Analysis of the Draft Alberta K-6 Social Studies Curriculum (Part 1)

This post was first published by Dr. Carla Peck on March 29, 2021 on https://carlapeck.wordpress.com/2021/03/29/analysis-of-the-draft-alberta-k-6-social-studies-curriculum-part-1/

Well, it’s out.

Alberta’s Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange, released the draft K-6 curriculum today. She was bursting with pride as she stood behind the podium, peddling the oft-repeated lies about the so-called “secret” curriculum development process undertaken when the NDP was in government. I’ve debunked that falsehood a few times, which you can read herehere, and here.

There’s a lot to dissect in the draft K-6 Social Studies curriculum. Below, I offer some high-level observations along with a heavily marked up copy of the K-2 portion of the curriculum. I will turn to Grades 3-4 and 5-6 in the days ahead. Many other knowledgeable folks are dissecting the curriculum and I encourage you to seek out those analyses as well.

Overall impressions of the draft curriculum

The March 2021 draft of the Social Studies curriculum sets Alberta Social Studies back decades in terms of quality and achievement in curriculum design. In “The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum”, several references are made to Alberta’s curriculum being seen as a model by educational jurisdictions from around the world. This will no longer be the case, for reasons I will outline below.

Minister LaGrange stood in front of a podium that was affixed with a sign that read, “teaching essential knowledge and skills.” This phrase is key to understanding the ideological orientation toward curriculum development under the UCP. The assumption is that before students can be taught how to think critically, creatively, or deeply, they must first amass a body of “core knowledge.” This assumption is not borne out in the Social Studies research literature. Advocates of this approach will also tell you that a focus on committing “core knowledge” to memory is especially good for children from economically disadvantaged groups. However, ground-breaking and long-standing research by Dr. Jean Anyon has demonstrated that lower SES students receive rote teaching and learning because, in part, teachers vastly underestimate the students’ capabilities especially compared to higher SES kids. It’s a deficit model of thinking about children and I reject it wholeheartedly.

The draft Social Studies (SS) K-2 curriculum does not reflect long-standing or current scholarship in social studies education. Most of the emphasis is on history, with much less emphasis placed on geography, civics, economics, and – a new one for social studies – financial literacy. Why the latter wasn’t incorporated into economics is puzzling. Although there is a column in each grade labelled “Understanding”, the focus is really only on topics – not conceptual development or deep learning – and not the nature of the social science disciplines themselves.

Taking a closer look at the History element

Given the heavy focus on history in the draft Social Studies curriculum, and given my research and teaching background in history education, I read that section with great interest.  Current scholarship in history education supports the need to teach both knowledge and the structure of the discipline, so that students can develop understanding of historical content and learn how historical knowledge is produced. Chronology matters, of course. But to help students develop a deep understanding of the past (and how it connects to today), a focus on themes, continuity & change, historical perspectives, etc. is much more effective and powerful. And, it’s supported by research. What’s more, students – even very young students – are capable of this approach to teaching and learning history. Unfortunately, this curriculum does not come up to this standard.

Starting in Grade 2, we start to see very long lists of content to be taught/learned. 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
  • 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
  • The following about 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)
  • About 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
  • About 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

Some may wonder about the inclusion of specific religions in the curriculum. Teaching about world religions can lead to important understandings of perspectives similar to and different from our own and it can also, when appropriate, aid in the understanding of world events. However, questions remain about why these three religions were chosen (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and not other religions that also exist in Alberta, Canada, and the world. And, there’s a dangerous fine line when it comes to teaching about religion: One has to be careful to not turn the lessons into education into a particular faith, to not hold one faith up as superior to another, and to not present one faith as “strange” or “weird” compared to others. I’ll see how these topics are handled in Grades 3-6 when I turn to those grades.

The Civics section for Grade 2 Social Studies is really just more history:

  • Early democracy:
    • origin of word democracy (The document actually says “word” democracy – see page 7.)
    • 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, 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. Anyone can memorize a list of facts. It doesn’t mean they understand what those facts mean.

Further to this point, in history education, it’s important to understand that there are different types of concepts. “Substantive” concepts are things like “constitution”, “prime minister”, and “the War of 1812”. “Procedural” concepts are how we “do history” – 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. Together, these two types of concepts make up a person’s ability to “think historically” and a “historical thinking pedagogy” teaches substantive concepts alongside and through procedural concepts. For example, teachers might help students understand “continuity and change” by studying concepts such as “revolution” or “gender and society” or “technology” and they would help students understand that while things may have changed rapidly in one part of the country or world, those same things may not have changed (or changed as rapidly) elsewhere, or for everyone. 

