C is for Curriculum

This week’s edition of the Edmonton Journal Politics Podcast, The C is for Curriculum edition, was largely devoted to the curriculum review underway in Alberta. Emma Graney hosted the episode with panelists Graham Thomson, Stuart Thomson (no relation), and Paula Simons. Their conversation was representative of some of the concerns regarding this endeavor, and I thought I might address some of my main issues here.

The discussion began with the controversy surrounding the composition of the working groups developing these new curricula. It’s been said that approximately 300 people across subject areas are involved, although I’ve recently heard that it’s approaching 400. Stuart Thomson, at least initially, appeared to be in favour of releasing the names of these contributors, citing that most of them are teachers, a position with which Simons and Graham Thomson reasonably disagreed. However, the composition of these groups, if not the actual names, is important.

The designation of these people as “teachers” may be a bit misleading. In Alberta, all people with a teaching certificate working in or for schools are defined as teachers. This includes principals and other administrators, counselors, consultants, and various ATA officials. Without disparaging these important roles, many of these people have not been in the classroom for many years. This is an important distinction when the public may have the impression that actual classroom teachers, who interact daily with students and curriculum, are tasked with the curriculum review. This is not the case.

I, myself, was nominated by my superintendent to be on the senior high ELA working group and was not selected. I received no notice of this, nor did I receive an invitation to apply again for an upcoming circuit. About a month after I was nominated, I learned that the working groups had convened for their first meeting, and simply realized that I had not been selected. However, in another district, I learned of two people who were selected for ELA and two for Social Studies, none of whom are currently classroom teachers. One has not been in the classroom for almost ten years. This may be of interest to the public who assume that “most” of the working group participants are teachers, and the perception of what this title actually entails. Incidentally, this is a similar problem when class size is averaged in Alberta. Because of the nature of the “teacher” designation, class sizes are averaged to include even those teachers who don’t teach. So if I have 39 students in a class, and we include myself, the principal, and the counselor (the latter two may not teach a single class), the average class size would be calculated as being comprised of 13 students.

Both Simons and Graham Thomson recognized the valid concerns regarding individual teachers’ names being released to the public, particularly considering some of the vitriol we’ve all seen on social media. Graham Thomson noted that releasing the names could lead to ad hominem attacks on people based on their political affiliations rather than a debate of the ideas they present. This is an absolutely legitimate assumption that could well come to fruition. However, we must acknowledge that personal philosophies and politics will undoubtedly influence an individual’s input, and if certain individuals are selected for this reason, perhaps those philosophies and politics will guide the entire endeavour. I’m not sure how we can get around this conundrum. Given the fact that I understand the need for anonymity all too well, I might suggest a more detailed release of the composition of the groups rather than individual names, along with tasking a small contingent to speak publicly, or at least to teacher colleagues, about the specifics regarding the progress of a given subject area.

I thoroughly enjoy Paula Simons’s writing and I agree with her perspectives most of the time. However, she was a bit inconsistent in this conversation; I want to call this out because I think this is true of many Albertans when it comes to education. We’ve all been through school, so we’ve experienced it first-hand; perhaps we have children or grandchildren currently in the system and we have even more skin in the game. Undoubtedly, most people have some kind of opinion on some aspect of education, and given the adage about a little knowledge, this might be problematic. Simons began her defense of maintaining the privacy of teacher participants by suggesting that the curriculum review has nothing to do with partisan politics, but at the same time acknowledging that governments always try to infuse a particular view or doctrine into the process. This is important, because both things cannot be simultaneously true, particularly given that we don’t know who is actually involved. There was discussion of the previous administration’s desire to imbue young Alberta students with “entrepreneurial spirit” and this government’s goal of making them “agents of change.” For my international readers, I’ll bet you can guess the political stripe of each of these two administrations. Stuart Thompson also revealed a bit of cognitive dissonance when he suggested that such language isn’t necessarily political and then later claimed that a political slant is unavoidable, though not necessarily a bad thing, because people will have different ideas regarding what curriculum should do. I think we need to be open about the fact that philosophy and politics will influence the process, and I also think we should work to minimize that influence.

Simons also discussed a time when teachers were told not to teach phonics, but claimed that good teachers simply ignored this and taught students how to sound out words anyway. She noted that when new ways of teaching math rolled around, good teachers still did Mad Minutes. However, not all teachers are this subversive. Many students were taught to read using the far less effective whole language method and we all know that many students do not know their basic math facts. Simons warned that we must be careful regarding fads in education and teaching/learning, yet she acknowledged the detrimental effects of acquiescing to them in a personal account of having experienced a child-directed “open classroom” in grade three, where she chose to read voraciously, but didn’t learn math. Where were the “good teachers” to mitigate this disaster? If curricular goals are not clearly articulated, we are at the mercy of myriad interpretations, as Simons herself pointed out regarding the current Social Studies curriculum, which she claimed has drifted too far from history and more to social theory “unmoored from . . . pragmatic reality.”

Emma Graney explained that curriculum is based on broad principles and that it does not dictate what teachers actually do in classrooms in terms of delivery and implementation. She said that “teachers can . . . pick and choose what bits they want to do” and that a curriculum redesign won’t change this. While I would say she’s actually right about this assertion, I would suggest that this is a significant problem. In response to Graney’s claim that “good teachers will keep on teaching really well,” I would ask how we’d address problems that arise when students don’t happen to have “good” teachers? I know in Alberta we don’t discuss this, and even to suggest the possibility might be a professional-code-of-conduct-grey-area for me, but the reality is that if curriculum is too broad, we can’t reasonably manage how that curriculum is taught. This does not necessarily come down to “good” teachers and “bad” teachers. One can easily complete an education degree in Alberta without ever having heard of Hirsch, Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, or Project Follow Through. If all you’ve ever been taught is through the lens of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, then you’re not a “bad” teacher, you’re just not fully informed – and your classroom practice will likely demonstrate a particular bent. Currently, we’re in the thick of such a problem now, which is why I’m so hopeful that a review/redesign will allow us to course-correct.

Simons advocated for curricula that would teach students to be “critical thinkers,” but this is not some generic skill that can be taught in a vacuum, as Dr. D. Willingham, among many others, writes here. Stuart Thomson lamented the depressing idea of students sitting in classrooms doing multiplication tables, but these broad, generic goals of critical thinking and collaboration in a student-centred environment geared toward individual learning have been demonstrated to be far less effective than a strong, knowledge/content-based curriculum delivered through whole-class explicit instruction.  Simons, herself, detailed the dangers of allowing an 8-year-old to make choices about her educational interests and the lifelong ramifications of such an enterprise. I’m nervous that we’re still seeing so many of these buzzwords in the early stages of this curriculum review, and I hope this is addressed at some point soon.

This latest installment of the Edmonton Journal Politics Podcast was well worth the time, and I appreciate these journalists bringing some important issues to light. At this point, we’re all just making hypotheses about where this curriculum review is going, since nothing concrete has been released yet. The main point of the initial topic of the podcast seems to have been about the release of individual names of those on the working groups. While I agree that there is a legitimate and valid apprehension concerning making such information public, I’m hoping for at least some measure of transparency, which we have not seen thus far. How in-line is this process with the previous government’s Inspiring Education vision? Is there a clear commitment to provincially administered standardized tests? Surely these are broad enough questions that could be answered, even at this early stage. I’d like ministry spokespeople to move away from abstract platitudes and instead begin to address tangible aspects of the review process.