What’s Really at Stake in Alberta’s Curriculum Controversy

September 17, 2022 Updated: September 17, 2022

Commentary 

A lengthy furor over Alberta’s plans to put greater emphasis on facts and memorization in provincial schools has not abated with the start of the new school year.

In March 2021, Premier Jason Kenney’s government announced its intention to remake the entire kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum all at once. This ambitious undertaking marked a shift back to a more traditional “content rich” instructional approach. It was also a deliberate reaction to the previous NDP government’s curriculum efforts, which had emphasized ideology over content.

Political opponents predictably complained the Kenney government’s first draft of its curriculum plan was racist and Eurocentric. Some academics claimed it was too content-heavy for young children, favoured “passive” rote-memorization over “active” hands-on learning, and was unsupported by current research. An initial lack of consultation might be considered the biggest problem, as it was a missed opportunity to explain the curriculum’s merits to parents and other stakeholders and make adjustments as necessary.

To allay the ongoing controversy, the province decided to roll out the changes in phases, with only a few subjects getting the new treatment this school year.

But we need to realize there is more at stake here than just competing classroom methods or political culture wars. Alberta’s curriculum debate actually gets to the heart of what makes a society function and how schools can best foster independent-minded citizens.

The child-centred “skills” education favoured by Alberta’s NDP and popular in much of North America today (also known as progressivist, constructivist, developmental, individualist, or project-based learning) emphasizes developing general skills such as “reading comprehension” and “critical thinking.”

Specific facts and information form only a small part of the required learning material: what content exists is “child-centred”—that is, chosen by a child or teacher as a means to develop a particular skill. Constructivist knowledge arises from the child’s individual inquiry and exploration, instead of through whole-class absorption via lectures and memorization handed down by the teacher. A skills teacher is a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”

Significantly, skills-based teaching virtually guarantees students in different classrooms will be exposed to different content, even within the same grade in the same school. There is little opportunity for accumulating common knowledge across the entire student body. Supposedly fostering every child’s special individual potential and creativity, this approach prevents consistency and commonality across what is learned.

In contrast, a knowledge-based curriculum, such as Alberta is proposing, focuses on traditional fact-based knowledge of different subjects—math, science, reading and writing, literature, history, geography and civics—carefully sequenced from kindergarten to grade 12. Each grade builds on topics learned in the previous one, deepening the subject matter knowledge in a brick-by-brick way. The “skills” learned arise from the children’s mastery of the subjects; and the information learned is common across all schools.

While Alberta’s new content-rich approach has been dismissed by critics as unscientific and retrograde, this “core knowledge” pedagogy actually boasts an impressive body of supporting research. Much of this comes from the work of literary critic turned education reformer E.D. Hirsch, Jr. of the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, an American non-profit institution that has developed a “core knowledge” curriculum template used in an estimated 15,000 public, private and charter schools across the United States.

The utility and success of core knowledge teaching in the United States and abroad is thoroughly documented in Hirsch’s books, most recently “How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation and American Ethnicity.” Historically disadvantaged students in some of America’s poorest, minority school districts (in Alexandria City, Virginia, and South Bronx, New York for example) became high academic achievers when their schools switched from skills to core knowledge curriculums.

In Germany, Sweden, and France, test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) plummeted following child-centred education reforms in the 1980s and later. In Sweden, such curriculum changes in 2000 led to the biggest drop ever recorded in PISA tests. Sweden reversed this disastrous outcome by re-emphasizing core knowledge pedagogy in 2012.

Plus, there are decades of academic research in cognitive psychology that supports the case for a content-rich, fact-filled curriculum such as Alberta is developing. Building in stages upon a core knowledge base reflects how long and short-term memory work.

This is more than mere “rote memorization.” When applied consistently across classrooms, schools and entire jurisdictions, the effect extends beyond the individual to form a common body of knowledge generating a completely different kind of memory—a collective national memory.

The greatest benefit of a core knowledge education lies in how it can create and nourish our ability to communicate. Having a shared set of facts and understandings allows a citizenry to productively engage with one another. Rather than talk past one another, as we increasingly seem to do today, it allows for the possibility of a truly national conversation.

But unless students receive the same content regardless of where they are situated, and can thus agree on the meaning of their own national culture and character, such a sense of commonality is impossible to achieve. Without shared knowledge, what is there to unify Canadians?

A longer version of this commentary first appeared in C2C Journal.

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

Lorrie Clark
Lorrie Clark is professor emeritus of English at Trent University. Her doctoral thesis at the University of Virginia was directed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.