Alberta's on-again, off-again school curriculum is back on the drafting table.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said on Thursday she has approved a new guiding vision for K-12 education in Alberta that emphasizes knowledge and skill acquisition, literacy and numeracy and instilling students with a strong sense of civic duty.
LaGrange is now asking her department staff to revise drafts of the incoming school curriculum with those goals in mind. Exactly how it will change documents already crafted and released under the former NDP government is unknown.
"Ultimately, this new ministerial order is a return to proven teaching methods that will set up Alberta students for rich personal and work lives," LaGrange said at a news conference.
However, some critics find the government's new direction on education to be baffling and regressive.
LaGrange hopes to have new drafts of the K-6 curriculum on her desk by the end of autumn and ready for release to the public by early 2021. Select teachers would begin testing the new elementary curriculum starting in fall 2021. The next year, new grades 7 through 10 outcomes should be ready for classroom testing, and all elementary schools would pivot to the new curriculum.
LaGrange also promised social studies curriculum would be free from political bias and offer history lessons with an objective understanding of the history of Alberta, Canada and the world.
Financial literacy will also be woven throughout the curriculum, the minister said.
She said Alberta will move away from approaches she called "discovery" or "constructivist" learning.
Curriculum became a political football
Moves to replace Alberta's curriculum, which consists of a patchwork of subjects written separately at different times, started nearly a decade ago under the former Progressive Conservative government.
In 2016, the NDP government committed to get the work done by 2022, rolling out all subjects simultaneously in English in French. Some of the curricular outcomes were written more than 30 years ago, before cellphones and the Internet. The NDP's vision was to link expectations in every subject to basic understanding of literacy and numeracy. They said the curriculum should be more culturally diverse and address the risks of climate change. They said they gathered feedback from more than 100,000 people and organizations during the process.
In 2017, when now-Premier Jason Kenney returned to Alberta with a vision to unite two right-wing parties and win the legislature, the curriculum became a political football. He claimed the writing process was too secretive and swore that if he found any socialist ideology in the documents, his future government would run them through the shredder.
Critics within the education sector said Kenney's view showed a profound misunderstanding of how curriculum is constructed.
The NDP government released an approved new K-4 curriculum in 2018 and writing was ongoing on grades 5 to 9.
Once elected in 2019, the United Conservative Party government pushed the pause button.
LaGrange appointed an advisory panel to review the work done so far and craft a new vision document for Alberta education. In December, the panel released recommendations, including an increased focus on readying students for the world of work, emphasizing Indigenous knowledge and history and adding new numeracy and literacy tests yearly in grades 1 through 5.
The ministry also conducted more surveys, eliciting another 8,500 responses.
LaGrange's press secretary, Colin Aitchison, said the government has also brought in nine "subject matter experts" in math, science, social studies, language arts, anti-racism, health and wellness and the arts to "assist in the development of curriculum."
They will work to "ensure Alberta's future curriculum focuses on the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy and core knowledge," he said.
LaGrange said Thursday that work on the curriculum can now resume.
Advisory panel chair Angus McBeath, a former Edmonton Public Schools superintendent, said schools should instill good character in students. He gave the example of shopping for a used car, saying people should feel confident a car salesperson educated in Alberta would have learned honesty and integrity in school.
He said all students should recognize themselves in Alberta's curriculum, regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Critics say minister confused education concepts
Carla Peck, a University of Alberta professor of social studies education, who also serves as a reviewer for the social studies curriculum, said she was disappointed and confused by Thursday's announcement.
She said the minister and the panel misunderstood and mixed up several educational concepts in their remarks and documents.
The direction the government and advisory panel are taking doesn't reflect current research on the best ways of teaching social studies, she said.
"I can't really any longer brag to my colleagues across Canada that Alberta is going to have a sort of cutting-edge curriculum document, at least in social studies," she said.
She worries Alberta Education will now amend the curriculum drafts to step away from teaching students about concepts, and instead, demand students know lengthy lists of facts.
"You want to turn people off of history? Tell them to memorize eight chapters from a textbook and then give them an exam," she said. "Students will hate it, and they're not going to remember anything after the fact."
Reporters also challenged LaGrange on Thursday to identify bias within the curriculum documents already written. The minister instead pointed to instances where teachers used worksheets or delivered lessons on climate change she disagreed with. The curriculum currently in use in Alberta classrooms was developed by former conservative governments.
"It is very disturbing that the minister of education does not understand the difference between curriculum and materials," Peck said.
Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling also said the minister misconstrued educational concepts in Thursday's news conference.
He said it's important a new curriculum outlines what teachers are expected to teach, but stays away from prescribing how teachers deliver those lessons.
Schilling is grateful for the delay until 2021, saying teachers are focused on coping with restarting in-person classes safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the government made the curriculum announcement to create a distraction from its school re-entry plan, which she said was inadequate and unsafe.
"We can't shove kids into unsafe environments," Hoffman said. "If she can't keep kids safe, and clearly this is not a priority for her, she has no business being the minister of education."
The time to implement the curriculum was a year ago under the NDP's original plan, she said.
— With files from Mirna Djukic