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Reflections on the report released by Minister Adriana LaGrange on January 29, 2020 Curriculum Advisory Panel: Recommendations on Direction for Curriculum

August 12, 2020

Carla L. Peck, PhD

Professor, Department of Elementary Education

Faculty of Education

University of Alberta

Originally published on January 30, 2020 here.

My Background

I was an elementary teacher in New Brunswick before returning to university to pursue graduate studies. I have a Bachelor of Arts (Combined Honours) in French and History from Dalhousie University, a Bachelor of Education (French and Social Studies) from the University of New Brunswick, a Master’s of Education in Curriculum Studies (thesis-based) with a specific focus on Citizenship Education, from the University of New Brunswick, and a PhD in Curriculum Studies, with a specific focus on History Education, from the University of British Columbia. I joined the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta in 2007 and was promoted to Full Professor in 2018. I am currently the Director of the first pan-Canadian study of K-12 history education in more than 50 years, leading the work of 26 researchers and over 30 partner organizations, with an overall budget of $8.6 million. 

I have served on numerous Alberta Education committees since 2007, working on these committees under different political parties. In May 2017, I was appointed to the “Teacher and Educator Focus Group” committee for Social Studies. The Terms of Reference directed that members of the committee would “review and confirm draft provincial programs of study and their elements including subject introductions, scope and sequences, and learning outcomes  based on their in-depth knowledge, experience and education related to the subject. Information provided by the Focus Groups will be shared with the Curriculum Working Groups to help improve draft provincial programs of study.” I am also currently serving as the University Liaison to the ATA Social Studies Council. I regularly provide professional learning workshops and institutes for K-12 teachers and other education professionals in Canada and abroad, and I have published numerous articles, book chapters, and books based on my research. I offer this background information not to ‘toot my own horn” but to explain the expertise that I bring to the following commentary. 

Reflections on the Curriculum Advisory Panel Report

First, let’s begin with the entire premise for the establishment of the panel. The United Conservative Party (UCP) campaigned on a commitment to ditch the work of the Curriculum Writing Groups formed under the Alberta New Democratic Party (AB NDP), with Jason Kenney going so far as to say, “If the NDP tries to smuggle more of their politics into the classroom through their curriculum, we will put that curriculum through the shredder and go right back to the drawing board.” Another UCP talking point during the campaign was the claim that the AB NDP’s approach to curriculum renewal was done “in secret” and that it was full of “left wing ideology.” 

Both accusations are false. I’ve already written about this here, so forgive me for repeating myself. I have consulted on Social Studies curriculum development in AB, ON, NS, NB, MB, SK, and the NWT. Alberta has the most open consultation process I have ever witnessed, and that includes curriculum development that occurred prior to the NDP forming government. I hope that continues. But to accuse the AB NDP of operating “in secret” is simply false. First of all, when you get 50-60 people in a room to write (or in my case, review and provide feedback on) curriculum, there’s no chance of secrecy. We were encouraged to discuss the draft curriculum with our colleagues and digital and paper copies were distributed to group members. Secondly, and I think more importantly, the AB NDP released draft copies of the curricular “front matter” (which lays out the goals and overall direction and priorities for each subject area) on a government website, and later, released draft versions of the curricula themselves (in every subject matter) on the same website and invited Albertans to provide their feedback on both. Thousands of Albertans responded. How do I know? Because the NDP posted Excel spreadsheets with the anonymized data (feedback) on their website too. The first survey, released in 2016, received over 32 000 responses. You could easily see, if you took the time to look, if the person providing feedback was a teacher, a parent, a student, etc. (Forty-seven percent of those responding self-identified as parents/guardians.) You could also read their feedback in detail. You would’ve needed lots of coffee to get through all of that data, but you could have done so if you wanted to. Sadly, that feedback is no longer publicly available. 

Update: The survey results can be downloaded below.  

But wait, there’s more. In addition to the feedback collected via online surveys, dozens and dozens of open, in-person sessions were held by school boards and Alberta’s Professional Learning Consortia, among other organizations. There, paper copies of the draft curricula were shared, discussed, and feedback gathered. Hundreds of Albertans participated this way as well. 

Now, let me tackle the accusation that the curriculum was full of “left wing ideology.” During the election campaign, UCP members were hard-pressed to provide concrete examples of this so-called “left wing ideology” in the draft curriculum. Since my area of focus is Social Studies (SS), I’ll use that curriculum as an example. Is it “left wing ideology” to teach about the human rights of all individuals, including Indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ+ population? Actually, the draft SS curriculum plays it pretty safe, by not naming specific groups: “identifying how individuals and groups can take action to support the rights of one another.” Is it “left wing ideology” to teach students how to examine “differing views on the use and management of land and natural resources”? The acronym LGBTQ+ (and variations on it) do not appear in the April 2018 draft of the Social Studies Learning Outcomes. Nor does the phrase “climate change.” To paraphrase from the movie Jerry Maguire, “SHOW ME THE IDEOLOGY.”

