Big curriculum changes are coming in Alberta. On Aug. 6, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange held a press conference to announce her ministerial order for the department of education to rewrite the province’s curriculum.
Some of the upcoming changes include a stronger focus on literacy and numeracy, an emphasis on knowledge acquisition, and the removal of discovery/inquiry learning from the curriculum. These were a few of the recommendations made by an advisory panel chaired by former Edmonton school superintendent Angus McBeath.
These changes will take place soon, but not immediately. Because of the ongoing disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, no curriculum changes will be implemented in the upcoming school year. Some teachers are expected to begin piloting the new curriculum in the fall of 2021. Subsequent years will see the new curriculum outcomes implemented across the province at all grade levels.
Predictably, the minister’s announcement came under fire from education professors and teacher union activists. One social studies education professor at the University of Alberta went so far as to claim that the proposed changes contradict years of education research. In addition, Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling argued that there is no such thing as discovery/inquiry learning in the existing curriculum since it does not tell teachers how they must teach.
These claims are misleading.
While the curriculum does not explicitly tell teachers how to deliver their lessons, it does so implicitly. For example, a social studies curriculum that focuses on thematic instruction of broad-based topics such as colonialism, genocide, and diversity lends itself naturally to the discovery approach because students are not expected to memorize a lot of historical facts.
In contrast, a rigorous history curriculum that prescribes the study of specific people, events, and dates and expects that all students will know the material is most effectively taught by teachers with considerable expertise in the subject matter. The most efficient way to cover this material is for the teacher to engage in direct instruction. To ensure students master the content, teachers must hold them accountable with regular assignments and tests. This leads to a more traditional form of instruction.
Simply put, the content, or lack of content, in a curriculum heavily influences the type of instruction and assessment that students will experience in the classroom.
The same is true in other subject areas such as math. A curriculum that doesn’t require students to memorize times tables but encourages them to come up with their own ways of solving basic problems is tailor-made for the discovery/inquiry approach. In contrast, a content-rich curriculum that sequentially lays out the skills students must master at each grade level requires a more traditional approach to instruction and assessment.
One of the most common arguments against putting knowledge acquisition at the centre of the curriculum is that there is no need for students to memorize basic facts because they can simply look information up on the internet. These critics argue that it is more useful for students to apply knowledge to new problems than it is for them to commit specific knowledge to memory. They suggest that it’s more important to help students become critical thinkers than it is to make them “mindlessly” regurgitate information.
However, this argument overlooks the important connection between general knowledge in students’ minds and their reading comprehension. Give students an article to read on a topic they know nothing about, and they will struggle to understand it. But students will have little difficulty reading an article or book when they possess background knowledge about the topic. The more they already know, the more effectively they can read and understand new material. In other words, reading comprehension depends on background knowledge.
In addition, knowledge makes critical thinking possible. Students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. When asking a friend for advice, you first need to fill him or her in on the details behind your question. Otherwise the advice you will receive is unlikely to be helpful, no matter how intelligent your friend is. We know that critical thinking skills are largely useless unless they are situated in the context of subject-specific content knowledge. For this reason, school must ensure that students memorize facts and data in all subjects.
Far from being irrelevant pieces of trivia, factual knowledge provides students with the essential building blocks that makes higher-level learning possible. It is not hard to see why this is true.
Take two students, one who knows many facts about the Métis leader Louis Riel and the other student who has never heard about him. It shouldn’t take long to figure out which student is more likely to develop a deep understanding of the historical grievances of the Métis people.
Instead of fighting against Alberta’s education minister, education professors and teacher union leaders should lay down their arms and work with the province to develop a solid, knowledge-rich curriculum. This would result in a better education for virtually all students, and it would provide a model that other provinces could follow.
Alberta now has a prime opportunity to make some much-needed changes to the provincial curriculum. Hopefully, the education minister follows through with this positive direction.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.