Alberta's Student Voice - "What Math Crisis?"

December 9, 2016 Stephen Murgatroyd

In Canmore these last few days over 100 students, teachers, and principals from across Alberta sat together to explore how they could leverage international partnerships between Finland, Alberta, New Zealand and Norway to improve Alberta schools. The question they were asking was not “how can we improve our ranking on PISA”, but “what else can we do to make schools in Alberta great places to be, learn and enjoy for ALL students?”. The so-called “math crisis”, manufactured by our own Education Minister,  did not come up once.

Six years ago schools in Alberta partnered with schools in Finland to explore these questions. The partnership not only continues but has grown and expanded its reach. Norway came on board two and a half years ago and now New Zealand is in the mix. These partnerships involve exchanges, explorations, and collaborative projects between students, teachers and schools.

This work involves exploring questions like these:
  • Why do we do what we do the way we do it?
  • Why don't we do what we do differently?
  • Is what we do and the way we do it helping and making a difference for all students or just some?
  • How we can we engage, show care and concern and make a difference for all students?
Key to the way this work is undertaken is the task of helping students find and share their own voice. It is their understanding, ideas and suggestions that make the difference.

Teachers matter. But when they treat students as colleagues and partners, the work teachers and students do together can “change the game”. Across all of the schools involved, it is the student's voice, peer to peer networking within and between schools and the authentic partnership with teachers that makes a difference to what happens in schools.

The visits to Finland have, according to the students, been transformative. Students who went as shy, quiet individuals come back with confidence and they have found their voice.  Many have found that their time away helps them better understand their own community and place in it.  The visits are not “educational tourism” they are powerful, life-changing opportunities for self-discovery and development. One parent told a participating Principal “I don't know what happened to my daughter over there, but I tell you, she is a much better person for it and we need more of our students to have the opportunity to grow and develop the way she did in such a short time…”.


When the students from Finland come here their experience is the same. Being billeted with the “home” family, sharing meals and leisure time with the family, being at a different school, asking seemingly innocent questions – all open up opportunities for change and development for all concerned.

There are all also powerful developments as a result of this work in Alberta. Schools in Calgary co-operating in ways they had not done before; a school in the Crowsnest Pass collaborating with other schools across the Province to support student learning; accelerated use of ideas for high school redesign.
One reason Alberta does so well on PISA – we rank 8th in the world – is this kind of work. Helping students help their teachers so that the system can improve, one school at a time.

After fifteen hours of intense conversation, activity, planning and collaborative work it was still the case that no one mentioned the “crisis in mathematics” in Alberta. Maybe that is because those closest to the work – and there were maths teachers in the room – do not see a crisis in the way that bureaucrats under the dome do. They see young people seeking to make sense of their different futures and just want to help them have a successful journey.

Alberta is focused in this work on equity - ensuring that all students have success in what matters to them. Equity, in this conversation, is not about equal opportunity, but more about outcomes - enabling that outcomes that matter for the student.

When we look at PISA 2015, Canada performs exceptionally well because of its focus on equity. Tied first in the world for reading, second in the world for science and eight in the world in mathematics. This high performance is combined with a high level of equity. Let's put this another way: our high performance is because of our commitment to equity. No crisis there, whatever the Minister of Education and his staff may think.  PISA matters little to teachers, students and parents. Letting PISA results drive policy, my friend and colleague Pasi Sahlberg points out, is not only a mistake - it's dangerous.





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We can do better. We will do better when we learn to collaborative, engage, respect, trust and challenge in ways that help schools become better for all students. Rather than inventing a crisis, we would be better to make investments in equity for our students. That's what the students say too..




Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.

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