Ok, onto the recommendations of the Curriculum Advisory Panel’s report

Let’s start with the positives.

I was glad to see an acknowledgement that The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum and the current Draft K-4 curriculum are identified as current strengths (see pp. 11-12 of the report). The panel also noted positively that Alberta students perform at or near the top of national and international assessments. I was also pleased to read this on page 14: “Students who enter the K-12 education system in 2020 will graduate in 2033. In more than a dozen years from now, the world has the potential to be very different from today. All learners need to be prepared for what may be an uncertain future…. Today’s students need to develop the ability to solve problems that have not yet been conceived, and be prepared for careers and technologies that may have not been created yet.” This is true. 

In the area of curriculum development, the first recommendation is that the province “Develop a comprehensive plan to successfully implement a new Alberta Program of Studies” (p. 15). Yes! This is crucial. I have written about the importance of sustained professional learning during curriculum implementation here. The short version: If curriculum implementation is going to be successful, teachers need long-term professional learning opportunities and high quality resources to support them in their efforts to become proficient with a new curricular mandate. That leads me to the second recommendation in this section: “Ensure teachers and students have access to a broad range of learning resources, representing a range of mediums, using Alberta Education’s innovative learning platform, new LearnAlberta.ca” (p. 16). This is also good. 

In the section on Curriculum Content (begins on page 17 of the report), recommendation six states, “Support opportunities to consult with subject-matter experts throughout the development of curricular content.” The authors of the report don’t clarify if they mean curriculum and pedagogy specialists like me, who work in faculties of education and specialize in specific subject areas, or if they mean specialists like historians and mathematics scholars, for example. I hope they mean both, as both have a lot to offer to the process. I would be nervous if curriculum and pedagogy specialists were left out of the process however, because while historians definitely know their craft, I haven’t met very many who know pedagogical approaches that are effective for teaching history to six year olds. (I’m not trying to insult historians here – the ones I’ve worked with have told me much the same thing themselves.) That is something that I, and others around the world, have spent years and years researching. So, historians and curriculum and pedagogy specialists would do well to work together on any recommendations we might make. Same goes for other subject areas. 

On page 19, recommendation 12 states: “Ensure First Nations, Metis, and Inuit perspectives and ways of knowing continue to be reflected in curriculum, supporting the ongoing advancement of recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the calls for justice in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report.” Good. We can no longer ignore the history and perspectives of Indigenous peoples in all of our curricula. The good news is that the 2005 Social Studies curriculum, and the draft K-4 (2018) curriculum, already include Indigenous perspectives, so there is much to build on. 

Recommendation 13 states: “Ensure curriculum reflects the diversity of Alberta’s students” (p. 19). Good. Our society is ever changing, and the complexity of the diversity in our population grows each day. I hope that, with this recommendation, the Advisory Panel is being inclusive not only in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity but also in terms of other forms of diversity, such as sexual diversity, ability-related diversity, gender diversity, and social-class diversity, as well as the forms of oppression that accompany them (colonialism, racism, homophobia and heteronormativity, ableism, sexism, and classism). Notably, Francophone perspectives are absent from this report. Alberta and Canada have rich and long-standing Francophone communities and histories and it’s important that they are also incorporated into the curriculum. The 2005 Social Studies curriculum pays particular attention to Francophone perspectives and it would be a shame for that to disappear. 

Recommendation 14 advises to “Develop a senior high school program of studies in world history” and Recommendation 15 advises to “Ensure significant world events are represented in curriculum” (p. 19). Now, this is right in my wheelhouse because I’ve taught and researched history curriculum and pedagogy for twenty years. I am supportive of this provided that the focus is not only on substantive knowledge (dates, places, names, events) but also on procedural knowledge (that is, how historical knowledge is produced). If the focus is solely on the former, I fear a reliance on memorization and that students will fail to understand the importance of world history to themselves and our society today. However, if the approach used is focused on developing students’ “historical thinking”, then students will learn how to analyze primary and secondary historical sources, analyze change over time, assess the historical significance of people and events from the past, analyze multiple historical perspectives on global issues, and make connections between global historical events to their lives and to contemporary society. That would be AWESOME! Fingers crossed.  

The Negatives

While I see elements identified above as positives, there are serious areas of concern in other areas of the report.

