Alberta’s New Curriculum: Ditching the Regressive Theory of Discovery Learning

April 12, 2021 Updated: April 12, 2021


Alberta is hoping to pilot a new K-6 curriculum soon, and not surprisingly it has upset some parents, the NDP, and the teachers’ union. There are a lot of entrenched interests standing in the way, but hopefully Albertans will see this curriculum implemented. It is guided by the best evidence about student learning and developing critical thinking skills.

The new curriculum rejects the discovery-learning model promoted in Canadian curricula since the 2000s. Discovery learning’s roots go back much earlier, to American theorist John Dewey who advanced the idea in the early 1900s. It has remained popular ever since, despite its failings.

Several of the western provinces introduced discovery learning into math curricula around 2006. As a result, Alberta’s students have only become less math proficient. Writing in The Edmonton Journal, David Staples reports, “Major international tests started to show a doubling of our innumeracy rate, from about six per cent in 2007 to about 12 per cent in 2019.” Similar trends occur wherever discovery math has been introduced. For that reason, Anna Stokke, chair of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg, has called discovery learning “academic child abuse.”

About a decade ago discovery-learning was repackaged as “twenty-first century learning” and pushed into British Columbia’s entire curriculum from top to bottom. Parents were told their children would magically learn to think critically without having to learn nearly as much content as before. By supposedly discovering things for themselves, students would arrive at “deeper learning.” But since its introduction, B.C. students’ scores on the international PISA test have dropped.

And a major study out of York University in 2019 found only 44 percent of university students surveyed in Ontario would be deemed “functionally prepared to do well in their university studies.” Alarmingly, an almost equal number of students were deemed as at risk, and 16 percent were classed as dysfunctional. “The rhetoric about [high schools] preparing them with the literacy and critical thinking skills is not matched by the reality,” the authors concluded.

The new Alberta curriculum will require students to know facts and master subject-content. It doesn’t prescribe teaching methods, however. Teachers can still use projects, field trips, and other means of conveying content. But the expectation is that students must have a basic grasp of subject matter as a precondition to thinking clearly. “If students don’t have a basic knowledge of history, geography, science, fine arts, and other subjects,” the curriculum’s guiding framework states, “they don’t know what they don’t know. On the other hand, students with a broad knowledge base built up systematically over time are better equipped to conduct useful research to fill knowledge gaps for a lifetime of learning.”

Nonetheless, NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman complains, “The curriculum is based on forcing young children to memorize long lists of trivia, rather than building their understanding and their learning and fostering critical thinking.”

Sadly, author and former teacher Daisy Christodoulou would find this objection all too familiar. In her 2014 book “Seven Myths About Education” (which should be mandatory reading for anyone assessing the new Alberta curriculum), she argues criticism such as Hoffman’s creates a false dichotomy between facts and deeper learning.

“Critics of fact-learning will often pull out a completely random fact and say something like: who needs to know the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Why does it matter?” she writes. But it does matter, because “learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present day and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding.” And the research supports Christodoulou.

For example, in 2006 educational psychologists Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark examined the effectiveness of discovery learning. Pure discovery learning, they found, overwhelms students, especially new learners, with new information they can’t process. In fact, discovery learning disadvantages students from poorer background who often come to school with less background knowledge to begin with than some of their wealthier peers. But if students have committed a lot of facts to long-term memory, they build a “schema” within which to fit new knowledge. Only on the basis of this stored knowledge can they begin to reason clearly. This is why students need to memorize multiplication tables, know math formulae, historical events, and scientific theories. And a content-rich curriculum also stands a much better chance of closing the achievement gap between learners from different socio-economic backgrounds. It turns out “critical thinking” is not a “generic skill” that you can master without knowing much.

I find this to be borne out in my university classes. My first-year students have a hard time thinking clearly about Canadian politics because high school hasn’t taught them much about our democratic institutions and history. Until they acquire basic knowledge, they cannot engage in very interesting debates or discussions. They have opinions, sometimes quite strongly held. They are good at criticising things, but this isn’t critical thinking. They say they want to reform the voting process, for example, but they don’t know our prime minister is not directly elected by the people. Often their views are just distorted claims derived from social media or their friends. In the absence of knowing a lot of accurate facts, it’s not as though students believe nothing. It’s worse. They can believe just about anything. That’s not good for the future of our liberal democratic society.

Hoffman is wrong. The new curriculum isn’t “forcing” kids to learn random facts for no reason. It brings knowledge back into the curriculum because research shows this is the only way that kids will become truly independent thinkers.

To its credit, the Alberta government is finally putting the real interests of students ahead of a commitment to an outdated theory from the 1900s, and it is now heading in a better direction. It is one parents should support.

David W. Livingstone, Ph.D., is a professor in the Liberal Studies and Political Studies departments at Vancouver Island University. He has published articles and book reviews on a variety of topics, including Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s contribution to Canadian confederation.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.