As a member of Alberta Education’s Curriculum Working Group from 2017-2019, I participated in the development of the 2018 Draft Curriculum. Additionally, as the Curriculum Facilitator in my district, I was the lead-learner with respect to how to implement a concept-based curriculum. This enabled me to provide professional development opportunities to prepare our teachers for piloting the 2018 Draft.
After reading the 2021 Draft, my plea is to discard it, and bring back the 2018 Draft. I am not making this request simply because I was part of the working group…that would be unprofessional. I am making this plea because it is the right thing to do; it is what is in the best interests of the children of Alberta.
By analyzing and comparing the two drafts, it is clear that the format and content of the 2018 draft are superior to those of the 2021 draft.
How is the 2018 Draft, a concept-based curriculum, organized and formatted?
The 2018 Draft articulates what students will come to know, understand and be able to do.
The learning outcomes are articulated with measurable verbs and with concepts that students are to learn. The conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge bullets (listed below each learning outcome) help teachers design learning tasks to help students acquire the concepts articulated in the learning outcomes.
The 2018 draft framework aligns with these foundational understandings:
- An effective curriculum is prioritized around a small number of conceptually larger, transferable ideas; trying to cover too much content can result in superficial and disengaged learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
- Within the context of the Learning Outcome:
- Conceptual Knowledge is the usable knowledge that helps students come to understand the concept stated in the Learning Outcome. Usable knowledge is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts; usable knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts. Usable knowledge supports understanding and transfer to other contexts, and is not learned simply for the purpose of memorization (Erickson, Lanning & French, 2017.)
- Procedural Knowledge helps guide how students learn and/or demonstrate their conceptual knowledge. It is the subject-specific set of skills and procedures that build expertise in the subject area.
- Teachers pull together individual or combined components of the Conceptual and Procedural Knowledge to generate learning experiences for their students; i.e.Learning how to do the procedures leads to knowing the conceptual knowledge; this, in turn, develops understanding of the bigger concept stated in the Learning Outcome.
- Conceptual understanding, learning with understanding and making meaning, is the goal of concept-based curriculum.
I am not a concept-based curriculum expert, but because I have a deep understanding of how concept-based curriculum is written, it is very evident that the 2021 Draft is a misguided, watered-down version of a concept-based curriculum. One can see evidence of “concept-based attempts” in its headings Organizing Idea, Guiding Question, Knowledge, Skills & Procedures and Understanding headings, as the headings in the 2018 Draft were similarly worded. Evidence is also seen in some of the Math content that has been copied directly from the 2018 Mathematics Draft (e.g. some of the 2018 Procedural Knowledge bullets appear in the 2021 Draft as Knowledge components; and similarly, some of the 2018 Conceptual Knowledge bullets appear in the 2021 Draft as Skills and Procedures.) It’s as though the concept-based formatting of the 2018 Draft was maintained somewhat, but the foundational understandings (as described above) were not applied. Without a strong foundation, the whole structure crumbles!
- There has been an attempt to express high-level concepts in the Understanding sections, but it has not been done adequately.
- The Understandings are written inconsistently; sometimes, they are written as learning tasks, or as resources to be studied, and cannot even be classified as ‘understandings’.
- The Learning Outcomes are inconsistent in their attempt to provide a strong foundation from which to work. There has been an unsuccessful attempt to express big ideas in the Learning Outcomes. Often, the Learning Outcomes are not measurable, and don’t always align with the Knowledge and Skills & Procedures.
- The Knowledge and Skills & Procedures sections are written in haphazard, inconsistent formats, making it difficult to see how they relate to the outcome. Sometimes, they are even written in the format of learning outcomes and learning tasks.
This Grade 1 Social Studies example, from the 2021 Draft, helps clarify my points:
Learning Outcome: “Students explore First Nations and Inuit migration patterns, stories and ideas as they existed on traditional territories before the arrival of people from Europe and other parts of the world.”
As teachers must assess how well students acquire the learning outcomes, this outcome infers that teachers would need to assess how well students can “explore…” as that is the verb that is stated in the learning outcome.
As a teacher and curriculum facilitator who has spent 38 years analyzing curriculum, I know that the verb “explore” is actually a process by which students might acquire knowledge – it is not a verb that can be assessed. The outcome itself doesn’t actually say that students will learn anything. As it is stated, the end goal of this outcome is simply that students learn to explore the stated content; and the knowledge and processes listed below are supposed to help students acquire that learning outcome.
Knowledge: “Timeline: First peoples to now; chronology of migrations and settlements”
One can readily infer that this section was adapted from the “conceptual knowledge” component of the 2018 Draft. In a well-written curriculum, this section would contain the list of interrelated content that students would need to come to know in order to understand the concept articulated in the learning outcome. Without a clear outcome from which to work, it would be a fair assumption for teachers to infer that every point in the timeline from First Peoples to now would need to be assessed as fact regurgitation.
Additionally, the knowledge students would be expected to learn is WAY beyond what should be expected of a grade 1 student. The concept of a timeline, in itself, is too complex for six year old students. They are just beginning to learn how to use a number line to help them understand the concepts of addition and subtraction, so this would add much confusion to that learning process! Also, while many six year olds will understand numbers to 100 and are just beginning to understand the difference between past and present, this doesn’t mean they will grasp the concept of “100 years ago”, let alone understand chronology from the time of the First Peoples to now. They do not have any concept of that range of time.
