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Alberta unveils new draft elementary school curriculum with focus on common cache of knowledge

Alberta five- and six-year-olds will learn about the migration and settlement of ancient civilizations, according to a new draft K-6 curriculum to be piloted in some classrooms this fall.

'This is a curriculum that is hugely overloaded, with lists of information, with names and places'

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange unveiled on Monday new draft K-6 curriculum to be piloted in some classrooms this fall. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta five- and six-year-olds will learn about the migration and settlement of ancient civilizations, according to a new draft K-6 curriculum to be piloted in some classrooms this fall.

In Grade 2 social studies, children will learn about the origins of democracy, the Silk Road trading route and how Islam, Judaism and Christianity helped shape the world.

They will learn about Roman kings and tyrants, medieval social order, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire and the Magna Carta. They will also learn about the impact of the plague.

The latest draft of the Grade 3 social studies curriculum, publicly revealed Monday, would have third graders — usually ages seven and eight — learn about the history and governance of New France, the arrival of European explorers in North America and their contact with Indigenous peoples.

"They will be taught how our history, as a place of freedom and refuge for millions around the world, led to Canada becoming one of the most diverse and peacefully pluralistic countries in the world," Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said at a news conference Monday.

"In so doing, students will hopefully develop not only a deep sense of gratitude to past generations and a pride in who we are today, but also the responsibility to carry this legacy forward into the future."

Common cache of knowledge

Years after claiming Alberta's K-12 school curriculum development had been skewed by political influence from the former NDP government, the United Conservative Party government unveiled its first public draft of a new elementary school curriculum in every subject, in English and French.

Unlike the previously proposed curriculum, which was constructed to teach students concepts, the government is now adopting a philosophy that there is a common cache of knowledge every child should know, and which should be taught in chronological order.

It is an approach that curriculum experts have previously panned as outdated and with no basis in modern research.

Some of those experts continued to push back on Monday, saying the curriculum as drafted is developmentally inappropriate for young children.

The elementary social studies curriculum says students will "develop gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before us, beginning with the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and a pride in the free, prosperous, peaceful, and welcoming society that they built and that students have the responsibility to carry forward," the newly released document says.

Residential schools, treaties

Treaty education will begin in Grade 4, and the harms of residential schools will first be addressed in Grade 5.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action compelled governments to "make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, and Aboriginal peoples' historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to Grade 12 students."

Black settlements and the contributions of early Black pioneers would be introduced in Grade 4.

Other changes include introducing fractions in math as early as Grade 1, and more emphasis on money, finance and the economy.

English and French language arts will now include a heavy emphasis on teaching reading using phonics in kindergarten through Grade 3.

Coding and computational learning has been added to the science curriculum.

Students will learn about consent in all grades.

Former professional hockey player and sexual assault survivor and whistleblower Sheldon Kennedy says he's been pushing for the consent lessons.

"The ability to say no. The ability to say yes. The ability to understand boundaries. It's not only going to keep kids safe, it's going to save lives," he said.

Developmentally inappropriate

Prof. Carla Peck, a social studies curriculum expert and University of Alberta professor, is one of 30 academics the government asked for feedback last December.

Peck worries the social studies outcomes proposed are developmentally inappropriate for young children.

Students and families will feel pressured to memorize dates and people and places and landmarks without understanding their meaning, she said.

Teachers will be stressed trying to cram the lengthy lists of information into the 30 minutes allotted daily for the subject.

"The content of the curriculum itself is so flawed that the implementation, I think, is just going to fall flat," she said. "And there will be a great deal of resistance — not only from teachers, but also from families and students. Because this is a curriculum that is hugely overloaded, with lists of information, with names and places."

As she has said about earlier drafts, there's no evidence the social studies curriculum is based on research about how to teach children.

While other jurisdictions embrace more modern curricula, Alberta is regressing, she said.

University of Alberta education Prof. Dwayne Donald, says the social studies curriculum is written like a "moral success story" of western culture. Donald said the writers appear to see young children as empty vessels that need to be filled up, rather than people with curiosity, trying to find their place in the world.

Treaties have been a "massive curricular omission" that has led to conflict in society, he said.

"If (peace is) going to happen, it's going to be led by children, and classrooms are the place where we're going to be able to work this out and start to see the effects of it," he said. "So for this government to kind of dismiss it and put age-specific stipulations on it just seems silly."

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the government's draft curriculum falls short of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action by omitting mentions of treaties and residential schools until later in elementary school.

She panned the focus on European history in social studies and said Indigenous students deserve to see themselves represented in their lessons.

Hoffman was relieved that lessons about computer science, financial literacy and consent were retained from earlier iterations.

"This is a realization that all of the deep concerns Albertans have been raising over the last several months, the leaks that we saw, time and time again, they weren't for nothing," Hoffman said. "They were based in black and white, and the reality that is this curriculum. And this curriculum is unacceptable in its current form."

In a Facebook live video on Monday evening, Premier Jason Kenney said some people want to teach a "distorted" version of Canadian history that is too negative. He said the draft takes a more balanced approach that cultivates gratitude and pride.

$6M to prepare teachers

The government will spend $6 million this year developing resources and preparing teachers to test the new curriculum in select elementary classrooms, beginning in September.

The government plans to hold four virtual feedback sessions in April, as well as monthly sessions from May until February 2022.

The Alberta Teachers' Association announced Monday it will begin its own, separate, curriculum consultation process and campaign.

Although the ATA had representatives involved with curriculum writing under the NDP, the UCP government terminated that deal and removed them from the process.

In a news release, the ATA said it has opened an online survey for teachers and will conduct roundtables with subject matter experts during the spring.

Association president Jason Schilling reiterated his call for the government to delay implementing the curriculum with schools still wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have questioned how they will be trained to deliver the new material and what resources they will have to use in classrooms.

"What was released today is barely a plan and certainly not a plan for success," he said.

All elementary schools are expected to use the new K-6 curriculum beginning in September 2022.

The Grades 7 to 10 curriculum is under development and is slated to be ready for classroom testing by September 2022. The government wants all grades and schools to be using new curriculum by September 2024.

The redevelopment process began about a decade ago under the former Progressive Conservative government. Curriculum was previously developed one subject at a time. Some of Alberta's curriculum dates back to the 1980s.

With files from Emily Senger

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