Alberta social studies curriculum being tested by a handful of private school teachers only

Few Alberta teachers are pilot testing social studies, fine arts and science portions of a new draft curriculum, CBC News found through a freedom of information request. (Gagliardi Photography/Shutterstock - image credit)
Few Alberta teachers are pilot testing social studies, fine arts and science portions of a new draft curriculum, CBC News found through a freedom of information request. (Gagliardi Photography/Shutterstock - image credit)

Just a couple of Alberta teachers are piloting each grade level of proposed new social studies and fine arts curricula, according to data obtained by CBC News.

The data shows teachers in 61 schools across the province are pilot testing the current drafts of most subjects.

The seven schools piloting social studies are private schools, according to information released in response to a CBC freedom of information request filed in September.

A breakdown by grade shows that one teacher is piloting the kindergarten social studies curriculum, three are testing Grade 5, and two teachers are trying all other elementary grade levels.

Curriculum experts say it would be invalid to conclude the results from such a limited scope would apply across the province.

"It was clear that most school authorities were profoundly uncomfortable testing this program of studies," said David Scott, an associate professor of curriculum and learning at the University of Calgary with expertise in social studies curriculum. "And we have in no way any sort of representative sample."

Teachers involved per school board

The current iteration of Alberta's proposed new elementary curriculum has been under fire since late 2020, when teachers and academics panned drafts leaked from the ministry.

The Alberta government has already pledged to rework the elementary social studies curriculum.

Critics say the United Conservative Party's approach is Eurocentric, relies on forced memorization over understanding and isn't based on current research about how children learn, among other criticisms.

Teachers, academics, Indigenous people, Francophones, Black Albertans and others say they've either been excluded from the process or their involvement was superficial and tokenistic.

In addition to a public survey and steps to gather feedback from school boards and other education organizations, the government also asked teachers to test the new material in classrooms.

Last year, the government said around 360 teachers — less than one per cent of the provincial total — would test all subjects in all grades with around 7,800 students.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange had said she hoped up to 10 per cent of schools would be involved. Fifty six school boards representing about 95 per cent of students in the public system refused to participate.

After the government refused to provide further details on the pilot, CBC filed a freedom of information request for a list of schools involved, the number of teachers and how many were piloting each subject at each grade level.

In January, the education ministry released some of that information, but refused to identify any of the schools.

Pilot participation versus student population

Like social studies, few wanted to pilot fine arts, with one, two or three teachers doing so at each grade level. The disclosure doesn't say whether the teachers are testing music, visual arts, dance, drama or a combination of those curricula.

Data show teachers were most interested in piloting the math and English language arts and literature curriculum. But they had little interest in trying out social studies, science or fine arts.

The documents also note that some teachers are testing parts, but not all, of a grade or subject.

The formal classroom pilot phase is running from September 2021 until the end of this month. Teachers are asked to give monthly feedback using a standard form.

In December, LaGrange announced the new phys ed, math and English curricula would be mandatory in all elementary schools beginning September 2022. She delayed the introduction of four other subjects, including science, social studies, fine arts and French.

Piloting approach a concern

CBC showed the pilot data to five academics and educators with experience writing and implementing curriculum in four Canadian provinces.

Although methods vary by province and subject, all academics had concerns about Alberta's current piloting approach.

The purpose of piloting, says University of Alberta social studies education professor Carla Peck, is to see if the curriculum is clear for the teachers who have to use it.

They'll need to figure out how to make the objectives come to life, what resources to use and how to adapt it to the needs of the children in front of them, Peck said.

All five said the student population in the pilot schools is not diverse enough to draw conclusions about how the curriculum will work for all Alberta students.

Joanne Neal, a past Concordia University of Edmonton curriculum studies professor who also worked in a curriculum role with Alberta Education, said a pilot should include representation from urban, rural and remote schools, reflect racial and linguistic diversity, students with disabilities and those learning English.

She says there is a disproportionately large number of charter and private school teachers involved.

Teachers per subject and grade

Class sizes and parental involvement can be different between public and private schools, Neal said. She said the environments are not comparable.

"We don't have any such child as the average learner in Alberta," Neal said.

Alberta's six-month pilot timeline for 10 months of material also baffled observers.

Peck says the current social studies curriculum, which was introduced in 2007, included two years of optional pilot testing.

In British Columbia, the only other province to revamp curriculum in all subjects at the same time, teachers had an optional school year to try out the K-9 curriculum in 2015-16 before it became law. The high school curriculum was phased in over two years from 2017 to 2019, according to B.C, education ministry spokesperson Scott McKenzie.

Although that province didn't have exact numbers, he said, "thousands" of B.C. teachers trialled parts of the curriculum in classrooms before it became mandatory.

"This should be a scientific study," Neal said. "This is a massive undertaking. There are massive implications for our students. And, the academic rigour that should be applied to this does not appear to be there."

Risk of further marginalizing people

LaGrange's press secretary, Katherine Stavropoulos, did not answer a question about whether the government considers the pilot to be scientific.

Rachel Collishaw, president of the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers' Association, says inadequate representation in piloting increases the risk of further marginalizing people in minority communities, some of who already feel underrepresented in the draft curriculum.

"It doesn't look like they've made a lot of effort just from the numbers I can see," she said.

And without teacher buy-in, the government's attempt to change approaches could be futile, says University of British Columbia curriculum and pedagogy professor Lindsay Gibson.

"Teachers say, 'I close the door. And who's to know?'" Gibson said. He said they could teach a mix of old and new curriculum, or reject the new material entirely.

There's no word yet on whether the government is developing new standardized tests for the new curriculum.

Peck says the government's pilot approach is "haphazard" and a marked departure from how Alberta has tested curriculum in the past.

"There's a huge risk that it will just flop in the classroom, that it will fall flat," she said.

Teachers may not understand what's required of them, have time to work together to prepare, or have the right tools to teach it, she said.

In an emailed response, Stavropoulos did not directly answer any questions about the piloting data or address critics' concerns.

'Some positive success'

Just how smoothly elementary schools transition to the new math, English language arts and phys ed and wellness curricula next September could depend on the subject and the grade.

CBC contacted all school jurisdictions named in the FOI disclosure as participating in the pilot. Only leaders at Cardston-based Westwind public school division agreed to talk about their experiences.

Submitted by Westwind School Division
Submitted by Westwind School Division

Westwind gave elementary teachers the option of piloting curriculum. Twenty-one teachers signed up to try out English language arts (ELA). Four are also piloting math in the earliest grades, and two are trying science. About 17 per cent of their elementary teachers are involved.

"We've seen some positive success within our students," assistant superintendent Rob Doig said.

Older students shouldn't have noticed much of a difference in language arts, Doig said. Teachers who don't have specialist training in languages appreciated the specificity of the curriculum, he said.

"Our teachers still feel that there's enough flexibility to bring the passion and the love of reading in the other portions of the curriculum," he said.

Although the formal pilot only runs until February, Westwind plans to test the draft ELA for the rest of this school year.

Because of their participation in the pilot, the division feels ready to adopt the new K-6 ELA curriculum next year, Doig said.

He hopes the province moves more slowly in math, though. He's concerned about more complex concepts being moved into earlier grades.

An implementation panel is meeting until June to make recommendations on the curriculum roll-out schedule.