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Specialists and balanced approach boost UCC math

The way that Canadian students learn mathematics has come under criticism of late, as recent Globe and Mail articles and columns have pointed out that math scores have been decreasing across the country.

Upper Canada College students, who’ve racked up an impressive list of national and international math contest achievements over the past two years, seem to be swimming against this current. UCC students scored 20 per cent above the world average in International Baccalaureate (IB) standard level math scores from 2011 to 2013.

UCC is an IB World School, and the College’s math teaching strategy begins with its Primary Years Programme (PYP) that prepares students to be active participants in a lifelong journey of learning. “Inquiry, hands-on and understanding the relationship between numbers and concepts is our approach,” says UCC PYP coordinator Dianne Jojic.

Primary math teachers use the Everyday Mathematics program and supplementary materials to provide instruction, experience and practice in patterns, numeration, place value, computation, geometry, measurement, decimals, fractions, graphing and problem-solving. Math extension groups are offered to boys who excel in the subject. This scope and sequence was developed in 2008 in consultation with former Middle School head of math Sarah Barclay following a comprehensive review of UCC’s math program and practice.

“We use the Ontario curriculum as a reference,” says Primary Division head Tom Babits. “Our approach is to consult with our in-house expertise, do research on best practice, look at what’s being done elsewhere and make our own decisions about designing and improving our math program.”

UCC’s math curriculum is a full year ahead of other Ontario schools, so when boys enter the Middle Division in Grade 6 they learn Grade 7 math. Scott Manning is the head of the Middle Division’s math department, and math specialists are employed by the College from this level all the way through the five years of the Upper School, culminating in IB2 (Grade 12). A strong math background is also considered when hiring new teachers in the Primary Division.

The IB enables Upper School teachers to use a balanced approach in teaching math, as it structures exams into two papers: one using a calculator and the other with no technology allowed. Calculators are rarely permitted in Year 1 (Grade 8) until after December, and then they’re used in conjunction with paper and pencil skills to ensure that students fully understand concepts that they’ll apply in years to come.

While Ontario public schools and many of the province’s independent schools use Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments based on standardized tests given in Grades 3, 6 and 9, UCC utilizes the Education Research Bureau’s Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP4) to assess student math progress. Babits says the program is “far more precise from a diagnostic point of view” and, since it’s used heavily by similar independent schools in the United States, it allows UCC to compare itself with more specific normed groups.

Individual professional growth for teachers is encouraged at UCC, and members of the math department have attended well over 100 conferences and given talks at regional and national confabs in Canada and the United States over the past five years. Upper School math teacher Byung Chun is a consultant for the Waterloo Mathematics Contests and trains students for the International Mathematics Olympiad.

“We try to stay current while holding true to what we believe works,” says Upper School math department chair Deirdre Timusk. “While we constantly grow and change here, we don’t believe in blindly following every trend that’s embraced by the masses.

“We will try new things to see if we get better results and, if we don’t, we return to what we know has worked in the past. We update and change our courses every year because we reflect on what worked and what didn’t from the year before.”