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A Bold Return to the 19th Century

This post was first published by Dr. George H. Richardson on April 11, 2021 on

Some 150 years ago, in his most socially critical novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens tells the cautionary tale of Thomas Gradgrind, an industrialist who founds a school dedicated to his all-consuming desire to prepare school children for the harsh realities of the world. In a particularly instructive passage, Dickens has Gradgrind proclaim: “Now what I want is Fact. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Fact. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.”

Imagine my surprise, reviewing the new Alberta draft social studies (K-6) curriculum to discover that the UCP government had managed to bring Gradgrind back to life as a curriculum consultant.  How else to understand a curriculum as numbingly fact laden as this draft program of studies. How else to appreciate an approach to the education of 8-year old children mandating that, in a breathless march through history, they study Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Middle Ages and Anglo-Saxon England all the while attempting to develop an understanding of “the scale and importance of the Mongol Empire in human history” or come to conclusions about whether the Magna Carta was “the beginning of English democracy through Parliament.”

As a former social studies educator and curriculum specialist with more than 40 years experience as a classroom teacher in Alberta and an Education Faculty member at the University of Alberta, it is clear to me that the current draft version of the social studies curriculum is a retrograde document that is wholly inappropriate in its structure, content and objectives.

…it is clear to me that the current draft version of the social studies curriculum is a retrograde document that is wholly inappropriate in its structure, content and objectives.

A quick review of the curricular ‘comparables’ for grade two in Ontario and in two nations (Singapore and Germany) that typically score very well in international ranking tables shows just how wrong the UCP government has gotten it.  For example, the Grade Two social studies curriculum in Singapore notes that students will be able to: “recognise that there are diverse groups of people living in Singapore; identify the customs and traditions of communities living in Singapore; identify the six National Symbols of Singapore; and recognise that National Symbols and common experiences help to unite us as a nation.” The Grade Two Ethics curriculum (the closest subject to social studies) in the German state of Bavaria directs that students understand “different forms of community: family (e.g. nuclear family, extended family, blended family); School class, circle of friends; Leisure communities (e.g. sports team, music group)” and the “meaning of community: enrichment (e.g. new impulses, exchange of views, support), recognition, experiences of security and trust, help and consolation.” In Ontario, the Grade Two social studies curriculum is grounded in the idea that “students will develop their understanding of their local community and begin to examine the global community. Students will explore a variety of traditions within their families and their local communities, developing an understanding of how these traditions contribute to and enrich their own community and Canadian society.” These curricular aims (and those of most other OECD nations) are supported by long-standing and abundant research into how children at this developmental stage understand their identities and their place in their communities.

Globally, the Alberta social studies curriculum has been rightly celebrated as innovative, forward looking and student-focused—at least until now.  It is safe to say that the draft version of the curriculum currently being presented by the UCP government has none of those qualities and if it receives any international notice at all it will be as an object of ridicule and derision. Thomas Gradgrind would be proud.

George Richardson, PhD, is a retired Professor and Associate Dean (International) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He joined the U of Alberta in 1999 after more than 20 years of classroom experience as a social studies teacher.