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Leaning on PISA

“Bad news sells” is a very depressing truism of our business, even when the bad news doesn’t remotely convey what’s happening.”        ~Jeffrey Simpson~

The media landscape has been filled with responses to the release of the results from last year’s Programme of International Student Assessment test (PISA). The assessment is designed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to gather data on the core skills of reading, science and mathematics and is administered to a sample of 15 year old students from around the world. The focus of last year’s test was mathematics and, though many countries participated in this assessment, it is important to note some key points:

  • approximately 510 000 students (21,000 from Canada) participated in the assessment world wide and their selection was made by school- all the 15 students at a randomly-selected school would’ve taken the 2 hour test;
  • there was a mix of countries, states and cities that participated; from city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore to countries like the United States and Russia. In fact, the OECD, which administers the test classifies participants as economies and states;
  • the assessment does allow for the gathering of demographic information that permits a more robust and detailed analysis of the results.

The last point is where I will direct my focus for now. Predictably, the release of the test results set off a lively cycle of reaction from the media; with responses ranging from panic, denial to smug self-congratulation. Across Canada media outlets analyzed, sought ‘expert’ insight and opined about the national and provincial results. The initial reaction from the media that I have scanned has been pretty balanced. There were some initial alarms claiming that we are ‘falling’ due to low standards’ a misguided mathematics pedagogy of inquiry and exploration and that we needed to get ‘back to the basics’ and focus on more traditional methods of math instruction. But, as the days have passed and accounting for bias, some helpful points have been raised and discussed:

  • Much was made of the rankings as evidence as indicative of Canada’s declining status in mathematics as we ‘slipped’ from 10th in the world to 13th (out of 65). While, the raw math scores have declined 14 points over the past decade Canadian 15 year olds still perform at high level using this measure. Only muddled math could equate above average as a crisis- especially when one factors in that 4 of the 13 ‘countries’ above Canada in the rankings are actually cities in China that were reported as separate entities.  The key concern here is the decline using this measure and how we can explore this pattern in our context. A common element among the districts that had high performance in math is the emphasis they place upon teacher quality and expertise in the teaching of mathematics. Though factors like curriculum design and socio-economic status play a role; the PISA results confirm that the students who perform best in math have teachers who are well trained, both initially and over the course of their careers.
  • When comparing the performance of Canadian provinces much was made of the superior results in Quebec; with some commentators giving credit to Quebec’s focus on rote memorization and avoidance of the ‘fuzzy math’ that other Canadian provinces have adopted.  Fortunately, commentators have looked more deeply at Quebec and realized that though their curriculum is not that different than the rest of Canada, the investment that they make in preparing and supporting the on-going professional knowledge of their teachers is; with Quebec teachers spending significantly greater time learning about mathematics during their pre-teaching preparation and beyond.  McGill Mathematics Education Professor Annie Savard points out that; “People on their way to becoming math teachers also do plenty of field work, watching and doing hands-on teaching while still in university. By the time they graduate and head into classrooms, they have done a minimum of 700 hours of in-class internships.”   We could also point to Quebec’s decade-old investment in affordable, universal child care as a factor in these results as there is a robust connection between a child’s development of early number concepts and later academic success.

In our school context we are considering the PISA insights to guide both our planning for professional learning and our allocation of resources.  We know that one-off ‘programs’ that emphasize basic skills and memorization do not work just as we know that ‘inquiry learning’ that expects children to discover and develop mathematical understandings by themselves will not work. What we do know is that learning occurs when teachers have the skill to design tasks that require students to struggle, allow them to use models and strategies that they have been taught and compel them to prove and justify their thinking. These are all outcomes of classroom teaching.

As a school, our key investment is in developing the capacities of our teachers to provide focused instruction in mathematics.  And that is why it is exciting that 8 of our teaching staff will spend some time learning about effective mathematics instruction with Dr. Cathy Fosnot over the next week.

Categories: Mathematics
  1. December 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    So refreshing to read something like this, Brian. I’ve been reading some of the media responses in regards to PISA – the whole time reflecting upon & interrupting my thinking about math pedagogy. Ultimately I still feel that inquiry in math is useful to creating an environment where students can wonder/learn and should be used to help create a more comprehensive math program that goes beyond rote memorization or top-down teaching. Unfortunately when some people hear “inquiry math” they think “new math” but this is not the case. Wondering how the world works through the lens of math modeling isn’t new but sadly has been left out of the learning opportunities of some students. We as educators need to, in a small way, get the wonderment back into math. A way to do this is to develop richer tasks in math for students to engage with. I think you captured it best when you explain that authentic “…learning occurs when teachers have the skill to design tasks that require students to struggle, allow them to use models and strategies that they have been taught and compel them to prove and justify their thinking. ”

    Here’s to continuing to learn about, design, and share rich math tasks with our students.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and view.

  2. December 9, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Hi Paul
    Inquiry is important because it is questions that launch and drives learning- of course this learning needs to be guided as well- this is the key role of the teacher. As for the ‘new math’- I always bristle at that term. It is almost always used in a dismissive way and is misdirected. There is very little about math that is actually ‘new’ and people who use it are actually dismissing our pedagogy. People should feel free to question our pedagogy and we have a responsibly to respond but cloaking one’s misunderstanding of the complex work we do by using a buzz word is not cool.

    Keep wandering the landscape my friend!

  1. December 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm

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