Creationist speaker at Alberta homeschooling conference prompts controversy

“According to Alberta, homeschoolers have the right to teach their children any curriculum they want," says the president of Alberta Home Education Parents Society.
Ken Ham, president of the group, Answers in Genesis, founded the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky, where one display shows dinosaurs sail on Noah's Ark. The basis of this religious exhibit includes the belief that the prehistoric animal coexisted with humans. (Ed Reinke/AP)

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How much freedom should homeschooling families have in deciding how to teach their children? 

The question has sparked renewed debate after the Alberta Home Education Association's invitation of a creationist speaker Ken Ham to their convention next April.

Ham, the president and founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, has talked in the past about what he sees as the dangers of teaching science.

"We need to define the terms and particularly the term 'science' and the term 'evolution,'" Ham said in a 2014 public debate with science educator Bill Nye.

 "And I believe we need to understand how they are being used to impose an anti-God religion on generations of unsuspecting students."

Paul Ens runs a YouTube channel dedicated to debunking the myths of creationism — and the teachings of Ken Ham in particular. The Calgary-based father of three was disappointed to hear about Ham's invitation to speak in his home province.

"My heart sank given that I've spent so much of my time trying to minimize the effect he can have on children — my children, anyone's children," Ens tells The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Ens went to public school as a child, but was taught creationism at home. He went on to teach creationism to his own children, even though they also went to public school. But as an adult, after doing some research on dinosaurs for a graphic novel he was working on, he started to doubt the creationist narrative.

"I came to understand ... that what I believed was wrong — and it's a very devastating thing," says Ens.

What I really am fighting for is the minimum standards and not science denials.- Paul Ens

He still has not been successful in debunking creationism for his own children. He believes that all children, including those who are homeschooled, need to be exposed to the science about the Earth's origins and evolution early in their education.

"I absolutely respect everyone's right to any religious beliefs that they want to hold," Ens says. "But we hold some things above the right to religion.… Your right to religious belief shouldn't extend past the basic things that we really value, that we want our kids to learn."

Ens says he is not arguing against homeschooling itself.

"What I really am fighting for is the minimum standards and not science denials," says Ens. 

"By bringing Ken [Ham] in, I really think that it signals a bit of a lack of judgment or even a deliberate defiance of provincial curriculum because what Ken is teaching is so opposite to what we would say is normal science education."

The Answers in Genesis ministry focuses 'on providing answers to questions about the Bible — particularly the book of Genesis — regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.' Ken Ham is the CEO and president of this thriving ministry in Kentucky. (John Sommers II/Reuters)

'Homeschoolers have the right to teach their children any curriculum'

"Our government expects all students to learn from the same Alberta curriculum that prepares all students for success," Alberta's education minister David Eggen said in a statement sent to The Current.

But Judy Arnall, president of the Alberta Home Education Parents Society, says that's not actually the case.

"According to Alberta, homeschoolers have the right to teach their children any curriculum they want," Arnall tells Chattopadhyay.

"They can choose to teach the Alberta program of studies but, contrary to what Minister Eggen said, they don't have to. They can follow a separate schedule of learning outcomes which cover a basic education."

Parents are not teaching a classroom of other people's 30 kids.- Judy Arnall

Arnall says that Alberta has the most regulated homeschooling system, and that homeschooled children are assessed for scheduled educational outcomes by certified teachers every year.

She suggests parents are best equipped to teach their children, even if they don't have a teaching degree, because they know their kids best.

"Parents are not teaching a classroom of other people's 30 kids," Arnall adds. "They are only teaching their own child."

Does homeschooling prepare you for the workforce?

Bari Miller was homeschooled in Alberta, and was not happy with the experience.

"For me, it was particularly negative," she says. "I don't feel that I received an adequate education to prepare me for entering the workforce, going to university."

There are gaps everywhere, Arnall says, whether in homeschooling or public school, and that some children do get left behind. 

But she says overall, choosing not to follow the province's curriculum serves homeschooled children well, since the public curriculum, Arnall says, doesn't teach skills ranging from handwriting to personal finance.

"If we had to teach the Alberta program of studies, we wouldn't have time to teach what we think kids need," says Arnall.

Listen to the full conversation above — including Professor Robert Berard who has been studying homeschooling in Canada for two decades.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyedding, John Chipman and Kristin Nelson.

The Current did invite Alberta's Education Minister David Eggen to be on the program. He declined but sent this statement from his office that reads in part: 

"Our government supports the critical role parents play in their child's education. That includes supporting parents ability to choose the school they feel will best ensure their child's success, including homeschooling. Having said that, our government expects all students to learn from the same Alberta curriculum that prepare all students for success."