Things That Keep Me Up at Night

Inspiring Ed Header

I’m not sure that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but if I had to point to a trigger, the above “vision” was probably it.

As a teacher and curriculum leader in Alberta, Canada who values rationality and evidence in the sphere of education, it seems that I’ve become a member of a minority. The Alberta government has adopted a “progressive” approach to changing potentially everything in what has long been an effective and world-renowned education system. The entire shift is predicated on creating students who are engaged thinkers, ethical citizens, with an entrepreneurial spirit – the three Es. What exactly those terms actually mean and how we’re supposed to measure their achievement is far from clear. The following changes have already begun:

  • The High School Flexibility Program: This reduces designated instructional hours in favour of providing students with choices with respect to where they’ll spend a portion of their school day; this ranges from academics to fitness and personal wellness to gaming activities.
  • Inclusive education: This is based on a philosophy of universal design for learning as well as differentiated instruction in order to accommodate the wide range of student needs. Research has recently been released concluding that inclusion has been quite a failure here in Alberta due to lack of resources, lack of funding, and lack of training, among other factors, including the absence of a concrete definition of what this really means in practice.
  • Teachers as Advisors: This model requires teachers to adopt the additional role of advisor to a small group of students across grade levels over the course of their time in a given high school. The idea is that students will experience greater success if there’s at least one adult at school who has a vested interest in their success and is focused on knowing them not only as learners, but as whole individuals. This time is built into the school week, again at the expense of instructional minutes.
  • A departure from standardized achievement tests: Alberta administers Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) in all core subject areas in grades 3 (this has changed), 6, and 9, which are not considered high-stakes tests, as well as a Diploma Exam in grade 12, which is pretty high stakes, at a value of 50% of the student’s final grade. The PAT in grade 3 has been converted to a supposedly more diagnostic exam administered at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the school year. The plan is to make the same change for grades 6 and 9, despite an arguable failure of the implementation of the first grade 3 SLA (Student Learning Assessment, rather than PAT). As well, there is much debate over whether the Diploma Exam should be worth only 20% or 30%, rather than 50% of a student’s final grade.

The implementation of these policies is being made possible by an anticipated paradigm shift in Alberta’s education system that is predicated on moving from content-based to competency-based curricula. The following graphic is ubiquitous in Alberta Education and quite sums up the current trend:

Redesign Graphic

Philosophically, this all seems to border on a Utopian vision for transforming the education of young people as we cradle their fragile spirits and inspire them to greatness beyond what humanity has thus far known. But as so many have already expressed, none of this is really new; this all echoes John Dewey’s century-old philosophy of education now wrapped in the guise of “21st Century Learning.” And while it’s all well and good to espouse these grand theories, surely we must expect some conclusions about their efficacy.

So these are the issues with which I’m preoccupied. I imagine that some posts will be inspired by a need to vent, but I hope, more often, to move through a sequential explanation of how and why this system redesign is a slippery slope that threatens our historically successful system and may well spread beyond Alberta’s borders. We may not have to deal with Ofsted officials inspecting our classrooms, but building an entire education system around a philosophy based on feel-good, airy-fairy ideas that have not and cannot be supported by any shred of evidence may be even more worrisome.


4 thoughts on “Things That Keep Me Up at Night

  1. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one loosing sleep over this.

    “And while it’s all well and good to espouse these grand theories, surely we must expect some conclusions about their efficacy.” Does seem to sum up the whole enterprise. Especially since Alberta Education’s own research report (From Knowledge to Action: Shaping the Future of Curriculum Development in Alberta) says in its introduction:

    “Many, if not most, of the directions proposed in Inspiring Education are of a “leading edge” nature and, in many cases, have only been practised in a few other jurisdictions and, then, only for short periods of time. The result, in such cases, is that there is a limited amount of empirical research available worldwide, and what is available leans more toward theoretical discussions of how such concepts might work best and/or are descriptions of the practices being followed.” (emphasis mine. Pg.14)

    As to the lack of Ofsted officials, I am concerned that the task force for teaching excellence will be setting up an informal Ofsted:

    “The Task Force recommends that the existing practice standard for teachers be revised
    to align with Inspiring Education and with the other recommendations in this report. We
    further recommend that, for school leaders and district leaders also, practice standards
    be formally adopted to ensure clarity of expectations and alignment with Inspiring Education.” (pg.7)

    “Our expectations for teachers have changed and will
    change significantly under Alberta’s new vision for education.” (pg.10)

    ““What” teachers do must shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts
    to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

    “To ensure every level of the education system is embracing the
    vision of Inspiring Education, the Task Force believes there must
    be absolute clarity of educator expectations” (pg. 16)

    “We recommend that the Ministry of Education work with Alberta’s teacher
    preparation institutions to ensure alignment of their programs with Inspiring Education
    (Recommendation 7).” (pg.23)

    “You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves.” (Sorry, that wasn’t the task force, that was Stalin.)

    I don’t understand why Alberta’s teachers- who created one of the best educational systems in the world (the consultants didn’t do it)- are going to be asked to work even longer hours to teach children less… these competencies had better be some powerful magic beans. Has anyone even checked to see if there is an actual hen laying actual golden eggs or is it just theory?

    I look forward to your next blog.


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