A Word on Curriculum

I teach English Language Arts in Alberta, Canada at the high school level. The program of study, at this stage, is largely geared towards literary interpretation and analysis, represented through the six language arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing. Our program of study (curriculum) includes five general outcomes:

Students will

  1. explore thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experiences
  2. comprehend literature and other texts in oral, print, visual, and multimedia forms, and respond personally, critically, and creatively
  3. manage ideas and information
  4. create oral, print, visual, and multimedia texts, and enhance the clarity and artistry of communication
  5. respect, support, and collaborate with others

Each of these general outcomes encompasses a number of specific outcomes, none of which provide any more clarity as to what or how students will learn in the context of a given classroom. I used to think that Alberta had an enviable curriculum, at least in English Language Arts, but I’ve come to realize that it’s sorely lacking specificity, precision, depth, sequence, and unity. I’m not sure what exactly brought me to this realization, but certainly investigating other systems has helped me to see what we’re missing. Also, after more than ten years in this profession, the cracks have begun to reveal themselves to me. I’ve been particularly preoccupied with ideas on how we can improve things, likely because we’re in the midst of a curriculum review/rewrite across all subject areas. I hope for the best, but I fear that the powers-that-be will simply double-down on the 21st century-project/inquiry-based-edutech bet they made more than a decade ago.

When I meet students in high school, there’s little I can do to catch them up if they’re struggling readers. Why? Because never in my teacher training, nor in available professional development, have I learned to teach children to read. Until two years ago, I had no idea that there was a controversy in this field. I had never heard about phonics, or look-say, or balanced literacy. It was by following authorities on the subject on Twitter that I came to learn about The Reading Wars. Slowly, I’m gaining a sense of proficiency in my understanding and application of the evidence-informed method of systematic synthetic phonics. But at the high school level, when this was supposed to have been sorted, why do I need to do this?

I’m not complaining, really, just explaining the reality. So, given that the curriculum rewrite is underway, this is actually about what I would suggest that the powers-that-be do with the opportunity, at least with respect to aspects of the ELA program of study.

First of all, beginning in Grade 1, dispense with the “balanced literacy” farce. If we can sort the mechanics of reading in these early grades, I won’t be faced with teenagers who can “kind of” read. Implement a solid systematic synthetic phonics program, and perhaps include a check at the end of Grade 1. I know this is a controversial suggestion, given that the UK has had a phonics check for years and many people still decry it, and that the proposal in Australia seems to be causing heads to explode, figuratively, of course.

There’s been a lot of pushback against constructivist approaches to teaching math, which seem to have a strangle-hold in Alberta. The issue has been taken increasingly seriously here, with thousands of parents and teachers petitioning the government to adopt a more explicit and evidence-informed position with respect to this subject. There’s a significant body of research in the field of cognitive load theory which suggests that we are all subject to the limitations of working memory. Applied to math learning, this means that if students are taking time to make simple calculations in addition and division, this overloads their working memory, creating an obstacle when higher-level functions are necessary. The idea is that the more we promote automaticity by moving elements of a process into long-term memory, the further we can stretch our functioning, since we clear thinking space in working memory.

The same principle applies to reading. If we explicitly teach and drill grapheme-phoneme connections, students can “chunk” those symbols into words, largely making the mechanics of reading automatic. From there, we use those fundamental principles as we teach new vocabulary, and embark on increasingly challenging texts. As well, it is in these early years that we should begin to explicitly teach about grammar, syntax, and mechanics. This element should continue through to the end of high school, as an unambiguously articulated component of the curriculum.

Secondly, ensure that teachers at this crucial first stage are explicitly and thoroughly trained in how to teach the program. Currently, in Alberta, any teacher can teach any subject in any grade. Obviously, attempts are always made to put the “right” person in the job, one with the training and background for a given subject or grade-stage. But this doesn’t always happen, and there are no parameters within the system to ensure that a secondary-trained biology teacher doesn’t end up taking, as his or her first job, a position as a grade one teacher. Again, in Alberta this is a controversial stance, because we’re often told that we don’t teach subjects, we teach children – which brings me to my next point.

Schools cannot be everything to everyone. From my first year teaching to now, I’ve seen initiatives and programs simply get piled onto the heap of responsibilities I have as a teacher. Again, I’m not complaining, but simply explaining that if more and more peripheral agendas are added to the finite school day, something will give. And it has. We’re not reading and writing in class as much as we should be. Parents and students plead with me for an answer regarding improving reading scores. I usually cite the old mantra that students must also read at home. While I know this to be true, I’ve recently considered that it may be well and good for students to read at home, but that should be supplemental to what we do in the classroom. And you know what? We don’t do enough in the classroom. Why not? Because we’re pushed to have students work in groups, to pursue projects, to discover through inquiry, to watch films, to make videos, and so much other fluff that I couldn’t begin to list here. All this takes so much time, which, as I’ve mentioned, is limited. If I only have x number of hours in a week with a given class, shouldn’t we focus on priorities that will yield the greatest return on that finite investment? For me, those priorities are reading and writing.

You may think that so much would necessarily be excluded if English classes were limited in this manner. I choose to see it as being able to more precisely focus on the most relevant aspects of this field as it pertains to novice learners, for we cannot do everything, despite all the airy-fairy platitudes that permeate the current program of study. The extraneous (to English) components could be built into their own programs, ideally connected to the frameworks of other subjects. These might include Film Studies and Film Theory, Debate and Rhetoric, and Art History. In fact, I would greatly welcome the inclusion of such academic optional courses, rather than the load of fluff that most schools offer far too early. We should do as much as we can to promote an academic environment for as long as possible.

In our study of English at the high school level, we should focus on reading and writing – a lot – with the goal of interpreting and analyzing literature that advances the cultural capital of our students. All these platitudes about creativity, critical thinking, 21st century skills, collaboration, and the like are not legitimate outcomes in themselves, although they may be subsequent by-products of a knowledge-rich, joined-up curriculum. Dispense with the ambiguity so evident in the general outcomes listed above. Students, even those in secondary school, thrive on clarity and structure. Let those elements guide the development of a new program of study.

I would urge the education ministry of Alberta to separate the wheat from the chaff in this curriculum review, so I have time to read and study a breadth of literature, in depth, with my students, so that they may broaden their horizons and go into the wider world with the foundational knowledge that will open doors for them. I would encourage the ministry to stop being beholden to special interests, especially those with a particular agenda to push, or even to sell, and focus on the most effective methods and practices that will empower teachers to teach and students to learn. In short, I hope the ministry seizes this opportunity to improve education and schooling for the children of Alberta.