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Repulsive, Regressive, and Racist: The 3Rs of Alberta Social Studies Under the UCP.

October 21, 2020

Alberta, once a leader in Social Studies education, will be reduced to a laughing stock if the proposed curriculum revisions become a reality.

I need all of the adjectives for this post, folks. I’ve done a deep dive into the Social Studies curriculum revisions authored by Chris Champion and it is not an overstatement to say that the recommendations are disastrous. More than that, they are repulsive, regressive, and grounded in racist ideology that positions White, Western, Christian knowledge as superior to any other knowledge.

This is not hyperbole.

If you have any doubt about authorship, just read Champion’s 2019 article, “Alberta’s Little History Wars” in the magazine he founded and edits, The Dorchester Review. It reads as a precursor to this document.

There is a lot to unpack in the Social Studies Recommendations document. I will need to do this over a series of posts because yes, the document is just that bad. For this post, I will focus my analysis on the overall orientation that has shaped the recommendations and I will also look at how the history and perspectives of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples are addressed.

Overall Orientation

The dominant argument laid out in the first two pages of the document emphasizes the importance of memorization for the purposes of accruing a large amount of background knowledge. In the Fine Arts document that was also released by CBC, there are several references to “CKF” – this is likely a reference to E. D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge Foundation”, a conservative educational organization based in the United States that promotes the importance of accumulating background knowledge before students can do anything else. This argument is based on an outdated belief that students have to “store up” knowledge before they can engage in complex thinking. Grant Wiggins, a well-known educator in the United States, debunked Hirsch’s theory in 2013, noting that Hirsch regularly creates straw arguments to try to build his case:

For those unfamiliar with Hirsch’s critique, the only thing he thinks that truly matters is content knowledge. All of our ills – in reading, in learning generally, and in civic life – come down, in his view, to a failure of schools to teach a core and standard set of content. – Grant Wiggins

Based on this outdated notion, Champion’s recommendation for elementary Social Studies in Alberta is as follows (note the first person “I” – this was not written by a team):

Starting in Grade 2, I have proposed that students memorize four dates in Canadian and Albertan history; in Grade 3 they learn 14 new dates and in Grade 4 a further 18 dates for a total of 36 by the end of Grade 4. That is not so very many, given how absorbent young people’s memories are. Grade 4 is the year in which I propose that they create a cumulative time chart with all dates learned and reviewed so far in Grade 2, 3 and 4. (p. 2)

Astonishingly, this recommendation is followed by an assertion that “This is not a call to return to the days of rote memorization or ‘drill and kill’” (p. 2).

Compare the 2020 recommendations to those found in Champion’s “Alberta’s Little History Wars”, The Dorchester Review, Spring/Summer 2019, p. 105.

Champion’s recommendation that students memorize increasing amounts of content throughout their time in school contradicts 40+ years of research on how students learn in Social Studies. This body of research provides empirical evidence that young children can and should engage in age- and developmentally-appropriate complex thinking about social life, roles and responsibilities of citizens, and cultural universals:

Cultural universals are basic human needs and social experiences found in all societies, past and present, and include food, shelter, clothing, transportation, communication, family living, money, childhood, government, and so on. Actions related to cultural universals are experienced by all children regardless of their cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, achievement levels, or special needs, so teachers can connect to these experiences as bases for developing historical, geographic, political, economic, sociological, psychological, or anthropological understandings. The ultimate goal is connected knowledge about how the social system works, how and why it developed over time, how and why it varies across locations and cultures, and what all this might mean for personal, social, and civic decision making. (Alleman, Knighton, & Brophy, 2007, p. 166; emphasis added)

Rather than memorize dates, names, and landmarks that hold little meaning for students and will soon be forgotten, a purposeful and powerful Social Studies curriculum focuses on building students’ capacity to connect and apply knowledge through meaningful learning experiences. Almost anyone can memorize a date, name, or landmark. An example of the folly of memorization that I regularly share with my teacher education students is the experience of a colleague’s niece who earned 97% on her high school Social Studies provincial exam after memorizing copious definitions about different types of governments, among other content, but could not answer basic questions on the definitions that she had just aced on the test. When her uncle asked her to define “autocracy”, her definition was flawless. When he asked her to give an example of an autocratic government, she came up empty.

Readers familiar with the draft documents produced during the NDP’s term will notice that a third column has been added in the new documents produced under the UCP. In addition to including “Essential Understandings”, “Guiding Questions”, “Learning Outcomes”, and “Competencies” as key organizers, the 2018 drafts of the K-4 curriculum organized specific learning objectives into “Conceptual Knowledge” and “Procedural Knowledge.” Although I had some strong concerns with how “procedural knowledge” was conceived in the 2018 version of the curriculum, the overall organization had potential and I was hopeful that I would see a strengthened version when that draft was next revised.

