Alberta’s Design Challenge – Engaging Some Legacy Issues

Whenever a tire is flat, the flatness is manifested at the bottom of the tire. But the hole isn’t always at the bottom.
                 Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education (p.3)  

While there is widespread agreement that the most recent K-6 draft curriculum is rife with obvious content and design flaws, it is important to pause a moment and consider deeper legacy challenges and undercurrents that have contributed to the UCP government’s most recent curriculum redesign effort.

Speaking at the launch of Inspiring Education in 2010 following a two-year consultation process, Education Minister Dave Hancock invoked a forward-thinking theme echoed by many ministers of member countries of the OECD, “We know the world is changing, and that education must change with it to prepare students for a future that none of us can predict.” Yet, twelve years later, who would have thought it possible that the kindergarten students referred to in Inspiring Action on Education would graduate before the promise of curriculum renewal was realized in Alberta classrooms?

Despite the efforts of subsequent ministers of education Thomas Lukaszuk (2011-12), Jeff Johnson (2012 -2014) Gordon Dirks (2014-15) and David Eggen (2015-2019) to pilot the ‘transformation’ airplane, it remains stalled on the runway. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor – given the latest K-12 draft curriculum assembled under the current minister Adriana LaGrange – many Albertans and curriculum scholars would agree that the plane now has a flat tire.

Alberta’s Design Challenge of Future Making

As with any education reform, curriculum redesign is inevitably a process of future-making that invites us to respond to the question, what kind of future do you want me to imagine and why?

It is in within these expansive and compelling policy guardrails that an international study (Couture, in press) is attempting to capture the challenges of curriculum design across a number of jurisdictions, including Alberta, by adapting the analytical tools developed by Izhak Berkowich. This framework considers two trajectories or recurring patterns in educational governance and policy-making today: on one continuum the degree of conflict vs agreement that an initiative generates and on the other scale, the ambiguity vs clarity surrounding the policy.

In Figure 1 below (A Cartography of Educational Policy-Making), the vertical axis depicts the degree of ambiguity (from high to low) associated with a particular policy proposal, perceived new ideas or concepts. The horizontal axis illustrates the degree of tension or contestation (high or low) that an initiative generates among policy actors and stakeholders.

Figure 1: A Cartography of Educational Policy-Making

This four-corner grid generated by the intersection of two vectors (degrees of AMBIGUITY and TENSION) represents four scenarios reflecting the complex interactions between how reforms or new initiatives are interpreted and the degree to which various actors and policy players subsequently become invested or activated.

A cursory scan of some of the recent feedback to the draft K-12 curriculum can be located in four corners of the graphic. The bullets are intended to quickly capture some of the recurring themes circulating in social media and among researchers in the past few weeks.

Scenario 1: Low ambiguity – low tension

Scenario 2: Low ambiguity – high tension

Scenario 3: High ambiguity – low tension

Scenario 4: High ambiguity – high tension

Beyond the recent commentaries mapped in the four scenarios above, moving forward we must also consider other key terms and concepts identified in The guiding framework for the design and development of kindergarten to Grade 12 provincial curriculum (The Framework, 2020). These include a rich array of constructs and concepts: plurality, inclusion, indigenous experiences and perspectives and Francophone perspectives, among others. While there is an emerging consensus among policy actors and the public concerning the importance and desirability of these commitments, tensions will intensify when it comes to interpreting and operationalizing some of these (i.e., as we see in omissions in the latest K-12 draft regarding the addressing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Moving beyond the “symbolic politics” of treating curriculum as a thing or object to be installed into Alberta classrooms requires an invitation to consider the complexities of curriculum as an encounter – a challenge that has persisted since the early days of Inspiring Action in Education.

Meanwhile other key elements of The Framework remain largely uncontested, for example the need for character development and community engagement (p. 6). This is perhaps the consequence of the ambiguity surrounding some of these features and/or the expectation that they will not be considered significant given other priorities for curriculum redesign. Yet, regarding the commitment to literacy and numeracy progressions, important questions have been raised by assessment experts  concerning the relationship of these elements to subject area outcomes. Predictably, other issues will emerge related to literacy and numeracy outcomes as the government moves forward on its commitment to expanding testing including language and mathematics assessments for K-3 students.

Competencies – An educational future yet to become?

Exploring the evolution of the key elements of The Framework over the past twelve years will not be attempted here, but should be a critical part of efforts to renew Alberta’ programs of study. Consider one of most nettlesome and enigmatic design features – competencies. ‘Competence’ is an evolving fluid construct in the global educational landscape emerging in the late 1990’s that came into prominence after 2003 as the OECD sought new ways to advance the case for global comparisons of educational performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Sellar, 2017).

