By forgetting about thinking, Alberta's curriculum draft misses the mark

Flying in the face of research, this curriculum assumes that children must accumulate knowledge before they can think. This isn’t something a few tweaks can fix, say the authors from the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education.

Proposed K-6 curriculum ignores research, resulting in a model unlikely to achieve any of its goals

The authors of this opinion column believe Alberta's proposed K-6 school curriculum, if implemented, will result in disengaged students with little grounding in deeper thinking skills. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Dr. Maren Aukerman, Dr. Catherine Burwell, Dr. Jackie Seidel and Dr. David Scott, who teach in the Curriculum and Learning specialization at the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week Alberta Education, under direction from the UCP government, released drafts of new K-6 curriculum documents in eight subject areas.

Already, the proposed curriculum has been widely critiqued for inaccuracies, possible plagiarism, and deep flaws in how it discusses race, colonialism, and Indigenous peoples and histories.

Here, we highlight two additional interconnected issues that are equally troubling: its developmental inappropriateness and its lack of attention to critical thinking and higher-level skills.

Simply put, developmental appropriateness is concerned with whether content is well-matched to what children can do and think about at particular ages. Higher-level thinking refers to students' ability to work with information to reason, evaluate, justify, and analyze. Research indicates that such thinking not only can be taught to young children but can substantially increase their engagement in school and benefit their academic trajectories.

This draft curriculum places enormous emphasis on rote memorization. Some of this focus is appropriate. Children can and should memorize number facts, identify letters and their sounds, and so on. But this curriculum demands that children recall far too much material, a lot of it poorly aligned with what young children are likely to be able to understand at a given age.

To get through it all, teachers will be forced to treat content in shallow, decontextualized, often uninteresting ways that will not build deep understanding.

The curriculum also frequently reduces content to triviality. For example, much of history is reduced to names and dates. Even the Ku Klux Klan is grossly oversimplified – practically reduced to a problematic slogan that elementary school children are supposed to know without any deeper dive into racism or white supremacy. 

Although some children may be able to learn the content, many more will probably struggle and develop low self-concepts simply because they are not skilled at memorization. Even students who learn the content "successfully" are likely to forget many of these facts, as they have little relevance in their own lives.

The authors urge Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange to go back to the drawing board with the K-6 school curriculum and do it right. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

There are powerful curricular initiatives worldwide that have been shown to effectively build content knowledge alongside deeper conceptual understandings and student motivation, but Alberta's proposed curriculum ignores that research, resulting in a model unlikely to achieve any of these goals well.

At the same time that the curriculum overestimates how much content children can and should commit to memory, it underestimates just how much deeper thinking children can do. This is particularly true in the early grades.

To give just one example, the skill of inferencing about text is not introduced until third grade in English Language Arts, even though there is research indicating that young children can make inferences, and that opportunities to do so can develop comprehension. Third grade is far too late to start developing a child's inferential abilities.

This is not an isolated example – it reflects an underlying philosophy at odds with what is known about how children learn.

Flying in the face of research, this curriculum assumes that children must accumulate knowledge before they can think. This isn't something a few tweaks can fix. This philosophy underpins the whole enterprise – across subject areas and grade levels.

No critical thinking

Indeed, even in the upper elementary grades, the lack of serious attention to critical thinking is evident.

In the language arts curriculum, the word "identify" (a basic-level skill) is used 159 times, while the more complex idea of synthesizing information appears only twice. Students are rarely asked to justify, analyze or critique.

Similarly, several key practices are largely absent from the math curriculum, including ones that help students reason flexibly and deeply about how to solve complex problems – the very kind of 21st century abilities that schools ought to be cultivating.

In short, this curriculum, if implemented, will result in disengaged students with little grounding in deeper thinking skills, simply because they had very few opportunities in school to flex those muscles.

We urge the government to go back to the drawing board and do it right. This time, seek input from educators who can provide the kind of meaningful expertise about children's development and higher order thinking that is needed to produce a contemporary curriculum that will engage and benefit all children.

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