Alberta’s Curriculum Controversy

This post was first published by Dr. Carla Peck on April 20, 2021 on https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/albertas-curriculum-controversy-2021-04-20.htm

When I first arrived in the province in 2007, Alberta Education was implementing a new K-3 Social Studies curriculum (released in 2005), with grades 4-12 to follow in the coming years. As someone who has lived in five provinces and taught at the K-16 level in three, and as curriculum scholar who specializes in Social Studies education, I was impressed with what I saw. The then new Social Studies curriculum was well researched, grounded in internationally-renowned principles of “purposeful and powerful” Social Studies, and centered citizenship and identity as core to all learning.

There were other reasons I found it to be an innovative curriculum. At the time of its implementation, the 2005 Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum was one of the first in Canada to ensure Indigenous and Francophone perspectives, along with perspectives from other societal groups, were given prominence across all grades. It introduced global citizenship at the elementary level. And, it included “Historical Thinking” as one of six dimensions of thinking that students were to develop over the course of their education – predating the launch of Dr. Peter Seixas’ Historical Thinking Project in 2006 (which marked the introduction of “historical thinking” at the K-12 level on a pan-Canadian basis). Was it perfect? No. There’s no such thing as a perfect curriculum. But it was pretty darned good.

With the draft Social Studies curriculum that was recently developed under Minister LaGrange’s direction and released to the public on March 29, 2021, the high quality, international reputation that Alberta Social Studies enjoys will quickly evaporate. Since the draft curriculum became public, I have received numerous messages from colleagues across the country and around the world asking me, “What is happening to Social Studies in Alberta?” There has been a flurry of media coverage; academic experts have spoken out against it; organizations such as the Alberta Métis Nation, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, and Francophone stakeholders in the province have publicly expressed the concerns; and a Facebook group, “Albertans Reject Curriculum Draft” quickly gathered more than 38,000 members. At least 29 of the province’s 61 school boards have refused to pilot the entire K-6 curriculum. On Thursday, April 15, 2021, the Alberta Teachers Association called for a stop on all curriculum work until “an independent, open and full review and rewrite can occur.”

How its organized

The draft K-6 Social Studies curriculum is organized into five sections: history, geography, civics, economics, and financial literacy. Each section includes an “organizing idea” that spans all grades, with one overarching guiding question and one learning outcome for each grade per subject. The actual content of the curriculum is then broken down into “knowledge”, “understanding”, and “skills and procedures.” Dr. Lindsay Gibson has written an excellent Twitter thread that outlines the major concerns with these categories – suffice to say, the curriculum writers got it all wrong.

Taking a close look at the History element

Given my research and teaching background in K-12 history education, I read the history section of the curriculum with great interest. Current scholarship in history education supports the need to teach both content knowledge and knowledge about the structure of the discipline so that students can develop understanding of historical content and learn how historical knowledge is produced. To help students develop a deep understanding of the past (and how it connects to today), focusing on concepts and themes, as well as concepts from the discipline of history such as working with historical evidence; analyzing causes and consequences; assessing the historical significance of people, events, and developments; understanding continuity and change over time; understanding historical perspectives; and making ethical judgments, is an effective and powerful approach for both curriculum development and teaching. What’s more, students – even very young students – are capable of this approach to teaching and learning history. Unfortunately, the draft Social Studies curriculum does not reflect any of this research.

Starting in Grade 2, we start to see very long lists of content to be taught/learned[1]. In addition to these long lists being completely unreasonable for 7-year-olds to learn – never mind understand – there is very little coherence among topics. Is it just a drive-by of mostly European history, and will reduce the curriculum to a checklist. In Grade 2 history alone, students are expected to learn:

