More edu-babble than substance in new BC curriculum

November 4, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Sun

Educational theorist William Heard Kilpatrick once wrote: “If people face a rapidly shifting and changing world, changing in unexpected ways and in unexpected directions, then what? Why, their education would stress thinking and methods of attack.”

If it wasn’t for the fact that he wrote these words in 1925, one might think he was describing the new curriculum just published by British Columbia’s Ministry of Education.

Kilpatrick consistently downplayed the importance of academic content, and emphasized the so-called process of learning. In other words, Kilpatrick thought it was more important for students to learn how to access information than to master a body of knowledge. Considering the speed at which the world was changing in 1925, Kilpatrick thought schools should focus on concepts and critical thinking skills rather than specific facts which he thought would soon be obsolete.

Apparently the BC Ministry of Education agrees with Kilpatrick. In fact, the overview of the new curriculum provided on its website explicitly downplays factual knowledge. “In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.”

This anti-knowledge approach has clearly influenced the major subject areas. For example, the draft social studies curriculum is almost totally empty of specific historical events and dates but is chock full of references to overarching concepts such as nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism. It’s difficult to imagine how students can grasp such complex concepts without knowing specific historical facts. Some teachers will obviously fill in these knowledge gaps but others may not and that is a serious problem for students.

In order to think deeply about a topic, students need to know something about it. Someone who used Google to find out when Confederation took place, who the key players were, and which provinces were involved, is unlikely to provide much insight into the factors that led to the formation of Canada.

Critical thought cannot take place in a knowledge vacuum. If we want students to understand the country they live in, we must ensure they learn about specific people and events from our past.

Proposed changes to BC’s math curriculum are equally concerning. Instead of requiring students to memorize math facts and learn the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, the new curriculum expects students to “engage in multiple strategies to solve problems.” In other words, students and their parents can look forward to more frustrating evenings trying to solve fuzzy math problems. Parents can expect to see even more private tutoring agencies sprout up.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to the dumbed-down curriculum proposed by the BC government. With the help of many subject matter experts, the Core Knowledge Foundation (coreknowledge.org) has created a content-rich curriculum that actually helps students think critically and deeply. More than 1,200 schools in the United States and even a few in other countries use this curriculum.

The Core Knowledge Foundation was established by well-known education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia. In his 2006 book, The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch points out that students with a broad knowledge base almost always read at a higher level than students with a limited knowledge base. Given this fact, the Core Knowledge curriculum helps students acquire the background knowledge they need to read more effectively.

There is substantial research evidence for the effectiveness of the Core Knowledge curriculum. For example, a three-year evaluation of twelve Core Knowledge schools conducted by Sam Stringfield, Amanda Datnow, Geoffrey Bornan, and Laura Rachuba of Johns Hopkins University found significant positive effects with the implementation of the Core Knowledge curriculum. Not only did the math skills of students improve in these schools, so did their reading ability.

Far from being an exciting new innovation, British Columbia’s new curriculum is little more than a rehash of the failed anti-knowledge approach of the 1920s. There is no reason to believe this approach will be any more effective now.

Students and teachers alike would benefit from less edu-babble in BC and more substance. A content-rich curriculum would be a good start.

Content should be king in schools

April 2, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Sun.

Suppose you join a discussion about something you know nothing about. How much weight will your opinion receive? Probably not much.

Even if you follow proper conversation strategies such as remaining on topic and keeping your comments respectful, your input will not be valued when you are completely ignorant about the subject at hand. Most people recognize that content knowledge is essential in most discussions.

Knowledge is also important in areas such as reading. If you read a newspaper or magazine article about hockey, you are likely to understand it if you are familiar with the rules of hockey. In contrast, someone who knows nothing about hockey will probably not benefit much from reading about last night’s game. If you need to Google basic hockey terms such as offside, icing, or penalty box, your background knowledge of hockey is likely insufficient to understand the article properly.

The importance of content is strongly supported by experts such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. He regularly conducts research on the role of consciousness in learning and found that background knowledge makes it easier for us to learn as it frees up space in our working memory for tackling new concepts.

Given the importance of broad-based factual knowledge, it is imperative that schools ensure students become knowledgeable citizens. However, this is unlikely to happen when some of the best-known thinkers in education regularly downplay the importance of knowledge and focus instead on the so-called process of learning.

For example, Alfie Kohn is a well-known author and speaker who opposes any attempt to make content the focus of the curriculum, which he derides as the “bunch o’ facts” approach to education. His books are widely influential among teachers and he is regularly invited to speak at teacher professional development sessions. Last month, for example, he presented his ideas to educators in Red Deer, Alberta at an event sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The romantic progressive ideology Kohn promotes is widely taught in the education faculties that train teachers. It should come as little surprise that romantic progressive ideology influences the standards contained in provincial curriculum guides. As a case in point, English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum guides have lots of edu-babble in them but not much content.

