Saturday, January 28, 2017

Changing Education Curriculum

The Alberta Government kicked off a major review and overhaul of the province's school curricula in June of 2016.  Given that large tracts of the curricula haven't been reviewed or changed in a very long time, this seems to be a perfectly reasonable task for any government to undertake.

The current curriculum used by students is between eight and 30 years old. Some material predates the introduction of the internet, Eggen noted.. "The world is changing," he said. "We know that the 21st century career is involving using critical thinking skills to be able to process information, to access it and make evaluations on those higher levels."
 Ever since then, the right wing in this province has been losing their minds over what they call an "ideological" rewrite of curriculum.  PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney has been particularly vocal about this as well - calling it "ideological" and "social engineering".


On Ideology

Let's examine this for a moment.  What does it even mean to say that a curriculum is "ideological"?  Superficially, it seems that the critics want us to be afraid that the NDP is going to create some kind of quasi-Stalinist inspired curriculum where everything is about revering the wonderous perfection of Socialism.  First of all, that seems more than a little bit of a reach.  The Alberta NDP under Rachel Notley has hardly demonstrated any particular desire to act as totalitarians in the tradition of people like Stalin.

Before we go too far down the rabbit hole of Kenney's "better dead than red" era rhetoric, let's talk briefly about the last round of changes that the former PC government started under the concept of "discovery learning". 
Alberta students may rank among Canada’s top tier for performance, but by 2016, officials have nevertheless vowed that the “traditional” teaching methods of textbooks-and-chalkboards will be dead, replaced instead by a unstructured system design to craft “engaged thinkers,” “ethical citizens” and “entrepreneurial spirits.” 
“We’re changing everything,” says a perky voice in a two-minute Government of Alberta video outlining the new program. 
“We’re preparing [students] for a future we can’t imagine, and giving them the tools to succeed in work that doesn’t yet exist.” 
While Alberta is the most prominent example, it is only one of many recent converts to the concept of “discovery learning,” a system in which students would be left to learn on their own, with minimal teacher guidance. But as planners enthusiastically advocated to take the fire-axe to more than a century of classroom norms, a cadre of opponents are warning that, without sufficient evidence, these schools may be making a terrible mistake.
Let me be abundantly clear:  I am all in favour of education systems that encourage students to learn and explore knowledge.  I had the privilege as a high school student of attending Calgary's Bishop Carroll High School, which allowed me a great deal of freedom in how I went about learning.  However, while at Bishop Carroll, I also observed that a significant fraction of new students each year would transfer to more conventional school settings after a few months.  The relatively unstructured environment only works for a fraction of students.  Today, as an adult, when I talk to parents whose children are encountering so-called "discovery learning", I hear a lot of anguish over the difficulties their children are experiencing with mathematics in particular.  Parents are confused by a teaching paradigm they didn't experience, and are at a loss with how best to support their children.

Phrases thrown around like "ethical citizens", and "entrepreneurial spirits" in themselves suggest noble goals.  However, they also presuppose a common understanding of these ideas as "good things".  Yet, neither phrase really contains any direct meaning, and that is worrisome.  

Subject Bias

At the level of individual subjects like Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and so on the discussion of "bias" is more interesting.  

The concept of "discovery learning" is not per se going to bias the content of any one subject.  Mathematics remains mathematics, no matter what pedagogical framework one chooses to frame teaching it.  In fact, it remains something of a mystery to me just what kind of political bias one could inject into mathematics outside of some terribly hackneyed word problems.  

Science is more troubling in this regard.  Unfortunately, we still have a significant body of people running about who seem to think that there is "room" to debate topics like evolution and cosmology (heck - we even have people who still argue that the earth is less than 10,000 years old).  There will always be those who argue that this is also some kind of bias, no matter how much evidence you put before them.  While there is room to discuss where science is inconclusive, most of the science taught in grades 1-12 is pretty "cut-and-dried" material - established facts mostly.  In later grades, one might find a bit of discussion of the different cosmological models of how the universe began (and no, the hand of God isn't one of them).  Can bias creep in here?  Of course it can - anywhere that a subject is inconclusive is subject to the introduction of opinion and speculation.  Ethically, the appropriate thing to do is to teach within the boundaries of known knowledge, and where appropriate to present competing theories in a reasonable fashion.  