  • Chronological concepts that are beyond their comprehension (BC, AD, BCE, CE, decades, centuries, millennia, time immemorial)
  • Myths and legends from Greece, China, and Africa
  • Detailed information about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam including:
    • Judaism:
      • The oldest of the three “Abrahamic” religions
      • Jewish people believe that God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
      • After the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, Moses led them back to ‘The Promised Land’
      • Jewish communities eventually spread, and were forced to relocate, around the Mediterranean, through the Middle East.
    •   Christianity
      • Based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God
      • Spread from a small number of Jewish follows of Jesus in the middle of the first century across the Roman Empire
      • After it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s AD, it spread rapidly across Europe and around the world.
    • Islam:
      • founded by Mohammed, who Muslims believe was the prophet of God (Allah) and received revelations from him
      • the Quran (610 CE)
      • pilgrimage to Mecca
      • march to Medina
      • Islam spread across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe (622–326 CE), and later to Asia, Africa, and around the world
  • Greco-Roman, Chinese, and African architecture
    • Ancient Greece:
    • Athens as city-state
    • Athens and Sparta
    • gods and goddesses
    • Alexander the Great
    • Olympic Games
    • Marathon
    • Siege of Troy and Wooden Horse
    • Athenian democracy (This is currently taught in Grade 6.)
    • About the following great thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle asked new questions in a form now known as philosophy, which in Greek means “love of wisdom.
  • About Ancient Rome origin myths, specifically:
    • Romulus and Remus
    • Epic of Aeneas
    • City of Seven Hills
    • Gods and goddesses
    • About Pax Romana (Roman Empire – a ~200 year timespan)
  • The Middle Ages (medieval times):
    • Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor (800 CE)
    • King of Frankish Empire
    • Feudal society (patricians, plebeians, knights, freedmen, slaves)
    • Class structure (nobles and vassals, lords and serfs)
    • Hundred Years War
    • Joan of Arc
    • Anglo-Saxon England:
    • Origins of terms (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes)
    • adoption of Christianity
    • monarchy-unification of a divided country
    • Alfred the Great and English traditions
    • Robin Hood, Norman Conquest
    • Domesday Book (first census)
    • Origins of the Common Law
    • Encounters with other worlds: travels of Marco Polo, Venetian merchant (1271–1295 AD): journey from Italy to the Orient/China and back, the Silk Road, visit to Court of Kublai Khan; and, from the Chinese side, travels of Zheng He (1371–1433/5) (building on earlier explorations by Gan Ying, Zhang Qian, and others)
    • Plagues: The Black Death (1347–1351) and its impact
  • The Civics section for Grade 2 Social Studies is really just more history:
    • Early democracy:
    • origin of the word democracy
    • Council of 500
    • male citizens and non-citizens (Athens)
    • Evolution of the Roman tradition through kings/tyrants: There were several phases of Roman government that are important for the origins of democracy, including kings, Roman Republic (consuls, senate and assemblies), and empire (emperor, senate).
    • Medieval social order: feudalism, kings, queens, lords, and loyalties of people as subjects
    • Crown, monarchy, and the rise of Parliament in England (Magna Carta, 1215)
  •  And so is the Geography section:
    • Migrations of people from across Europe to Britain (Germanic peoples, including Saxons, Angles, Jutes) and Norman Conquest of England
    • Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire (1162–1227): largest land empire in human history
    • Routes of European exploration and trade: travels of Marco Polo and early Eastern trade along the Silk Road from China to the West
    • The Silk Road originated as a network of trade routes connecting East and West, from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century.
    • The Silk Road originated during the Han dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE) and was expanded by the Chinese imperial envoy Zhag Qian, as well as through military conquests.
    • The Great Wall of China was extended, in part, to protect the trade route.

I got tired just typing that list.

As an expert in history education pedagogy, it hopefully goes without saying that I agree that facts are important. However, it is how students engage with factual information that matters. In a time when almost everyone has a computer in their hand, back pocket, or backpack, students can easily look facts up. What we need to teach students is how to evaluate and critique the evidence they encounter. If you want to kill students’ interest in history, force them to memorize a long list of facts, to which they’ve attached no meaning, and then give them a test. They’ll forget more than they learned and will not be developing their historical or critical thinking skills. Almost anyone can memorize a list of facts. It doesn’t mean they understand what those facts mean.

As I’ve noted above, research in history education supports the importance of teaching students both content knowledge and disciplinary knowledge, or how we “do history.” Together, these two types of knowledge make up a person’s ability to think historically and educators employing a historical thinking pedagogical approach in their classrooms teach historical content alongside and through disciplinary knowledge. For example, a teacher might help students understand “continuity and change” by studying concepts such as “revolution” or “gender and society” or “technology,” using specific examples drawn from different points in time. The draft curriculum only mentions “historical thinking” once in its 52 pages and that’s in Grade 5: “Historical thinking exercise: Explore the Underground Railroad experience” (p. 32). It’s anyone’s guess what that’s supposed to mean. 

Wait, there’s more

There is a lot to unpack and analyze with this curriculum but that will take more space than I have here. In addition to what I’ve raised above, some of the other concerns that have been raised by others include:

  • Is developmentally inappropriate and not conducive to deep engagement with ideas and concepts
  • Depicts Francophone and First Nations and Métis perspectives in a limited way, and as only existing in the past
  • Does not respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action with regard to teaching about Residential Schools
  • Includes plagiarized content
  • Includes multiple factual errors

Three weeks after the release of the draft curriculum, amid a growing controversy based on well-documented, legitimate concerns with it, there are no signs that the government is listening to anyone but its circle of friends. The Minister of Education has pledged to move ahead with piloting this seriously flawed document and intimated that the feedback from those districts that choose not to pilot the curriculum won’t be considered as seriously as the feedback from those which do. Meanwhile, the NDP announced that it will revert back to the current curriculum if this one is forced on schools in 2022, after the pilot year.

I’d better eat my Wheaties because I think we are going to be in this curriculum battle for the long-haul.

*Portions of this post are excerpted and/or adapted from my personal blog site, where you can find more analysis of the on-going curriculum debate in Alberta: https://carlapeck.wordpress.com/blog/

[1] Most of this list is excerpted verbatim from: https://cdn.learnalberta.ca/Resources/content/cda/draftPDF/media/SocialStudies/Social%20Studies-GrK-6-EN.pdf