This post was first published by Chris Smeaton on April 9, 2021 on https://cdsmeaton.com/?p=2738
I’ve sat on this blog post for weeks now, but figured it was probably time to get my viewpoint out on curriculum. I would never consider myself an expert, but I’ve been well involved over the years in working with Alberta Education, as part of numerous teams overseeing the development and/or implementation of new curriculum. That said, I’m unapologetic in saying I know a hell of a lot more than people like David Staples! For expert analysis of the draft K-6 curriculum being considered by this government, I would suggest checking out the works of Dr. Robin Bright, Dr. Richelle Marynowski or Dr. Carla Peck. Each of these content and pedagogical experts provide excellent reviews without much partisan politics. I’ve worked with two of the three and have great respect for their expertise.
Rather than be specific about this draft, I intend to make some broad strokes about curriculum. First of all, curriculum needs to prepare students for their future and not our past. Knowledge is not the same thing as understanding and a curriculum based solely on “facts” does nothing to prepare students for an ever changing future. This does not mean that foundational skills in literacy and numeracy are not essential. In fact, it is highly critical that students have a sturdy foundation in “reading, writing and arithmetic.” However, students and ultimately society cannot function with that superficial level of curriculum. A more robust curriculum where students are taught to infer, think critically, problem solve and ultimately know how to learn is where one must go!
One of the best examples of forward thinking for curriculum development was initiated by former Education Minister and 15th Premier of Alberta, David Hancock, as part of Inspiring Education. The goal was to develop students who were “Engaged Thinkers, Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit.” Now that is forward thinking! Unfortunately, the “Ministerial Order on Student Learning” that followed that vision didn’t align with the curriculum at the time. However, the notion of being innovative in the classroom and looking for ways to better support a focus on competencies, improved student engagement and a stronger commitment to inclusive learning was born. These are some of the major pieces that we should be looking at when developing curriculum! It has to move students and ultimately society forward rather than maintaining the status quo or worse taking a step back into the dark ages.
Any curriculum developed needs to be age appropriate. It is unethical to demand students to learn concepts when they are not intellectually ready. There is a reason that toy manufacturers put ages on their products. I watched my own grandson become frustrated with a toy given to him as a gift because it was beyond his development. This is especially important in the early years. Children are born with a natural curiousity and some of the quickest ways to destroy it are to provide no choice, unbending structure and non-age appropriateness. Discovery, (which seems to be a swear word when you add it with math) is a wonderful way for children to begin to learn. And dare I say…play is serious learning! Learning is on a continuum with some students excelling at different ages and stages of life. It makes organizational sense to set students up in cohorts based on their ages (grades) but it makes no sense from a pedagogy perspective. That however, is a blog for another time but regardless, curriculum must be designed to support the research on child development.
New curriculum must also be aware of limits on outcomes. While I still believe in the process of large scale stakeholder input, everybody’s wishes can’t be taught in schools. That was probably my greatest frustration working on curriculum development teams where someone from a stakeholder group would insist on the inclusion of an outcome before signing off. I applaud the addition of financial literacy into the new curriculum (even though it is already in the current curriculum) but then what is deleted to allocate that time. We already have too many outcomes forcing teachers to cover curriculum rather than allow time for “deep learning.” High end students may be able to keep up with that pace but we’ve built a system (not perfect yet) that is to be based on inclusion and therefore, learning should be the non-negotiable, not time. If we really want learning to be the non-negotiable, we need to scale down the number of outcomes and give time for students to learn deeply. Less curricular outcomes may also allow students time to explore their interests which really improves engagement.
I want to go back to a curriculum for inclusion. One of the loudest cries for the “back to the basics” move is because Alberta student results have plummeted. I would say that is an exaggeration at best and possibly closer to a lie. But let’s assume that our results have either dipped slightly or at worse remained relatively the same. What other measures are we looking at to evaluate our system because if it is just marks from standardized tests we are woefully lacking in a full understanding. An important fact, is that we successfully educate more students today than ever before and allow them to write those exams. Years ago, students who would not do well on those exams would be exempted or “missing on that day!” Now, as long as it is not harmful for the child, opportunities for those exams are welcomed even though government officials and so called education media evangelists lament at the crisis in our classrooms. Given a harsh accountability system, schools and divisions accepted the intense practice of streaming kids even though it never promoted a more inclusive environment. While I’m a firm believer of being data informed, I’ve learned that there is always a story behind the data and more importantly being “data driven” should never be in conflict with the move toward increased inclusion.
Finally and this is critical, curriculum must instill a better sense of community. In other words, it must help children and future generations understand diversity and combat against racism. This has never more evident in Canada than with our indigenous people. There are recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that speak specifically to education. The new standards for teachers, leaders and superintendents all have a specific competency to support our First Nations, Metis and Inuit students, families and communities. We cannot have another generation of students grow up not knowing the negative impact of residential schools or not understanding the truth of our history even as horrific as it is, period! And the Black Lives Movement is not just for our neighbours south of us, it is here in Canada too! We talk about building better communities into the future and that must start by acknowledging our grievous errors in history within our curriculum.
Alberta has had a rich history of excellent curriculum and outstanding results. While I’ve not always agreed with all party politics, I cannot say anything negative about the curriculum development of previous governments until now! I’m a retired superintendent and that means, I don’t have children in school anymore but I will have grandchildren entering next year and in two years. I want them to be fully engaged in school and to simply love to learn. I don’t want them to just regurgitate knowledge that they acquire but rather to shift their minds as below. Curriculum needs to be for our children’s needs NOT our own!
Chris Smeaton is a retired Superintendent of Schools and former Adjunct Professor for Gonzaga University.