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It turns out Discovery-based learning, likely the source of the confusing homework your kids sometimes bring home, may not actually be benefitting your kids. Or at least, that’s what a report released by the C.D. Howe Institute says. The institute reports that between 2003 and 2012, Canadian students’ math performance in international exams fell significantly, except in two provinces.

As a result, the report’s author recommends that teachers base 80 per cent of their math classes on traditional learning methods, like memorizing multiplication tables, while only about 20 per cent should come from Discovery-based learning techniques. She also said math concepts like fractions, addition and subtraction should be taught at earlier grade levels.

If you don’t already know, Discovery-based learning techniques see students rely more on independent problem-solving procedures and hands-on materials, while getting less instruction from the teacher. Sometimes this type of learning takes the form of open-ended questions with multiple solutions (Example: the answer to my question is 52, what might the question be?). Students are then responsible for coming up with their own way to solve the problem.

Now you know why you almost pull your hair out of your head when they bring this work to you for help, since you learned to solve math equations in a completely different way.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

According to the report, the problem with this method is that the strategies children invent can overwhelm their working memories as they try to solve new problems, rather than recalling tried and true formulas.

“When information in our working memory is sufficiently practiced, it is then committed to long-term memory, after which it may be recalled later,” the report says. “For instance, a seven-digit phone number is likely to be quickly forgotten unless it is repeated several times.”

The same, the report argues, could be said about mathematical formulas.

We spoke to the Ontario Ministry of Education about how prevalent Discovery-based learning is in the classroom, but they would only say that they embrace a “balanced approach” to teaching mathematics.

“We know that students are more likely to persist in mathematics when it makes sense to them. Students are also more likely to remember and be able to apply mathematics in the real world when they understand it,” spokesperson Andrew Morrison wrote in an email. “The curriculum’s focus on building understanding and skills has not changed, and continues to reference traditional methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.”

Discovery-based learning also has its fair share of supporters. A 2013 review out of the University of Calgary concluded “A diverse and wide body of research suggests that inquiry-based approaches to learning (i.e. Discovery-based learning) positively impact students’ ability to understand core concepts and procedures. Inquiry also creates a more engaging learning environment.”

Either way, a petition is circulating in Alberta calling for “back to basics” math.

Do you think Discovery-based learning has a place in the classroom? Let us know below!

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