Controversial new curriculum aims to get back to basics

·4 min read

Spring cleaning is an optimal time for homeowners to tidy their properties and throw out old possessions in anticipation of a new season.

The Alberta government announced March 29 it’s taking an “out with the old, in with the new” approach to education by getting back to basics in its new K-6 curriculum, set to be piloted in elementary schools this fall.

During the curriculum announcement, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the changes came as a result of the government heeding concerns about children lacking the essential knowledge and basic skills that would equip them to succeed outside the classroom.

“I believe in my heart that this new curriculum will position our children for great success and give them the best chance to reach their potential,” the minister said.

The curriculum focuses on four educational pillars: literacy, numeracy, citizenship and practical skills.

Each category brings a renewed emphasis on fundamental skills, such as sounding out words and basic algorithm methods in math, such as memorizing multiplication tables.

Basic computer coding is also being introduced as early as kindergarten, and each grade will learn to develop financial literacy and skills, like creating a budget or a business plan.

The social studies section also aims to develop gratitude to past generations who helped build the modern Alberta society while instilling a responsibility to continue it into the future.

The curriculum emphasizes core components of western European history, such as Greek and Roman mythology, the development of the Abrahamic religions, medieval society, and the colonization of North America.

Age-appropriate lessons on consent and autonomy children have over their own bodies will also begin in elementary schools.

While the curriculum includes the contributions of minority groups to Alberta’s history and deals with historical injustices, critics are concerned the curriculum focuses too much on material not directly relevant to children’s current needs.

“Adriana LaGrange promised that every student would see themselves in her curriculum, but that isn’t true,” said Sarah Hoffman, NDP critic for education.

“What message does it send to indigenous students when they are forced to memorize dates in European history for years before learning about indigenous history in their classroom?”

Although the curriculum’s advisory group was composed of parents, teachers and subject experts, lack of input from teachers currently teaching in the classroom was a large oversight, said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

“Teachers understand the readiness of young students for different pieces of content and how to bring curriculum to life in the classroom,” he said. “To develop a curriculum without incorporating a grassroots, classroom-based understanding of how students learn could set our students up for failure.”

Expecting teachers to adopt entirely new lesson plans as part of the fall pilot, Mr. Schilling added, was problematic, given current uncertainties surrounding Covid-19.

“We still have a lot of pandemic ahead of us, and our current research shows that nine out of 10 Alberta teachers are expressing concern about piloting a new curriculum during these uncertain times,” he said.

“What was released today is barely a plan, and certainly not a plan for success.”

The breadth of the changes, says Savi Houldin, president for Local 14 of the ATA, which covers Livingstone Range School Division, is also problematic.

“It’s one more thing to throw on to teachers,” she says. “It’s not just one curriculum, one core area that we’re changing — we’re upsetting the whole apple cart.”

“Teachers are much more concerned about their kids’ mental health right now,” she continues, “so to throw an all-new curriculum with no supports and no planning — I’m very concerned about our teachers.”

Ms. Houldin says the curriculum material is valid information to teach, but questions how appropriate topics like the founding of Rome or the Bubonic plague are to eight-year-olds in Grade 2.

The current social studies curriculum has children learning about their own community and industries here in Pincher Creek, which is then compared to other communities in Canada.

“My most recent classroom teaching was in Grade 2, and it was a really good curriculum,” she says.

The proposed curriculum, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to consider if the subject matter meets where children are developmentally.

“Kids learn through those connections,” says Ms. Houldin. “We’re taking kids from something that’s very concrete for them [to] a new curriculum with concepts that are beyond, generally, what the kids are able to understand and comprehend. A lot of the concepts are things we might have been teaching in junior high, to introducing them to grades 3 and 4.”

Individual school divisions have the opportunity to volunteer to teach the new curriculum this September. Several school divisions across the province have indicated they will not teach the curriculum, including Edmonton Public Schools. Livingstone Range School Division will discuss its involvement in the near future.

The draft curriculum is available online at curriculum.learnalberta.ca/curriculum/en. The provincial government is also encouraging public feedback through an online survey at bit.ly/AB-C-survey.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze