This new math is stealing their confidence and their dreams. Many can’t get into the careers they are gifted at just because of their struggles in math. It is an injustice in my opinion. Also, going back to full year math and sciences would provide students with a full year to master and retain their concepts rather than forget them of a space of a semester and a summer. Rotational lessons rather than unit by unit method would also alleviate the difficulties students are having in math. The math and sciences are subjects that build concepts upon concepts unlike the humanities and it is important to master the first concepts before building onto them. Please do the right thing for our children and give them the best possibility of succeeding and reaching their dreams!

In my career as a high school teacher of many courses including math & as an instructor at NAIT, I truly have experienced the importance of I totally agree with the “Back to the Basics: Mastering the fundamentals of mathematics” petition. As is stated, “the “new math” glares of absurdities in that students are led through multiple convoluted “strategies” to get to a solution, with no emphasis on mastering any one method. As a result, the importance of knowing basic math facts (eg. algorithms, time tables, automatic recalls, vertical additions) is diluted down to a weak understanding and poor grasp of basic mathematical concepts.”


I am a mathematics master student and I see a lot of people struggling to handle basic math facts at all ages. It is very upsetting. I also have a large number of friends who are teachers that have expressed concern over the lack of preparedness for the next grade.

Ioana Crisan, Calgary

I have taught principles and intermediate courses in Economics at university level for twelve years. The inability of some of my students to solve basic equations that a Grade 5 student should be able to solve is shocking. It is obvious that some of them are paralyzed by math. A student should not have to use a calculator to divide 72 by 9. The education system has failed these students, and I hope it is not too late for those in charge to admit that a mistake has been made and to try to correct it. I have a daughter in Grade 1 and I hope that by the time she reaches university she will have more confidence in her math skills than my current students do.


Over the last several years I have been watching the average education of students entering the post-secondary institute at which I work erode. Skills that I and all of my high school graduating class were able to easily perform have become rarer and rarer, if not altogether absent in some instances. I think that if the current trends continue we will find ourselves with a dangerous shortage of educated people in the next couple of decades.

I am a Math teacher that is seeing the decline in children’s math skills

Matthew Letts, Lethbridge

Teaching at a university, I have discovered that the majority of students are either mathematically illiterate or, at least, mathematically challenged. This has nothing to do with natural capacity and everything to do with a lack of emphasis from parents and educators on basic math skills. The reality is that lives have become busier, there are more distractions and children spend less down time than ever with their parents. For the future of our country, these skills must, therefore, be covered intensively in our schools. How can Canada compete in the knowledge economy with a mathematically illiterate populace?

Kari Rasmussen ST. ALBERT, CANADA

As a doctoral student in Education I have often had conversations on the need for basic skills – that without these the critical thinking and analysis necessary for further learning is not supportable. It seems that this is the case with New Math as well, without a framework or structure it would be close to impossible to expect the creation of mastery of any subject.

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