Here are 10 questions about changes to Alberta’s school system. Some of the answers may surprise you.
1. How did this idea for a curriculum re-design hatch?
Alberta government organized a large-scale consultation in 2009, after then-Premier Ed Stelmach asked for an education review. A committee went out and talked with hundreds of Albertans. The result was a report that recommends a complete overhaul to the way Albertans are taught in schools.
2. What is this “discovery learning” we're hearing about?
Discovery learning is an approach to teaching that focuses on the needs of each learner and their individual competencies and skills. The concept is outlined in detail in the report above. If you don’t have time to read it, here’s a section from the first few pages that sums up the philosophy pretty well:
“A focus on competencies would move education to a process of inquiry and discovery — not just the dissemination of information and recall of facts. Learners would still study subjects like language arts and mathematics. But rather than study a large number of subjects, each independent of the other, learner would focus more deeply on a curriculum that allows for interdisciplinary learning, combining the arts and academic streams.”
3. Why do we need this new approach in our classrooms?
The report focused on what skills the learner that will come of age in 2030 would need. The committee projects that in 2030, Alberta will be a society that is technology driven in a knowledge-based economy. Their “vision” for what skills children will need 20 years from now are summarized as the “Three E’s” of education for the 21st century.
4. Why are we hearing so much about "discovery learning" now?
We’re hearing about it right now for a couple reasons.
First off, the Redford government mentioned the curriculum overhaul in the throne speech just over a week ago.
“To ensure Alberta's kids are able to compete in a dynamic, highly-competitive world, your government is developing a new, student-centred curriculum that will ensure a strong understanding of basic literacy and numeracy.”
Secondly, a petition against the new curriculum has been quickly gathering signatures.
As of Mar. 11, the petition had almost 10,000 signatures. That same day, the Wildrose party called for a halt to the curriculum re-design project and the Alberta Teachers Association questioned the approach.
5. Why are some parents worried?
When it comes to the “discovery learning” concept as a whole, many have concerns about how the theory will play out in the reality of Alberta classrooms, where dollars are stretched and classrooms are overcrowded.
“There are really good teachers out there,” said Jim Argue, a former teacher who now works for Sylvan Learning Centres. “The issue again is time. How do you find the time to teach a specific phonetics skill to a classroom ... of 25 students who are learning differently?”
There are also concerns about the building blocks of education: reading and math. Critics want teachers in lower grades to focus on the traditional method of offering a few simple best practices for learning such as memorization in math and phonics in reading.
They worry a young child may not capable of wading through several different approaches while looking for the best for them.
6.When will the curriculum officially be changed?
A good question not easily answered. Up to this past weekend, the Alberta Education website had this detailed time line (dated Feb. 19, 2014) posted for the curriculum re-design.
The time line shows the government began prototyping or testing the new curriculum in January and planned to deliver the final draft by Dec. 31, 2014, and listed the province-wide implementation date as “2016 and beyond.”
That time line has since been replaced with a very different document (dated Mar. 6, 2014). In this version, the section referring to testing the curriculum has been removed and the implementation date is now "to be determined."
7. What does the government say about the backlash?
Education Minister Jeff Johnson told CBC News he believes integrating learning across all subject areas will improve basic skills like reading and math.
“We think we can be a lot more effective if we redesign or review all of the subjects at once. We want to infuse some of these softer skills — these 21st century skills — like problem solving, communication skills, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity.”
“When you talk about math and numeracy, we don’t just want kids to learn about that and apply that in the math class. We want them to learn the basics in the math class, and then we want to see the application of those concepts emphasized through other subjects.”
8. What’s the government going to do about this now?
Johnson told CBC this past weekend the government plans to continue to create prototypes of the curriculum over the next two years.
“As opposed to having educators sitting in my department re-designing the curriculum all by themselves, we’re going out and having school boards, parents, even students, and business develop prototypes over the next two years right across the province,” he said.
“We’re looking to engage everyone in Alberta so we can get it right.”
9. What are parents doing about the changes?
Many parents have said they’ve already noticed a difference in approaches to their children’s learning. Some have moved their kids to traditional school programs, while others hire tutors.
But the debate over the merits of the new curriculum continues, as many defend the new approach.
10. If I’m also worried about how my child is learning in school, what should I do?
School boards recommend that any time you have a concern about how your child is doing in school, you should meet with the teacher.
“The teacher would be able to explain all the different elements that are working together,” said Su Kerslake, a reading specialist with the Edmonton Public School Board. “That’s the best person to explain what’s happening in the classroom, not just what’s coming home.”
And if that doesn’t work - get dirty! Ariel Kleber, a community librarian with EPL, says parents needn’t be shy about helping their child succeed at school.
“There’s so much that is there to support you and your efforts to help your child. So if you don’t like how it’s being done in schools, get involved, get dirty, and figure out how to make it work for you,” she said.