Lowering the Common Denominator

Two things prompted this blog post. First: @jamestheo’s blog post entitled “Embracing Desire Paths in the Curriculum,” in which @jamestheo makes the excellent analogy that effective teaching is somewhat like the idea of “desire lines,” which are an often unanticipated byproduct of perhaps less-than-effective city planning. We’ve all seen those shortcut pathways that make themselves clear after extensive use by multiple travelers who have found their own ways to circumvent the intended route(s), especially those of us in snow-covered areas where the “nearest way” is motivated by more than a few factors, not the least of which is fear of frostbite! Second: a couple of tweets by Alberta’s new Minister of Education, Gordon Dirks, wherein he suggests that there is “strong support” for a range of edufads in Alberta that have arguably become quite unpopular. With a $7 billion budget shortfall, I’ve been hoping that these initiatives would “go gentle into that good night” as they sputtered and died. However, it seems our new minister is travelling full speed ahead on the road to ruin. Apparently, there’s “strong support” for high school redesign, curriculum reviews, community partnerships, and the first steps in dismantling our provincial diploma exam system. This blog post will address the first two issues, currently my most pressing concerns.

Supporters of this redesign cite a bloated curriculum of 1400 outcomes. I’m not sure to what that number actually refers, but I can tell you, in English Language Arts, at the high school level, we cover 33 specific (already competency-based) outcomes over three years. These outcomes are not delivered in isolation; they’re integrated concepts and we’re always hitting several at a time, over and over again. Having taught this curriculum for more than ten years, I would argue that it’s not bloated at all. Recently, the Social Studies curriculum underwent a significant overhaul; there’s nothing in there that’s even remotely content-heavy. Math, as well, recently underwent a huge curriculum change and has only been subject to a new diploma exam for the past three years. Significant portions of the curriculum were modified and even eliminated; for example, conics are no longer a component of the Alberta math curriculum at the high-school level. At the Math 10C, 20-1, and 30-1 levels combined, there are 62 specific outcomes, most of which, again, are integrated and interrelated concepts that are addressed and re-addressed year after year. From some of these early redesign sessions, I’ve heard it repeated that the goal is for no program of studies to have more than 10 outcomes. So in English, we’d go from 144 to 10. Math would go from 62 to 10. If that’s not a “dumbing down,” I don’t know what is.

Most of the proponents of this “redesign” seem to have an affection for “inquiry-based learning.” They deny prescribing teaching practice, but what else would be the reason for eliminating content from a world-class curriculum? My fear is that by “dumbing down” the curriculum, the goal is to open it up to discovery practices. If I no longer have to teach five concepts but instead, only one, then I can take longer to teach just that one. We’ve seen this to be true in Math. Rather than having students memorize 9 X 5 = 45, the discovery approach would have them employ various strategies in an effort to have them discover WHY 9 X 5 = 45 and in employing all those strategies, they would, as a side effect, memorize that little nugget. Maybe, but the bottom line is that it takes two or three times longer for students to “discover” something rather than to have it directly stated, with opportunities for drill and practice – and there is no reliable research that demonstrates that they do, in fact, come away with a better understanding of the concepts. This, to me, seems like the sneaky goal of this curriculum redesign; by having fewer outcomes, the doors are open to more inquiry-based learning. While it might not be an explicit change in pedagogical philosophy coming from Alberta Education (Oh sure, teachers can still teach in whatever manner they find most effective!), it’s a philosophy that would be embedded in a dumbed down curriculum of only 10 outcomes.

At this point, I’m reminded of @jamestheo’s “desire paths” analogy. Experienced teachers who favour a traditional approach to teaching and learning, and whose methods are supported by evidence, must quietly and surreptitiously lead their students down the well-trodden, more efficient and effective “desire paths” on their way to knowledge and learning. The best teachers will simply do what they know works, as many have already been doing. They’ll take their shortcuts, circumventing the farce that is 21st century learning, project-based learning, student-directed learning, fill-in-the-fad learning.

Despite the obvious “desire paths” in various curricula, built on traditional teaching methods, the Alberta government has been willfully ignoring the rising voice of disgruntled Albertans who have already seen the failures in our elementary Math curriculum changes, as well as mounting evidence against the practices that would define this redesign. Alberta’s curriculum redesign process has already begun, and continues to move forward. It has consisted of a “prototyping” endeavor, which entails different school boards and districts piecing together different curricula for different grade levels, and when it’s all done, we’ll have this glorious curriculum redesign. The problem is, this initial process itself is fundamentally flawed; it’s a fragmented and disjointed approach that tends to create a less-than-coherent end product – one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. Rather than engaging in an integrated, methodical approach with a clear goal in mind, these disconnected pieces will be jammed together to create the illusion of a whole. Further, good luck trying to get First Nations groups, Cenovus, teachers, university professors, and all the other “stakeholders” to agree on all of this.

The move to actually redesign Alberta’s curriculum in this manner is slowly chipping away at the solid foundation we’ve built in this province. If these trends continue, I can’t see myself retiring in this profession; I could not continue, in good conscience, to be part of a system that undercuts the value of knowledge and learning in favour of cost-cutting at the most crucial level to employ unacceptable methods and practices that threaten to compromise a system that has served us well for a long time.

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7 thoughts on “Lowering the Common Denominator

  1. You are EXACTLY the type of teacher I want for my kids. I actually have high regard for my kids’ teachers, but I sense they have NO say in this major shift coming down the pike. Thank you for this blog…I will follow it closely and share it regularly. What are your thoughts on Libraries becoming ‘Learning Commons’…a virtual and physical place of group work, technology…a place where our kids can be ‘entrepreneurial creators of information and knowledge’. (as quoted off the Alberta Ed website page on Learning Commons. I would LOVE to hear your thoughts!

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    1. Thanks, Sharp. You’re instinct is correct – those of us in the “traditional” and evidence-based camp have been rather marginalized. Most teachers I know are keeping quiet, as this too shall pass – or so they hope. I’ve never been one to keep quiet, so …!

      My school has a “learning commons.” It’s often a bit of a madhouse. I have students ask if they can hang out in my classroom to read. Not really a problem for an English teacher (!) but it doesn’t quite sit well with me that this traditional space where worlds of opportunity and adventure were at our fingertips have been appropriated by – in my opinion – lesser endeavours.

      When the school itself models this perspective (Yeah, who needs books anyway?), what can we expect from students?

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  2. Curriculum with less content might suit hardcore discovery types, as they can teach things more slowly. But it also suits teachers aiming for fluency. Limited content alone is not enough to force people to teach progressively. In fact, it often reveals how much more effective traditional teaching is as it gives time for practice.

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    1. Agreed, but my next post will address the fluency/practice issue in conjunction with curric redesign here. We’re bein forced here to implement “flex” time, which means less curricular instructional time. Combined with a watered-down curriculum, we are – as I said – on the road to ruin.

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