Move to 'discovery learning' worries parents of young readers

Some parents in Alberta are worried that new curriculum being tested by the province is making it more difficult for their children to learn how to read.

Alberta curriculum adopts 3 Es - engaged, ethical, entrepreneurial

Joelle Brennan reads with her son Rylan. Brennan is worried that changes to the Alberta curriculum will make it harder for students like her son to learn to read. (CBC)

Many parents in Alberta are worried that the new curriculum being tested by the province is making it more difficult for their children to learn how to read. 

The curriculum, scheduled to be implemented in 2016, focuses on the "discovery learning" method over phonics, something Joelle Brennan believes is a mistake.

While her seven-year-old son Rylan loves to read now, he was having trouble learning to read at school despite his report card indicating he was reading at grade level. 

"If you gave him a new book to look at, he couldn't really pick out a word or sound out a word," Brennan said.

Though Rylan Brennan knew the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make, he could not break a word into those sounds, she said.

"There was no sounding a word out."

Less sounding out, less memorization

Teachers outside the school system say they've heard many stories similar to the Brennan family's.

The 3 Es, according to Jeff Johnson

"The engaged thinker is someone who has those critical thinking skills, is a lifelong learner who's creative and innovative. 

"The ethical citizen is someone who has a lot of self-responsibility, who's got a strong work ethic, a good communicator, collaboration skills. 

"And if you look at the entrepreneurial spirit, it's someone who's self reliant,  someone who's independent. They're competitive. 

"If you look at Alberta curriculum in reading and in math, they're using more of a discovery methodology of learning," said Jim Argue with Sylvan Learning Centres. "You'll hear that everywhere, discovery.

"Discovery basically means that we're relying on students to learn intrinsically more than we are saying - 'here's specific things we're going to teach you, and you're going to learn from those things and then go out and learn intrinsically,'" he said. "I think that's where some of the problems lie."

Current Education Minister Jeff Johnson was co-chair of the committee, which delivered the Inspiring Education report in 2010.

The committee focused on what skills students who will come of age in 2030 will need in a technology driven, knowledge-based economy — adding to the three Rs, the three Es; engaged thinking, ethical citizens and entrepreneurial spirit.

Economy requires new skills, minister says

The report suggests there needs be less focus on directed learning to teaching kids to learn on their own — a skill the authors argue students will need when technology can tell them just about anything they need to know. 

The new curriculum will "move education to a process of inquiry and discovery — not just the dissemination of information and recall of facts," the report said.

"In a system that is more learner-centred and competency based, Albertans see the role of the teacher changing from that of a knowledge authority to an architect of learning - one who plans, designs and oversees learning activities."

But that direction seems contrary to where many parents want the curriculum to go.

Parents interviewed in a 2006 Alberta K-3 curriculum review, said their number one priority when it came to teaching literacy skills was to "focus on the basics."

It's that schism that is leading some parents like the Brennans to hire a private tutor for $400 a month and others moving their children to schools that still teach the basics. 


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