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The problem with discovery-based math

What you can do to help your child become a better math student

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Math provokes more feelings of anxiety and frustration than any other core subject for countless elementary and middle school students. However, in recent years, it appears that more and more parents are experiencing an even greater level of stress as they attempt to help their children with math homework. Has math advanced so much in elementary education that we, as parents, can no longer help our kids?


Child with learning difficulties

While that may be the question on the minds of a lot of moms and dads, the answer has little to do with the type of math and more to do with the way it's being taught. In recent years, a "discovery" approach to learning math has become the trend in Canadian schools. In general, this approach involves problem-solving situations that are designed to encourage a student to discover the answers without direct instruction from the teacher.

The goal of discovery-based math is to make it more meaningful for children. If a child can make the correct conclusions on her own through logical thinking and deduction, the concepts will be easier to remember. However, in a recent study released by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the following conclusion was made: "traditional math education methods are superior to the highly ineffective, discovery-based instructional techniques that are in vogue now in educational curricula." It seems that, in our efforts to find innovative ways to make math more interesting and less intimidating, we have left many children—and their parents—more confused than ever.

Many classroom teachers would agree that self-discovery has value but also recognize that a more traditional approach to teaching math shouldn't be overlooked. Math proficiency, by its very nature, requires old-fashioned memorization, repetition, and practice in order to master basic, foundational concepts. In fact, in places like Korea and Japan, where students are well known for their math skills, it is this traditional approach to math that is used within the classrooms.

Even if instructional methods in our schools change very little in the short-term, parents can help their kids become better math students. There are numerous resources, such as the JUMP at Home math workbooks that break down math problems into smaller steps. While these workbooks and others like it take a more traditional approach to teaching math, they provide an excellent and easy-to-use resource for parents.

Discovery-based learning does have value in a child's education. However, before a young student can engage in this type of high-order thinking with any degree of confidence, he or she must be able to master the foundational concepts. The reality is, without direct instruction, memorization, and practice the benefits of discover-based learning can become completely lost.

—Marc Lapointe
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