Skills & Procedures: “Explain a simple visual timeline and map showing migration patterns into and across the continent”
In a well-written curriculum, the Skills & Procedures section articulates what students must learn how to DO in order to help them reach the learning outcome. It is hard to imagine how “explaining a visual timeline and map” will help students learn how to “explore” as mandated by the Learning Outcome.
In fact, in this example, the skill/procedure statement is actually written as another Learning Outcome – it starts with a measurable verb (explain) and it articulates what students will need to explain. It can also be interpreted as an assessment task that would determine the extent to which students had learned the information. This statement does not outline what relevant skills and procedures students will need to learn in order to acquire the Learning Outcome. And once again, this is complex learning for six year olds who barely understand the geography of their own neighbourhood, let alone the migration patterns of the whole continent!
As a result of all this learning, students would need to come to this Understanding:
“Humans first arrived in North America about 30 000 years ago and migrated throughout the continent.”
It’s hard to imagine how learning the timeline and migration patterns from First Peoples to nowwould help students acquire the original Learning Outcome “Students explore First Nations and Inuit migration patterns, stories and ideas as they existed on traditional territories before the arrival of people from Europe and other parts of the world.”
The knowledge, skills and procedures don’t align with the learning outcome. Furthermore, the knowledge and skills have students learning about the timeline and migration patterns of people migrating, from First Peoples to NOW, while the outcome says BEFORE arrival of people from Europe, etc…
Even if it was a well-written outcome, what does “30,000 years ago” mean to a 6-year old???
In contrast, in a well-written concept-based curriculum, ALL the components of the Learning Outcome align with each other; the Conceptual and Procedural Knowledge bullets that accompany the Learning Outcome support teachers in designing learning tasks to help students acquire the Learning Outcome.
Well-written Curriculum Leads to Powerful Teaching and Quality Learning
The Learning Outcome I’ve chosen for comparison is from the 2018 Draft Kindergarten Math program. Selecting this outcome for comparison may cause criticism, because a Social Studies outcome is being compared to a Math outcome. I contend that the subject from which I choose the outcome for comparison is irrelevant to this analysis; all subjects in the 2018 Draft were formatted in the same way, and the writing was guided by the foundational understandings articulated above.
This Learning Outcome, along with a subset of its Conceptual and Procedural Knowledge bullets, is as follows:
Learning Outcome: “Children make meaning of quantities within 10.”
- quantity is how many
- the purpose of counting is to determine how many (quantity)
- each object is counted once and only once (one-to-one correspondence)
- the order of words used to count never changes (stable order)
- anything can be counted (abstraction principle)
- demonstrate early counting principles, including one-on-one correspondence, stable order, cardinality, order irrelevance and abstraction
- count within 10, forward and backward, starting at any number
- relate a numeral, 1-10, to a specific quantity
- recognize at a glance the quantity in patterned and non-patterned sets of 5 (perceptual subitizing)
To explore the power of teaching through a conceptual and procedural knowledge approach, a colleague and I co-developed a unit plan to support our teachers in piloting the 2018 Draft. The learning tasks we designed were grounded in cognitive science that tells us how our brains work and how learning happens. Our brains look for patterns to help make sense of incoming information, and make connections between different pieces of information to form generalizations (National Research Council, 2000). In this case, the generalizations children were expected to make were the counting principles that are listed as Conceptual Knowledge for this Learning Outcome.
Several Kindergarten teachers volunteered to test drive the unit, and I was invited into their classrooms to teach some of the lessons and also to observe some of the lessons they were teaching. My deep involvement with this unit enables me to confidently state that:
- Students were not left on their own to “discover” anything. The curriculum provided the substance for the carefully planned learning experiences, with the clear end-goal of learning the counting principles (i.e. Conceptual Knowledge).
- At no point during the unit did the teacher tell the students these counting principles. And yet, students learned the principles by doing the learning tasks to acquire relevant Procedural Knowledge.
- By the end of this section of the unit, students were able to articulate the counting principles as a result of their learning experiences.
- The true indicator of conceptual understanding is the ability to transfer learning to new contexts (Erickson, Lanning & French, 2017).
- A well-written, concept-based curriculum provides the foundation for powerful teaching and quality learning.
I invite you to go through this presentation if you wish to gain more insight into the unit.
To learn more about concept-based learning, I also invite you to:
- Read my blog post, Fairy Tale Trail Comes to Life
- Listen to my podcast on concept-based learning
As a result of my analysis, I conclude that the 2021 Draft Curriculum needs to be discarded. Any attempts to fix it would be futile, because it has a very weak foundation; it is an unfixable, watered-down version of a concept-based curriculum, with a complexity of flaws and errors. I implore Alberta Education to resurrect the 2018 Draft and to continue to refine it. Our students and teachers deserve so much better than the 2021 Draft!
Erickson, H., Lanning, L. & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom: 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
National Research Council. (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design: Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Diane Lander was a member of Alberta Education’s Curriculum Working Group from 2017-2019 and participated in the development of the 2018 Draft Curriculum. Additionally, she was a Curriculum Facilitator in Parkland School Division, where she was the lead-learner with respect to how to implement a concept-based curriculum.