In defence of Alberta's proposed elementary school curriculum

The curriculum’s underlying assumptions about knowledge, deliberation, and liberal pluralism rest on very solid ground, according to curriculum advisory panel member Ashley Berner.

Advisory panel member says draft K-6 curriculum's underlying assumptions rest on very solid ground

Alberta curriculum advisory panel member Ashley Berner says there are at least three reasons to celebrate what the draft curriculum achieved. (Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images)

This column is an opinion from Ashley Berner, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and member of Alberta's curriculum advisory panel. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The proposed Alberta Education kindergarten-to-Grade 6 curriculum has unleashed a torrent of controversy (here, here, and here). I served as a member of the curriculum advisory panel  for Alberta and reviewed the draft elementary curriculum with interest. In my judgment, and focusing for the moment on social studies alone, there are at least three reasons to celebrate what the draft curriculum achieved.

First, the K-6 social studies curriculum comes down on the side of content knowledge rather than skills. The underlying research base is clear: background knowledge represents a key driver of equity and opportunity.

This is unwelcome news for many in the educational establishment, which overwhelmingly chose process over content 100 years ago. But the case for content knowledge rests in a deep body of historical and empirical research, including that of E.D. Hirsch, Dan Willingham, Diane Ravitch, Cunningham & Stanovich, and Jeanne Chall, and popularized recently by Natalie Wexler.

The research is so compelling that more and more school systems and policy leaders in the United States are pulling the background-knowledge lever, to good effect. 

An enviable approach

Second, the social studies curriculum is pluralistic and multi-layered.

For example, Grade 1 focuses on the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, including religious beliefs and practices, governance models, geographies, stories, and methods of exchange. This early-learning base is reinforced throughout the curriculum, including references to the repeated acts of brutality committed by the French and British colonizers and the arguments that support First Nations' current claims.

The curriculum also supports religious literacy; students encounter the beliefs and practices of major religions, with a focus on the province's diverse communities.

Kindergarten students are asked to "Explore cultural and ethnic diversity in [their] classroom, school, and community." Grade 6 students are to "make a pie graph to represent the changing ethnic composition of Alberta" and to "research and produce a report on religious diversity in the local and surrounding community." This is an enviable approach. (The religious literacy in the United States is low, even within religious communities.)

Third, the social studies curriculum doesn't shy away from major controversies or the free exchange of ideas. It fosters an open classroom climate, with routine, structured opportunities for students to debate, to deliberate out loud, and to encounter a variety of viewpoints and opinions. Such classrooms have an independent, positive impact on long-term civil tolerance and political engagement.

In Grade 3, students read the legend of Madeleine de Verchères and are asked to "Weigh different viewpoints … To whom was the young Canadienne woman a hero? How might the Iroquois view her act?"

No sugar-coating

There is no sugar-coating of Canadian acts of oppression, including the enslavement of Africans, the exclusionist policies against the Chinese, and the animus against Sikhs.

Students read aloud parts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on the residential schools, and then discuss "how indigenous people were affected by the loss of language and culture." And third-grade students identify Alberta's primary rivers in both European and Indigenous languages.

While a formal curriculum cannot ensure practice, it does make good practice more likely. 

Of course, any curriculum is imperfect. There are lapses, such as calling the Hebrew Scriptures "The Old Testament" (a Christo-centric perspective) or waiting until Grade 5 to discuss residential schools – a decision on which indigenous communities should have final say.

Should some learning goals be shifted to earlier or later years? Perhaps. Should the pace of learning be gentler? It might, although we should withhold judgment until the classroom pilots clarify what the final curriculum will look like. Should citations be explicit? Absolutely. But the curriculum's underlying assumptions about knowledge, deliberation, and liberal pluralism, rest on very solid ground.

One of the critics complained on Twitter that the new curriculum wheeled in "American-style education." The U.S. school systems should be so lucky.

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Dr. Ashley Berner is an associate professor and the director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and served on Alberta’s curriculum advisory panel.