Concern 1: Despite the earlier comment (p. 14, noted above) that “all learners need to be prepared for what may be an uncertain future” and “today’s students need to develop the ability to solve problems that have not yet been conceived, and be prepared for careers and technologies that may have not been created yet”, the advisory panel has taken a very narrow view of the purpose of education – that it is, the focus is on the “jobs” and “careers” of today. This focus appears throughout the report, for example:

  • Page 17: “Integrate awareness and exploration of careers into the curriculum to increase the relevance of career opportunities and development of workplace skills.” The explanation that follows says, “Increasing the availability of learning related to relevant workplace skills will prepare students for post-high school career opportunities, helping them to build critical foundations for future success in the workplace.” To hell with post-secondary education (of any stripe), I guess? 
  • Page 18: “Provide students with opportunities to learn outside the classroom, including experiences with elements of the workforce and community involvement.” The explanation that follows includes the statement: “Learning is strengthened when students learn in the context of real-world experience and work.” 
  • Page 18: “Enhance student’s learning of life skills throughout the K-12 curriculum by addressing areas of financial literacy, work readiness, wellness, and goal-setting.”
  • Page 18: “Create opportunities to bring the needs of Alberta’s employers into the curriculum-development process.” Wait a minute. I thought we couldn’t predict the careers of the future? Everybody sing along: “We need widgets, we need widgets, please make us some more widgets!” 

Now, I am not so naive to think that people don’t aspire to or need to work. Most people do. We work to provide for our children and families, to pay our bills, to be able to go on vacations and do other fun things, and yes, even to pay our taxes. The very lucky of us are inspired by the work that we do and gain great satisfaction from it. And through our work, whether it’s as an accountant, a teacher, an engineer, a truck driver, a politician, or any other career one might choose, we contribute, in small and large ways, to our society. This is all very important.

But the purpose of education has to be larger than preparing workers for the workforce.
That is not a visionary approach to education. The founding mission of my employer, the University of Alberta, was “that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.” I believe that this is also true for K-12 education. The primary and secondary education that students experience should inspire them. It should nurture their creative and critical thinking. It should expose them to ideas that stretch their imaginations and confront their misconceptions. It should help them understand how knowledge is produced in the sciences, humanities, arts, and social sciences, and it should teach them how to evaluate and critique knowledge claims made in these domains. It should provide opportunities that they never imagined they could do nevermind excel at. It should teach students to identify injustices in our society and strategies for how to work to make our society more just for all. It should help them create the future they want. Surely we want for our children an education system that does all of these things and more?   

Concern 2: Vague recommendations about “knowledge.” I would like to know how the term “knowledge” is being defined and used in this report. Again, if this is simply about accumulating a body of facts, I wouldn’t call that deep or transformative learning. Yes, facts are important. But for what purpose? If I have a Google machine at my disposal, I can look facts up. And, who will decide what facts are included in the curriculum? Advice to “eliminate bias” from the curriculum will fail. All decisions made about what to include in curricula are political decisions. Now let me be crystal clear here. I am not talking about partisan. I am talking about “small p” politics – the politics of how we live our everyday lives. Whether we choose to support or boycott a particular business, or use reusable shopping bags, or choose to adopt a vegan diet, are examples of “small p” political decisions. It’s got nothing to do with laws or political parties, but it does have everything to do with our personal commitments and how we live these out in our lives and in society. “Small p” political acts demonstrate what our beliefs are and what we are willing to act/take a stand on. And there’s no escaping these in curriculum development. The very report I am commenting on makes a “small p” political statement because its recommendations are statements about what the panel members value and promote as educational goals.  

What else?

I have other concerns, such as the absolutely horrible recommendation that the government “Implement a systematic approach that uses standardized formative assessment tools in the evaluation of literacy and numeracy, in grades 1 through grade 5. These can identify where students may require additional support and enable the use of appropriate interventions at the earliest possible stages” (p. 20). All I will say about this for now is that, as a Grade 3 teacher in NB, I had to administer provincial achievement tests to my 8-9 year old students and some of them vomited from the stress, despite my concerted efforts to ease their worries. No matter what their intended use (this report says they should be used for formative – that is, assessment for learning – purposes), in my experience the public perception of state-sanctioned and required standardized tests is that they are the be-all, end-all of assessments and if “their child” doesn’t do well, that will doom the entire education system. The pressure on children and families is enormous and for what? Teachers are highly educated professionals and I think we should trust their judgement. 

There is much more to be said about the inequities of standardized assessments but for now I refer you to my friend and teacher Dan Scratch’s excellent Google doc on them and to my colleague, Dr. Wayne Au’s research as well.

Streaming (p. 16). Consider creating a “dual track” system (p. 18). These suggestions are making my head hurt so I will say no more. For now. 

I was disappointed that in the list of organizations who were consulted by the Advisory Panel, that Faculties of Education were left out of the process entirely. There are 10 institutions that offer Bachelor of Education programs in Alberta, all of which have talented and passionate educators and researchers who could have provided expert advice to the panel. It’s a shame that expertise was not sought out. 

I’m sure I will have more to say in the days to come but will stop here for now.

*****

Big THANKS if you made it this far!!

Carla

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