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Alberta’s New K-6 Curriculum:
Too Many Easter Eggs in One Basket
The following is developed with J-C Couture, currently adjunct, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta and formerly research fellow Manchester Metropolitan University
Yesterday’s release of the Alberta government’s effort to redeem its record on the redesign of Alberta’s curriculum comes almost one year after Premier Jason Kenney declared the Easter Bunny an essential worker. On April 11, 2020, in a public service announcement the Premier reassured Calgary’s 8 year-old Veronica McLaughlin from Calgary that the travel ban would not apply to the Easter Bunny. This borrowed piece of political theatre inspired by the creative gesture of New Zealand’s Prime Minister helps to situate the dangerous emptiness of what will follow in the next few weeks as Albertans struggle to make sense of the latest UCP proposed curriculum redesign.
As with previous efforts of curriculum renewal in the province, Albertans, including the province’s long-suffering teachers, wanted coherence and clarity about what Alberta students are expected to know and to do. Just in time for Easter, sadly this latest effort will leave Albertans scrambling on a hunt for their Easter goodies. While it is still early days, even the most cursory analysis points to the challenges ahead. While social media is already alight and academics are carefully looking for nuance and cracks of light, a few observations are worth noting – both conceptually ‘big picture’ and others that are more practical and subject-specific.
Aside from the ‘content creep’ that puts far too many eggs into this curricular Easter basket, this government shares with previous administrations’ efforts to cohere the widespread alchemy of competencies and literacy and numeracy progressions outlined in the front matter of the document. These ambiguous constructs, many of them developed and circulated by the OECD and driving unworkable curriculum change in many provinces and countries are layered over top of the hundreds detailed bits of content and activities haphazardly categorized as Knowledge, Understanding and Skills and Procedures. For example, one reads that students will develop competencies that “are combinations of knowledge, skills, and characteristics that students develop and apply for successful learning, living, and working.” These vaguely defined constructs referenced in these documents such as “research and managing” and “critical thinking” continue to bedevil educators and researchers around the world since they inevitably become the focus of school and system performance. They, however, cannot be meaningfully assessed except to the highly contextual variables associated by direct classroom observation, if at all.
Riding alongside ‘competencies’ we have literacy and numeracy progressions – a melange of broadly worded statements that other jurisdictions including Australia used to build blueprints for standardized national testing. Anyone familiar with the current UCP government’s reform agenda knows that it means nothing more than testing and more testing.
While these ignored fundamental design flaws have been well-documented, this government’s ‘edu-program’ will face public condemnation about the staggering breadth and depth of the proposed programs of study. Consider Veronica who, now as a 9 year old a grade 3 student, will face in her social studies class approximately 150 discrete historical figures, events and documents include the category of Knowledge. This does not include having to demonstrate approximately 40 discrete “skills and processes” ranging from the banal rudimentary task, “trace the changing boundaries of New France and North America between 1610 and 1815” to the intellectual gymnastics needed to “compare and contrast the Magna Carta and Iroquois Confederacy Great Law of Peace.” While certainly the latter is of real merit, just how meaningful will this experience be for a 9 year-old who is also taking five other subjects, each with an equally over-burdened set of learner expectations? A quick calculation of the K-6 programs of study reveals over 600 discrete items listed under the category of Knowledge.
Bordering on the absurd, testing regimes will also focus on literacy and numeracy progressions as the ‘’curricula within curricula” that teachers will have to navigate in six subject areas.
Social studies, one of the most contested subject areas in the province (second only to mathematics perhaps) has now become core to the project of Truth and Reconciliation as well as now being called up to advance youth’s financial literacy. While certainly few would object to these laudable goals, the insertion of these aspirations into the broad goal of social studies is breath-taking: developing a broad “understanding the history of our province, nation, and world and developing cultural literacy that allow us to appreciate the varied richness of our shared human inheritance of original writings, artifacts, stories, beliefs, ideas and great cultural and artistic achievements from different times and places.”
Aside from the inevitable ‘content creep’ that results from this shoe-horning of multiple goals by many policy actors far-removed from the classroom, we need to address the question of curricular balance and focus. Now that ‘financial literacy’ has been parked in the garage of social studies, any reasonable Albertan or classroom teacher would ask, what has been taken-out and/or added of what was conventionally understood as the purview of social studies? The answer is sadly predictable.
A quick content scan using a crude word search of the K-6 program finds the word “business” appearing 32 times while democracy appears on 23 occasions (7 of these in relation to government in ancient Rome). Meanwhile “money” generates 63 hits while “voting” has 3 hits. While this is hardly a solid empirical analysis, there is clear negligence in the attention needed to the both balance and relative weighting of what is worth knowing and worth becoming as a young person. As one navigates throughout other subject areas, the influence of the human capital view of OECD – that cannot think of our youth as anything more than ‘homo economicus’ to service the economy is evident.
Over the next few days, credible voices will inform on the efficacy of this latest draft. Indeed, while predictably some will find their favourite Easter eggs (computer science, financial literacy) we suspect the overwhelming majority of classroom teachers and school leaders will not see much more than an uncooked sausage lacking any instruction to prepare.
While one might write-off concerns with the claim that ‘there is something for everyone here’ or ‘teachers always make things work’, there are also more disturbing signals regarding efforts to reboot and ramp-up standardized testing upon the return to school in the fall. It is difficult to be reassured given the recent partnership announced between the College of Alberta School Superintendents and Alberta Education to consult with stakeholders about reforming student assessments in the new K – 6 programs of study. Given that the Alberta Teachers’ Association has been side-lined on so many fronts including the curriculum development process, it is not unreasonable to assume that the future of assessment will focus on literacy and numeracy as defined by performance on digitalized testing platforms – an education reform agenda we are increasingly seeing around the world. The signals are clear: unless there is immediate decisive action, Alberta classrooms will be subject this fall to a partisan reform agenda characterized by a flawed curriculum propped up by an accelerated standardized testing program.
As one looks further into both the text and tone of the curriculum document one hopes for a timely joint prompt response by the both the profession and the curriculum experts in our faculties of education to offer a way forward. This could include a strategic partnership that brings together researchers and the profession in a public dialogue that will help get us out of this seemingly interminable cycle that promised transformational change over a decade ago with Inspiring Education – A Dialogue with Albertans in 2010. Grade 11 students who are graduating this coming school-year were in kindergarten the same year when Albertans were promised transformational changes to the province’s K-12 curriculum.
It’s time for decisive action. Indeed, over a decade ago the ATA created a comprehensive framework for curriculum redesign based on the proven success of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement and international research partnerships. Embedded in that document was the recognition that just as with workload and compensation, curriculum and assessment are fundamental conditions of practice and as such should be developed in consort with the profession. Clearly this has not happened. As with the previous draft curriculum, once again partisanship has marginalized both educational research and the profession.
As young children who believed in the Easter bunny we waited patiently for the ‘big day’. Along with many Albertans anticipating this most recent curriculum announcement (conveniently timed just during spring break) that day has now come and gone. Now, with all due respect to the Easter bunny and invoking Margaret Wheatley it is time for brave and bold professional leadership because “no one else is coming.”
About Education Futures
Stephen Murgatroyd and J-C Couture teach futures literacy for educational leaders and others at the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto (OISE). Stephen also teaches aspects of futures literacy on the MBA program at Athabasca University. For more information contact: