Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

A Formula for Success? an Examination of Factors Contributing to Quebec Students' Strong Achievement in Mathematics

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

A Formula for Success? an Examination of Factors Contributing to Quebec Students' Strong Achievement in Mathematics

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 2012, 65 countries participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), including approximately 21,000 Canadian students from about 900 schools across the 10 provinces (Brochu, Deussing, Houme, & Chuy, 2012). Since its inauguration in 2000, PISA reports on the mathematical, reading, and scientific literacy of a sample of 15-year-old students in each participating country every three years, with one of these domains selected for more detailed study at each cycle. Mathematical literacy (as defined by PISA) was the focus of the 2012 assessment, and that year, PISA assessed three processes related to the mathematical domain: formulating situations mathematically; employing mathematical concepts, facts, procedures, and reasoning; and interpreting, applying, and evaluating mathematical outcomes. Overall, Canadian students achieved above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, surpassed by only nine other participating countries (Brochu et al., 2012). According to PISA, "Canadian students achieved strong results in each of the three [mathematical] processes assessed" (Brochu et al., 2012, p. 22). So why did John Manley, the CEO and president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (as cited in Editorial, 2013), call the results "a national emergency?"

While it is true that, according to PISA results and other comparable mathematics assessments conducted over a nine-year span, the performance of Canadian 15-year-olds declined by a small, but statistically significant amount, Canada was not the only country that experienced a decline in scores: A decrease in average achievement was also observed in the Netherlands, Finland, and Belgium (Brochu et al., 2012). Among "high-performing" countries, only Macau-China, Poland, and Germany improved in mathematics over the past four PISA cycles. And yet, it appears that the Canadian population took the results to heart, with notable newspapers such as The Globe and Mail suggesting that Canada is doing no less than "failing to effectively teach our students math" (Editorial, 2013).

One province, however, stood out from the rest. Only students in Quebec achieved significantly above the Canadian average in each of the three mathematical processes assessed by PISA, and impressively so: their average score was surpassed by only five other participating countries (Brochu et al., 2012). And so, almost overnight, Quebec became Canada's superstar in the teaching and learning of mathematics, with all eyes turning to la belle province in the hopes of discovering the "formula to better nationwide math scores" (Peritz, 2013). Many explanations have been offered for the discrepancy in scores, with the media (see, for example, Peritz, 2013; Editorial, 2013; Editorial, 2014) often framing the issue as a divide between "traditional" and "reform" (or "discovery") mathematics (see, for example, Schoenfeld, 2004 for a history of the debate). For instance, on December 3, 2013, an article in The Globe and Mail declared that "Quebec schools, when compared with those in the rest of Canada, use more memorization and rote learning" (methods associated with the "traditional" approach of teaching mathematics) and have largely "ignored the fad" of discovery mathematics (Editorial, 2013). Strangely, only three days later, an article in the same newspaper claimed that Quebec favours "discovery learning," which is "meant to encourage kids to learn concepts by solving problems rather than memorizing rules and equations" (Peritz, 2013). Such examples suggest that in the public sphere, the success of Quebec students has been largely misunderstood and that the issue has only been further obscured by popular media outlets.

So what is Quebec doing right? First of all, it should be acknowledged that Quebec is not necessarily a "paradise" when it comes to the teaching of mathematics, as Laurent Theis, a mathematics education researcher at the University of Sherbrook explains (personal communication, January 19, 2015); moreover, as in all other provinces, the mathematics education program is not universally accepted (Dionne, 2007). …

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