When we come to social studies (which tends to incorporate History, Geography, Current Affairs and a few other aspects), things become all the murkier.  My introduction to curriculum bias came while I was attending a French Immersion bilingual program for several years.  We had a lot of Canadian history books around home (which I had read many of).  So, when I started studying Canadian history in French, I found myself reading textbooks written in Québec.  The English language books I had read barely paid attention to figures like Samuel de Champlain, or the enormous differences between how the French colonies conducted themselves with our First Nations compared to the English.  Was there bias in both texts?  Absolutely - significant and non-trivial biases in fact.  Likewise, the presentation of the Louis Riel story was dramatically different between the two (yes, this was before English Canada stopped referring to Riel as a traitor similar to the American Benedict Arnold.   

Other subjects like English are similarly subject to the introduction of biases.  This is almost unavoidable in areas that are traditionally part of the liberal arts side of education.  We should not fear bias in these areas, for this is where we should be encouraging students to think critically and to analyze things from different perspectives.  Modern day science would not be what it is today if were not for the often careful work done by early thinkers to review their work in light of then current understandings.  Copernicus did not merely declare a heliocentric model of the universe, but he did so while carefully genuflecting towards the understandings that the church held as truth.  The ability of a student to read and critique is just as important as the ability to memorize fundamental mathematical truths.  

Pedagogy

Just as the traditional model of the teacher standing in front of the class imparting knowledge is a form of pedagogy, so is discovery learning.  

The traditional model has its roots going back to the Greek and Roman civilizations.  It is not a bad model, in fact it has a lot of merits.  For teaching fundamentals, it works very well.  Most children need some kind of structure when they are first learning the basics.  In subjects like arithmetic, where the core facts and algorithms are well established (and only a few need to learn them differently), it works quite well.  We also have to recognize that the existing model of teaching has a lot to do with students learning enough basic skill with literacy and numeracy to be functional in the workplaces of the Industrial Revolution.  We are moving through a transition era today where some of the assumptions of the past are failing us.  The knowledge and understandings required to be functional are changing, and so must the approach we take to teaching.  

Discovery Learning is one approach of many that the education world has come up with to address these deficiencies.  It has its merits.  It encourages creativity, thought and exploration.  All of which are positive attributes to foster.  That said, concerns have been raised about its applicability across the breadth of learning styles.  Not being an educator myself, I can only observe that I have seen many students struggle to derive their own algorithms for division and multiplication.  (and some of the approaches I have seen taught are just downright bizarre to me)  I know for myself, later in school, greater freedom to explore made a lot of sense.  For some of my peers, it did not.  I would have rebelled against the group work emphasis in Discovery Learning then, just as I am repelled by overly close collaboration projects today (yes, I am one of those who is happiest working independently - I will collaborate, but I don't enjoy the "everybody working together all the time" thing that seems to be in vogue of late).

When it comes to the pedagogical theory used to underpin our educational system, I think we need to take a measured approach which acknowledges that there are multiple learning styles, and different students have very different needs.  Show me the science that demonstrates the effectiveness of a particular approach before you go broadly implementing it.  Instead, take a few moments to show me that the limits are also understood, and we are not imposing something which will backfire. 

Of Social Engineering and Ideology

However, let's turn back to the criticism of "ideology" (which really amounts to complaining about bias).  When I see phrases about "entrepreneurial spirits" and some of the other statements made by Alberta Education about discovery learning a mere couple of years ago, it seems to me that there is likely a bias towards a particular worldview being promoted there as well.  So, it seems somewhat disingenuous for Kenney and others to complain about what the NDP may (or may not) inject into the curriculum.

We live in a pluralistic society, and it is foolish to think that any one perspective has a lock on "the truth".  More realistically, some influence from Alberta's political left might help balance the "social engineering" that has crept in as a result of 4 decades of single party rule.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastically written article!! Not being half the word smith that you are, I'm going to use a simple translator here: entrepreneurial spirits = capitalist robot
"ideological" rewrite = "I don't agree with you teaching anything other than capitalist ideology"
craft “engaged thinkers,” “ethical citizens” and “entrepreneurial spirits.” = "I want nice little robots that think capitalism is the best"

disclaimer: I happen to think that the state should be working for the betterment of society, not the enrichment of the corporations.

SB