Ghosts of flawed teaching techniques threaten to haunt Alberta classrooms

January 13, 2017

Published in the Calgary Herald

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education policy.

Education gurus come up with new ideas, temporarily retreat from them when they prove to be a flop, and then rename them and try again with a new crop of unsuspecting teachers and principals.

Perhaps the worst of these “new” ideas is the notion that specific content knowledge doesn’t matter a whole lot. Since knowledge is changing more rapidly than ever before, the gurus argue that students should not waste time memorizing a bunch of useless facts. Hence, the move away from teacher-directed instruction to various manifestations of inquiry- or project-based learning.

In 2009, the previous Alberta government unveiled its Inspiring Education initiative, which was replete with edu-babble. The report that ushered in the brave new world of education emphasized that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners” and “apply multiple literacies.”

Not surprisingly, Inspiring Education said that schools should move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”

However, there was nothing new about Inspiring Education, as it did little more than repackage some very old ideas. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known American education professor, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record entitled The Project Method in which he outlined the approach.

In true progressive fashion, Kilpatrick made sure to explain that the process of learning is far more important than any specific factual content. Had Kilpatrick not written this article nearly 100 years ago, one might have thought he plagiarized it from the Inspiring Education report.

Despite an avalanche of criticism from academics and other subject-area experts, the government pushed its Inspiring Education agenda forward. The department of education even went so far as to create a two-minute promotional video that proclaimed “Everything is changing.”

At the same time, the government announced its intention to scrap many of Alberta’s top-notch standardized exams and replace them with assessments that focused on the process of learning and not on the content.

And then the election happened. In a surprising development, the Progressive Conservative dynasty was toppled by Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Initially, there were some encouraging signs that newly minted Education Minister David Eggen would scrap the Inspiring Education agenda and bring back a much-needed academic focus. His decision to add a 15-minute calculator-free component to the Grade 6 provincial math assessment was a welcome rebuke to the failed discovery math approach that has taken hold of Alberta schools.

Sadly, despite this positive step, there are many indications that the ghost of Inspiring Education lives on. The Alberta government is currently in the midst of a curriculum review process that has every indication of moving away from specific content knowledge and focusing more on the nebulous process of learning.

The public survey being used to gather feedback consists of a series of questions that talk about various “ways of knowing” and various “21st century competencies.” The phrasing of these questions certainly makes it appear that parents are being led to a predetermined conclusion. The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum, which was recently published by Alberta Education, shows that the fix is in.

This framework is long on the values it wants students to adopt and short on the importance of content knowledge. Even worse is the three-minute promotional video on the department’s website that promotes “student-centred” learning and describes teachers as learning facilitators. It dismisses textbooks as “artificial constructs” and suggests that classrooms need to be more like the real world. William Heard Kilpatrick would have been proud.

While the government might have changed last year, the same bad ideas are still alive and well in Alberta Education. Until the education minister fully renounces the Inspiring Education agenda, Alberta’s world-renowned education system will continue to decline.

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.