Repeating history: Why some educators say province's curriculum is failing students

·6 min read
When it comes to history, several experts say New Brunswick’s education system is failing students.  (iStock - image credit)
When it comes to history, several experts say New Brunswick’s education system is failing students. (iStock - image credit)

By the time New Brunswick students graduate from high school, they should know about Canada's political, social and economic systems, understand human rights issues and recognize forms of discrimination.

That's the Department of Education's stance.

But that's not what's actually happening, according to several experts in the fields of history and education.

They argue that the province's history and social studies curricula have multiple issues, one of the most significant of which is the fact that they are outdated.

Alan Sears, a professor emeritus in education at the University of New Brunswick, says that in the 40-plus years he has worked in the field, the province has never done a full K-12 curriculum revamp.

For example, material in one grade was updated in 2019, while the material in the next grade was last updated in 1997.

Since then, Sears said, the philosophy of education has changed, our understanding of history has become more complex and expectations of schools have shifted, with a desire for an increased focus on history and a more diverse lesson plan.

As an example, Sears cited a theme area in the Grade 10 history course, "The Glory That Was Greece."

"This is the idea that ancient Greek civilization is the foundation for Western civilization," he said.

But over the years, there has been a lot of rethinking of long-accepted ideas.

"One of my students [who] was of Chinese background went on to teach that course," Sears said.

"She wrote me an email and sent me a series of questions like, 'Why was Greece so glorious? Why was it more glorious than ancient China or India, for example?' Well, those are all good questions."

What do students learn?

Throughout their elementary school years, New Brunswick students are taught social studies rather than history.

While social studies does include aspects of history, it also includes aspects of geography, civics and even health.

Schools do not offer an exclusive focus on history until Grade 10.

CBC
CBC

In these classes, subjects include the agricultural revolution, Greek and Roman history, the European Middle Ages and the start of the modern era.

In Grade 11, students learn about the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, the Holocaust and the early Cold War era.

According to curriculum documents on the department's website, there are no mandated units devoted to Indigenous, Black or Asian heritage.

Province looking to update curriculum

During the 2020 election, the Progressive Conservatives included revamping the province's history curriculum as part of their platform.

"We will ensure an educational review of Indigenous and Black history and will work with those communities to ensure materials reflect accurate and up-to-date information available," the party's 2020 election platform stated.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said there's "some truth" to the assertion that the curriculum isn't adequately preparing students.

However, he said, the province is working on the history curriculum.

"Some of that work has already been underway and is underway," he said.

Other aspects of it will take "another year or so to get rolling," to allow for time to consult properly, Cardy said.

"Obviously we're going to talk about being more inclusive. Making sure that we're actually reaching out and talking to folks in different communities is an important part of that [and] takes a bit of time."

Cardy said he's aiming to have a new high school history curriculum available in two years, after consultations with teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

'Eurocentric' history curriculum

Jeff Brown, a University of New Brunswick history professor, calls the current history curriculum Eurocentric and "militaristic."

It subscribes to the "great men" view of history and pays little attention to women or people of colour, he said.

In his experience, teachers who go against the curriculum are actually doing their students a favour.

"I think the teachers that do well with [the curriculum] are the teachers who ... undermine the curriculum, who question it and who get their students to think critically about the curriculum itself," Brown said.

Jordan Gill/CBC
Jordan Gill/CBC

Graham Nickerson, a PhD student at UNB who has researched his Black Loyalist ancestors, sees this as a major issue.

Nickerson said he has encountered it when going through his own children's lessons, and has tried to encourage schools to widen their focus and "cover topics that I knew the kids weren't learning."

James Rowinski, a PhD candidate in curriculum and instruction at the University of New Brunswick, said his children, who are Black, have also felt disillusioned by the lack of Black history in their classes.

When Black History Month comes around in February, "there's a kind of a discussion" for a few days, but that's about the extent of it, he said.

"Black history lasts for a week and it's very disconcerting for them, especially having a dad that's always pushing them to learn more and try to educate themselves about their own heritage."

A post-secondary disadvantage

The Eurocentric history curriculum becomes an even greater problem when students move on to post-secondary institutions, according to some educators.

Karen Robert, dean of history at St. Thomas University, said the curriculum at New Brunswick high schools leaves students at a disadvantage when they enter university.

"They come to a place like St. Thomas, where we emphasize a more global history curriculum, and we end up having to start from scratch to just introduce them to even basic world geography," said Robert.

"I don't think it gives them the foundation to clearly understand how learning about the past helps them make sense of the world they're living in."

Gary Waite
Gary Waite

Gary Waite, dean of history at the University of New Brunswick, said his experience is mixed.

Some elective history classes, such as Canadian history, are offered in some high schools, he said, and the students who go out of their way to take those courses are better prepared for university.

In general, however, there is a lack of knowledge among students, he said.

"We have to do a lot of remedial work overall."

Waite said history professors are having to teach more basic history to new students now than they did when he first started teaching more than 30 years ago.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

Cardy said this concern isn't exclusive to the field of history.

"I think there has been an overall problem with the way that K-12 is preparing students for their lives," said Cardy.

"We now have mandatory reading and writing classes at four-year university level."

Preparing for the future

Nickerson said it's important that students have a strong understanding of history because it makes them more whole and less likely to hold bigoted or racist views.

This is something he feels is a necessity in the real world, where those views are becoming even more unacceptable.

"I would wager to say that those kinds of encounters are not very conducive to a successful employment," he said.

"Workplaces no longer tolerate that kind of behaviour."

Robert said enrolment in St. Thomas's history faculty has gone down in recent years, mirroring decreased enrolment at other institutions.

She thinks many of the negative things going on in the world now can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about history.

"There are ways that political systems can break down, can slide into dictatorship, can slide into mass human rights violations," Robert said.

"Is it inevitable? No. But if you don't have any historical perspective, you don't even see the warning signs."

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