Their extensive length and verbosity notwithstanding, most ELA curriculum guides are little more than empty shells. While these guides encourage students to “enhance the clarity and artistry of communication” and “celebrate and build community,” most do not prescribe any specific books or authors for all students to read. As a result, schools miss out on the opportunity to ensure all students share some common background knowledge.

Fortunately, some educators are pushing back against this worrisome trend. In his book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, former school administrator Mike Schmoker skewers ELA curriculum guides for their “bloated, confusing, (and) poorly written” standards. He concludes that “Language arts, more than any other discipline, has lost its way.” He proposes the removal of meaningless verbiage from ELA curriculum guides. In its place, curriculum guides should list the titles of books and articles each student must read, specify the number and length of papers required from each student, and identify the evaluation criteria for student work.

It does not mean teachers should lose all teaching discretion. In fact, Schmoker and other advocates of core-knowledge, such as E. D. Hirsch, suggest that only about half of the reading materials and assignments need be prescribed by the curriculum. Teachers would select the other half. This approach appropriately balances teacher professional autonomy with the need to uphold a consistent standard for all students.

Schmoker offers a similar critique of curriculum guides in science and social studies. He notes that the excessive use of hands-on experiments in science means students spend too little time reading and thinking about important scientific concepts. As for social studies, Schmoker contends curriculum guides in that subject are often filled with meaningless verbiage that obscures important historical content. This is unacceptable.

The best way to prepare students for the 21st century is to make sure they are immersed in a content-rich curriculum that provides them with the background knowledge they need. This will only happen if we move away from the failed romantic progressive ideology and adopt an approach that restores content to its rightful place.

When it comes to 21st century education, content should be king.

Canadian history should be taught in schools

November 5, 2012. Former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King once said that “while some countries have too much history, we have too much geography.” He implied that because of the relatively young age of our country, Canada has less history than most other countries.

However, having a shorter history is no guarantee that our citizens are more likely to know it well. According to a 2009 survey commissioned by the Dominion Institute, less than half of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 35 could identify John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, from his portrait. Less than one in 10 could identify former NDP leader Tommy Douglas and barely one in five recognized Métis leader Louis Riel. Even former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was unknown by almost half of Canadians in the same cohort.

Last year, federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney introduced a new citizenship guide. In order to be granted citizenship, applicants must now demonstrate sufficient knowledge of essential Canadian history. The new 64-page study guide, Discover Canada, devotes 10 pages to a chronological overview of key events in our history. Any applicant who does not master these facts cannot pass the citizenship test.

Since we expect new citizens to be familiar with Canadian history, it makes sense to apply the same standard to those who grow up in this country. This is why most people expect schools to ensure students learn the key events in Canadian history.

While there will always be debate around what historical events are most important, it’s not difficult to identify some fundamental things everyone should know. For example, few would dispute that all Canadians should be familiar with our Confederation of 1867, Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec City in 1608, Canada’s contribution during the two World Wars, and the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. Controversial episodes such as Indian residential schools, the Chinese Head Tax, and the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians during World War II should also be studied.

Understanding our past, warts and all, makes us better able to grapple with the issues confronting our country today. A well-educated and broadly-informed general public is the best protection against misguided government policies. Knowing our past makes it easier for us to build on our successes and avoid repeating our failures.

Because education is a provincial responsibility, there are no national history standards. Unfortunately, most provinces fail to provide an adequate history curriculum to public school students, a fact well-documented by renowned historian Jack Granatstein in his book, Who Killed Canadian History?.

Although every province includes some Canadian history in the elementary grades, most do not require high school students to take a full course on the subject, but prescribe nebulous social studies courses instead. For example, Alberta students take courses in globalization, nationalism, and ideology while British Columbia students take a grade 12 history course in which they look at major world events of the 20th century. Neither province mandates a high school course in Canadian history.

Saskatchewan does require grade 12 students to take a history course called Canadian Studies. Unfortunately, the course is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Instead of starting at a chosen point and showing how one historical event builds on another, students jump from topics such as “External Forces and Domestic Realities” to “The Forces of Nationalism.”

Interestingly, Manitoba stands out as a bright light among the provinces. Not only are all Manitoba grade 11 students required to take Canadian history, the course content is arranged chronologically. Furthermore, the new textbook that goes with the curriculum provides a useful and easy-to-read overview of key events in Canadian history. Other provinces would do well to follow Manitoba’s example.

Much of the inadequate teaching of history in our schools stems from a faulty educational philosophy. Prospective teachers are told by their education professors not to focus on making sure students learn a core knowledge base, but rather to emphasize the so-called process of learning. As a result, schools focus on abstract concepts such as globalization, nationalism, and social justice at the expense specific knowledge and skills.

Canadian history is too important a subject for us to allow it to fall out of use. No student should graduate from high school without a solid understanding of the events that have shaped our great country.