The third column that was added to the 2020 Recommendations document is labeled “Explicit Knowledge.” The addition of this column is essentially a list of topics and facts to be memorized and reflects the overall orientation that memorization is king. This column, when added to the “conceptual” and “procedural” columns, results in a dense curriculum that leaves little freedom for teachers to interpret or shape lessons to meet the unique needs of their students. If teachers think there are too many learning outcomes in the curriculum now, just wait until they see this.

Excerpt from pp. 23-24 of the Recommendations document.

The above excerpt from pp. 23-24 of the Recommendations document contains explicit knowledge requirements for the history component of Grade 2 Social Studies. This is a list of information that 7- and 8-year-old children will be required to memorize. Of note is the wide-ranging chronological and geographical content for Grade 2 children: Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylonia and the building of the pyramids up to the land now known as Alberta and Canada from the 15th to the 20th century.

Really?

Pay particular attention to the “Note” at the bottom of the first column: “[Students] do not need to understand fully the significance of these dates, just memorize them as building blocks for later. They will be very happy to possess this knowledge when they start learning history later.”

Ok, got it. Understanding is not important.

Erasure of Indigenous Knowledges and People

The Recommendations document is an attempt to recolonize the curriculum. To be clear, we haven’t even decolonized the curriculum. This is very much a work in progress, and the gains have been slow (and some might say non-existent), but the proposed content wipes out any advances made in including Indigenous Knowledges and perspectives in the Social Studies curriculum. The little information about Indigenous peoples that is included is reduced to facts, dates, and place names, and with only a few exceptions, Indigenous people are treated as if they only existed in the past. As a White woman who has never experienced discrimination based on my race or ethnic identity, I cannot imagine the heavy emotional labour Indigenous people in this province and country are doing right now. The almost complete omission of Indigenous people, culture, and history in these recommendations is more than symbolic violence. It is erasure.

To make matters worse, a specific passage on pp. 16-17 of the Grade 3-4 Recommendations document denies the serious and lasting impact of Residential Schools:

The ugliness of Dickensian schooling, boarding schools, 19th century discipline methods, and Residential schooling that applied to some Indigenous kids, can probably best be saved for later when learners are more mature and are less emotionally vulnerable to traumatic material. For example there could be a Grade 9 unit about benign vs. harsh schooling in the past, inclusive of all cultures not only Indigenous, but with regard to the particular problematic of Residential schooling even if it applied only to a minority of Indigenous children.

Lumping the history of Residential Schools in with other examples of what the author calls “harsh schooling in the past” is a tactic used to erase or minimize that history by combining it with other histories. Pay attention also to the use of minimizing language: “applied to some Indigenous kids” and “even if it applied only to a minority of Indigenous children.”

As I’ve noted above, this rhetoric is consistent with Champion’s writing in the past, as can be seen in another excerpt from his “Alberta’s Little History Wars” article:

Excerpt from Champion’s “Alberta’s Little History Wars”, The Dorchester Review, Spring/Summer 2019, p. 105.

The Recommendations document goes on to claim that topics such as Residential Schools are “too sad” for children to learn about. Yes, topics such as this are incredibly difficult to teach well, but teachers are skilled at understanding how to create age- and developmentally-appropriate lessons for students. The TRC Calls to Action specifically identify the need to teach about Residential Schools and removing this topic from the elementary curriculum repeats the mistake of earlier generations and communicates by omission the idea that such topics are not important enough to learn. Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told The Globe and Mail that erasing this content from the curriculum,

It would be, in fact, a continuation of the white supremacy which the residential schools and the public schools have historically perpetrated against the Indigenous people of this country. And we should call it what it is and we should fight it when we can.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-senator-criticizes-alberta-proposal-to-shield-younger-students-from/

In 2016, Alberta Education, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and a host of other educational organizations in Alberta signed the Joint Commitment to Action to ensure that all students learn about the histories, cultures and world views of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. In 2018, the Alberta Government implemented a new Teaching Quality Standard and Leadership Quality Standard, both of which emphasize professional competency in “Foundational Knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit” including the following expectations: “A teacher develops and applies foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the benefit of all students” (TQS 5) and “A leader supports the school community in acquiring and applying foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the benefit of all students” (LQS 5). This Recommendations document is an insult to these hard-won and necessary commitments.

Just scratching the surface

There’s a lot more to be said but I will stop here for now. As I wrap up this post, a caution: Do not be fooled by the Minister of Education and her spokespeople who say that these are “just recommendations.” Minister LaGrange hand-picked Chris Champion, no doubt at the urging of his former boss, Premier Kenney, to rewrite the Social Studies curriculum. This document is a fulfilment of Jason Kenney’s campaign promise to get rid of the curriculum drafted under the NDP government – the one he characterized (without evidence) of being full of “left-wing ideology” – and replace it with one grounded in right-wing ideology. In addition, people working in the curriculum department at the Ministry have been told to “faithfully implement” the recommendations as written. So, no, these are not “just recommendations.” They are meant to be implemented.

In my next few posts, I will look closely at individual grades in the Recommendations document and unpack what I see there. Stay tuned, and as always, thank you for reading this far!

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