Why Are We So Afraid of Knowledge?

I’ve had a bit of time to review the newly released draft scope and sequence for several curricula here in Alberta, although I’m largely focused on English Language Arts, since that’s my area of specialization. I was hoping that some of the trepidation surrounding this process would be allayed, but this has not been the case. Having seen these initial documents, my worries about the direction of curriculum, and, thus, education, in Alberta, have been largely confirmed.

The K-12 draft scope and sequence for ELA is comprised of three “essential understandings” under which ostensible details are developed. The three “essential understandings” are:

  • Exploring a variety of texts provides opportunities to experience enjoyment, appreciate artistry and craft, broaden perspectives and worldviews, and build cross-cultural awareness.
  • Exploring the multiple ways that meaning is constructed and expressed fosters purposeful and effective communication in all areas of life.
  • Exploring the relationship between thought and language strengthens understanding of self, culture and others, and empowers individuals to communicate ethically and responsibly in an ever-changing world.

This overarching direction permeates kindergarten through grade 12, with 18 “guiding questions” that purportedly deepen from one grade level to the next, but are based on the same fundamental idea. The “possible concepts and procedures” under each “guiding question” appear to be geared to each grade level, although most seem very skewed to favour a progressive ideology and constructivist teaching and learning philosophy. I will leave this last bit for now, mostly because it is framed as a suggestive, rather than prescriptive, element.

The main problem with the three “essential understandings,” as I see it, is a lack of clarity and an inordinate risk of unlimited interpretations. If I am to have students “[explore] a variety of texts [to provide] opportunities to experience enjoyment,” what does this actually mean? Why leave an “essential understanding” so deliberately vague? Would a semester of study steeped in the Marvel universe of comic books, films, and Reddit posts meet the criteria of this “essential understanding?” What does it mean to “[explore] multiple ways that meaning is constructed and expressed?” This strikes me as being rooted in postmodern philosophy, which would mean the curriculum is going in a deliberate direction, without actually being clear about that intention – kind of like a dog whistle: only those “in the know” can hear it. My bottom line: on the surface, none of these “essential understandings” strike me as particularly problematic, if I’m interpreting them correctly, because they don’t really articulate anything that we wouldn’t have had as a goal for the past many decades. But therein lies the problem: they’re far too open to interpretation and, ironically, they don’t provide an understanding of our focus in English Language Arts.

The guiding questions do not clarify a focus, and are more problematic for me. There are 7 guiding questions pertaining to the first essential understanding, most of which are too vague in my estimation, but not inherently troubling. The second essential understanding contains 6 guiding questions, two of which are more problematic:

  • What are the implications of expressing ideas, experiences and feelings in different contexts? (for grade 12)

Again, what does this mean? There doesn’t appear to be any hierarchy of skills or any description of a focus on, say, reading and writing. These two “express [ions of] ideas, experiences and feelings” are listed among others, seemingly equally, like speaking, listening, representing, and feelings.

  • How can inquiry lead to innovation and societal change? (for grade 12)

What is this supposed to mean, particularly in the context of ELA? If this is a “guiding question,” the possible answer(s) should be plain, at least for an experienced teacher of the subject. I have no idea what I would be expected to do with this.

The third essential understanding contains 5 guiding questions, three of which are quite problematic:

  • How can language be used to collaborate without the loss of individuality and independent thought? (for grade 12)
  • What are the consequences of privileging some voices and omitting others? (for grade 12)
  • What is the ethical responsibility to use language to foster reconciliation? (for grade 12)

These guiding questions are heavy-handed and arguably hint at a political bent. If we are to study multicultural literature, which we should, the document should state that. What if a teacher decides that the “answer” is that there is no consequence to “privileging some voices and omitting others” and skews his or her syllabus to that end? What if a class decides that there is no “ethical responsibility to use language to foster reconciliation?” This kind of vague language is potentially dangerous, both politically and educationally.

In a recent ATA editorial, Jonathan Teghtmeyer criticized David Staples, an Edmonton journalist, for asserting that the Social Studies draft scope and sequence lacks a focus on history. One of the guiding questions in that document is: “In what ways have individuals and groups in what is now Canada taken action to effect change?” Teghtmeyer claims that this “is clearly an effort to explore historically significant moments such as the Riel rebellion or the women’s suffrage movement.” Herein lies the problem: it’s not clear at all. If that’s what teachers are meant to teach, why not state that explicitly? Then teachers would know that this is what they’re supposed to teach and students would know that this is what they’re supposed to learn. There would be no guessing as to what historical references would be on the PAT or diploma exams and we could actually sequence a curriculum that builds on foundational knowledge from one grade to the next. We could even ensure that students at a certain grade level develop background knowledge for future grades and topics of study so that they can reference this knowledge and make connections – even between subject areas. Instead, what happens now is that students learn about the Riel rebellion in grade 4, and maybe again in grade 6, and perhaps in grade 11 their teacher spends some time on it, too. The same is true in English. Some teacher decides to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in grade 8, and when students get to grade 10, and that novel is on the list, they’ve already read it. Because the teacher is prepared to teach that novel, he or she may simply have students do it again. The opportunity cost in this case, as in the Social Studies example, is significant. Instead of broadening students’ knowledge base by studying three different historical events, or two different novels, we’re bothering ourselves with vague, indistinct, and ill-defined “guiding questions.”

The strengths of what I’ve seen in this document are limited, although I appreciate the explicit mention of phonics, grammar, spelling, conventions, and morphology. I also appreciate attention being paid to oral communication. However, the degree of detail that is expressed in defining completely ethereal concepts that are far too subject to interpretation is rather astonishing. I would much rather see such precision go into the mechanics of the domain, particularly as it relates to reading and writing. The definition of “texts” is too broad, and I would hope to see a supporting document that provides guidelines in order to ensure that an adequate level of rigour is maintained. The draft scope and sequence pays too much attention to individual interpretations, a preoccupation with self and personal feelings and experiences, as well as a disconcerting focus on identity. I would like to see a more academic scope and sequence, particularly in the early grades where clear concepts and goals must be defined. An example to consider is the U.K.’s national curriculum for English; this is the direction I wish we were going. Unfortunately, we seem to be going the direction of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which is not working out so well, as Alan Convery so brilliantly outlines here. We should heed his warning, because we are most certainly on the wrong path.

These draft scopes and sequences seem to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


*NOTE: Neglecting the use of the Oxford comma is due to quotations from the draft itself. I would never neglect to use the Oxford comma.