Indigenous history and perspectives

The efforts to include some Indigenous content are worthwhile but they don’t go far enough. At times, the references are too vague and at other times, they are focused on factual knowledge  only, not on Indigenous Knowledge systems or perspectives. There is no mention of treaties, Residential Schools, or reconciliation in the K-2 portion of the curriculum. In addition, most references to Indigenous peoples are in the past, with little to no attention paid to the present. Frankly, the inclusion of Indigenous people’s knowledges, histories, and worldviews feels forced a lot of the time, almost as if there was a public outcry at the lack of inclusion of such perspectives in the Fall of 2020… It’s clear this content has been added compared to the version of the curriculum that was leaked to the CBC but it is so infrequently addressed that it appears as a token effort. What is included doesn’t lend itself to meaningful understanding of Indigenous knowledges or perspectives; for the most part, it is reduced to facts that can be memorized.

Skill development

While the curriculum is heavy on the “knowledge” component, it is completely lacking in terms of “skills” and “attributes.” The items listed in the “Skills and Procedures” section are classroom activities, such as “discuss” and “explain” X, Y, or Z. These are generic activities that can be done in any subject area and as presented, are generally at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. There is no attention at all paid to developing attributes or dispositions related to citizenship or to developing an understanding of skills within the various disciplines of the Social Studies. There is no progression (growth in skills over time) because students are asked to the same thing over and over: Discuss, explain, describe. Curiously, the items listed in the “Skills and Procedures” column look more like lesson activities. The Minister of Education vowed that the new curriculum would not dictate pedagogy. This promise gets a failing grade.

Social Studies skills should reflect the disciplines of the social studies and include the following: historical thinking, geographic thinking, economic thinking, political thinking, legal thinking, and so on. A strong example of these forms of disciplinary thinking can be found in the 2018 Ontario Social Studies curriculum, particularly pages 13 (Overview), 60-62 (Social Studies Thinking), 138-139 (Historical Thinking), and 170-171 (Geographic Thinking). The recently revised 2019 BC Social Studies curriculum has equally strong examples of disciplinary thinking in Social Studies. Additional essential reading on this point is “Powerful and Purposeful Elementary Social Studies” from the National Council for the Social Studies.

Developmental Appropriateness

The content load is, in short, ridiculous. The draft curriculum does not represent appropriate progression for early elementary students.

The “knowledge” and “understanding” elements for each grade are completely inappropriate for children who are aged 5-7. In the early elementary years, Social Studies should focus on cultural universals that all children can relate to (e.g., learning about themselves, their families, their communities) and in upper elementary, Social Studies should expand student learning to their province, country, and the world. This doesn’t mean they should learn Trivial Pursuit-style facts. Facts are important, of course, but they must be learned in the service of understanding broader Social Studies concepts such as treaty relationship; democracy; tolerance; time, continuity, and change; culture; power; perspectives; and on and on. Read any recently revised provincial curriculum in Social Studies – BC and ON for example – for what this should look like.

 Some obvious (read: glaring) omissions:

  • I did not see any inclusion of Francophone perspectives, histories, or culture in the K-2 draft Social Studies document.
  • No mention of LGBTQ+ people, families, or rights.
  • No mention of human rights in general.
  • Citizenship and identity development are usually at the core of a high quality Social Studies curriculum and these are completely missing in this document. I don’t know how students are going to see themselves in this curriculum.

(This is an incomplete list that I will add to in future posts.)

Some concluding thoughts on the K-2 Social Studies (draft) curriculum

When much of the world is moving toward concept- and competency-based curricula, Alberta is retreating to a curriculum that is about accumulating bits and pieces of information, not deep understanding. The only real opportunity to improve the draft Social Studies curriculum is to start over. The fatal flaw is in the overall design and intent of the curriculum; it cannot be fixed by tweaking it. Alberta Education needs to go back to the drawing board to better understand the goals of a social studies curriculum which, broadly speaking, are to develop knowledge, skills, and attributes that contribute to the development of engaged citizens. There are really excellent folks doing the day-to-day work at Alberta Ed. The Minister needs to get out of their way and let them do what they do best: Design engaging, rich, and developmentally-appropriate curriculum for Alberta’s students.