Poor maths results for block learners

10th April 1998 at 01:00
CANADA

Educational waters on both sides of the Great Lakes will be churned up by the news of test results which showed that secondary pupils on conventional year-round maths programmes significantly outperformed those receiving shorter blocks of intensive teaching.

Over the past two decades 98 per cent of Ontario's high schools and 50 per cent of British Columbia's (and 50 per cent of American high schools) have changed their timetables from the traditional full-year, seven-period a day schedule to one of two forms of "block scheduling".

The two are either semestered schools - where students take two subjects in the morning and two in the afternoon for five months - or quarterly schools - where they take one subject all morning and one all afternoon for 12 weeks.

The test showed that 71 per cent of Canada's 13 and 16-year-olds in full-year programmes scored the expected level of 3 (out of 5), but only 55 per cent of those in semestered programmes did.

According to Ken Poitras, who co-ordinates Ashern, Manitoba's central high school, block scheduling allows teachers and students to get into the subject, without being interrupted by the class bell. "It allows time for more creative teaching. The old 45-minute per period system made project and co-operative work almost impossible; as soon as students got organised they had to start packing up," he said.

John Bachmann, president of the Organisation for Quality Education, an Ontario education reform group, agreed that block scheduling is "administratively convenient". It increased flexibility in staffing, made timetabling elective courses easier, and reduced student stress because they no longer face up to seven final exams a term. Quarterly courses made it easier for students who had failed to catch up and graduate on time.

But he said the test "shows once again that intensive schooling is pedagogically unsound".

Dr Dennis Raphael of the University of Toronto has been claiming since 1984 that students in semestered schools do less well, after he analysed Ontario's results in the Second International Maths Survey of that year. While proponents of block scheduling have all but ignored claims like Dr Raphael's, the evidence is beginning to mount up.

University of British Columbia Professor Reginald Wild's study of 1997 provincial exams showed that not only do mathematics 12th grade students in semestered programmes score an average 5 per cent less than full-year students (64.6 per cent to 69.4 per cent), but those in quarterly courses score 2 per cent less again.

Professor Wild said: "Data like this puts the lie to the claim that it doesn't matter if you take maths, say in the first semester of grade 10 and not again for up to 13 months. Proponents of intensive school simply believe they are right, but what they believe - that high-school students can learn as well in compressed courses - is wrong.

"We've known for about a century if you space out learning and institute a regimen of repetition, students learn better."

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