Since the launch of Inspiring Education in Action (2010) competencies have been a focal point for policy actors framing the need for transformation. Animated by the OECD and other policy actors, the anticipation was that ten competencies would “transcend subject areas” to “support the development of a competencies-based, student-focused curriculum” to achieve a vision where “students are engaged thinkers, demonstrate ethical citizenship, and develop their entrepreneurial spirit” (p. 9). Subsequent ministers of education and their administrations have inflected different meanings and significance of competencies. In the spring of 2014, minister Jeff Johnson initiated Curriculum Development Prototyping whose goal was to “create new curriculum that allows students to develop 21st century competencies, such as innovation, creativity, ingenuity and collaboration” built on “a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy”.

Following the election of the NDP in the spring, at a June15, 2016 news conference Education Minister David Eggen announced a comprehensive set of reforms that further reiterated the role of competencies as part of a broader government commitment to create a province that is “Future Ready” – all supported by an ambitious six-year $64 million curriculum initiative where “material will be developed to teach students financial literacy, climate change, the history of Indigenous people and residential schools, and gender identity.” This broadening reform agenda attempted to keep intact The Framework, which was by this time, five years old (Alberta Education, 2011). Meanwhile, the ministry’s efforts to renew the focus on competencies became the subject of considerable media scrutiny. Attempting to assuage concerns that school subjects as disciplines would be diminished, the minister launched a government initiative: “to improve our math scores by reinforcing basic skills and by introducing new programs.”

Complicating matters for Minister Eggen, as with his predecessors who attempted to engage Albertans in curriculum conversations through social media, is the growing chumbox phenomenon.  Referencing to the practice of baiting sharks with fish meat, chumboxing is the now all-too familiar equivalent in media platforms of generating exaggerated or false claims to garner website clicks and support for one’s product or opinion. Certainly, Alberta’s curriculum renewal efforts over the past years has been hampered by the polarizing discourses of ‘math wars’; baiting constructivism as antithetical to knowledge and labelling efforts to address inequities historical injustices as ‘social engineering.’ The net effect has been growing ambiguity and confusion regarding the meaning of particular educational terms and proposals, inevitably leading to growing polarizations and contestation.

Since the election of the UCP in 2019, competencies now occupy a complicated place in government’s curriculum design efforts. The August 2019 Recommendations for future curriculum directions generated by the Curriculum Advisory Panel offers nine mentions of competencies, yet they are no references to them in the revised August 2020, Ministerial Order on Student Learning. The recent curriculum draft includes a detailed scaffolding of the indicators of Competency Progressions for Kindergarten (ages 4–5), Division 1 (ages 6–8), Division 2 (ages 9–11). By way of illustration, for Kindergarten the pull-down menu starting with Critical Thinking offers five ‘I can’ statements (i.e. I make predictions based on prior knowledge; I make choices based on what I like or know) with a total of 29 others for the remaining 7 competencies.

Just how competencies will be defined and rolled into curriculum renewal and eventually into Alberta classrooms remains an open question that must be considered carefully. Competencies are a well-developed element of the higher education sector in apprenticeships, some professional education and many college programs. Yet in basic education systems across Canada there are echoes of the late 1990s “curriculum within a curriculum” that emerged with the advent of an Information, Communication and Technology skills agenda that saw, for example, grade 3 students expected to demonstrate the ability to use programs such as Microsoft PowerPoint. In British Columbia, there are ongoing concerns about the unworkable curriculum that results when a patchwork of “core competencies” are merged alongside commitments to Indigeneity, social and emotional learning to address the growing psycho-social development challenges faced by students, leaving teachers to navigate “the complex spaces between local lives, national policies, and global agenda.”

Conclusion

The renewed K-12 curriculum deliberations ahead are not unique to this province. Globally and across Canada, policy actors and agencies continue to advance particular constructs that will frame the ways we design programs of study. The Council of Ministers of Education supported by global agencies such as OECD continues to advance global competency as identifiable and measurable educational outcomes, despite the research that demonstrates the considerable cautions and limitations in doing so. At the governance and system level, there is every indication that competencies will become the focus of large-scale assessments just as we saw in the last round of PISA 2018 that attempted to assess global competency as an identifiable and material educational outcome.

Meanwhile in jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Ireland and Finland, the construct of competence as one foundation for program design has proven to be a success, based on a commitment to trust in teachers, build their capacity to meaningfully inform their pedagogy including involving students in assessment, and collaborations with researchers and practitioners. Unfortunately, system-level assessment and accountability policy conversations here in Alberta have been set aside during the curriculum design processes since 2010, removing the necessary pre-conditions for determining the appropriacy of competency-focussed curriculum in the province.

Competencies are one of several pivotal legacy elements of curriculum redesign embedded in the foundational documents informing curriculum redesign. While there is much to critique concerning the outer shell of the current K-12 draft, we need to rekindle conversations about its structural foundations and other aspirational elements that have evolved since the process began twelve years ago with Inspiring Education – what these mean to Albertans now and into the futures we want to create together.