In 1965 Edmonton writer Henry Kreisel published “The Broken Globe” in an American periodical. It was a short story about a Ukrainian immigrant with a farm near Edmonton. When Mr. Solchuk’s son, Nick, 13, comes home from his one-room school excited to have learned that Earth is round and travels around the sun, his father is outraged. What a crazy, blasphemous idea! Nick returns from school another day with a cardboard globe to prove Earth’s roundness. Mr. Solchuk smashes the globe and beats his son. Nick goes to university and becomes a respected geophysicist.
A person reading this story today might think, “How quaint!” But in the light of the UCP government’s approach to school curriculum, I’m not so sure it is merely quaint.
The PCs began the curriculum review, but the quarrel began when the Notley government completed it and let the public see it. By now the opposition was the UCP, with Jason Kenney as leader. He decided to make challenging the curriculum a hefty platform plank, and launched cannonball one in 2018. What would he do with the new curriculum? “Put it through the shredder!”
As the election neared, Kenney said he’d stop the “ideological rewrite” of the curriculum. He’d replace it with “essential knowledge and skills, instead of political agendas and failed teaching fads.” The NDP’s response was that the new curriculum was hardly their creation. It was the result of untold hours of committee work, much of it by teachers. They’d also consulted with parents and experts. Pressed for specific criticism, Kenney vowed to end “the disaster of discovery math.”
The teaching of math has traditionally begun with skills: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. Brick by brick, a skills foundation is built. Only then do you present a real-life problem: for example, an apple pie that must be fairly shared by eight people.
In discovery math, you begin with the pie. By grappling with the pie problem, students “discover” the skill needed to solve it.
If you have friends or children in their 30s, you know this debate is not new. The Cold War was new when educators began debating whether rote memorization or experiential learning was superior. Kenney, posing as champion of “back to the basics” and high-stakes testing of 6–8-year-olds, is fighting a fight older than himself. Kenney’s pal Doug Ford is also tortured by discovery math. It’s all very Jonathan Swiftian, isn’t it? Eighteenth century Gulliver, lost sailor, finds the tiny people of Lilliput and Blefuscu locked in endless war over which end of a boiled egg (big or little) is the right one to open.
The “back to the basics” math quarrel is not only stale, it is also a big stinking red herring. I don’t believe Kenney lives or dies over whether we start with the pie or the times tables. What irks him most about the new curriculum is its goals for science and wellness. Playing up to parents mad because they can’t help their children with discovery math homework is his sneaky way of kicking open the door.
The new K–4 draft curriculum states in its science overview (Grade 1) that “people are connected to nature” and “can impact nature.” In Grade 3, students would learn about sources of energy but also how their actions can help with conservation. The social studies overview for Grade 3 speaks of “respect for diverse identities” and “relationship to land and place informing decision making.” The word “consent” appears for the first time. That’s right: teachers in 2019 would instruct children from the start of schooling that they have a right to consent or not consent to being hugged or touched.
We can see where that’s headed, can’t we? Special clubs for LGBTQ students; denial of parental rights. Why, the NDP were trying to grow a generation of environmentalists! They start by teaching them about energy, and next thing they tell them that combusting oil causes pollution. After that? Climate change!
Kenney’s leadership style is to start each argument with Trumpian bombast. When it comes to actually doing something (on equalization, say, or pipelines), his actions speak more softly than his words. It may prove so with curriculum too. He was going to put it all through the shredder. He did, in fact, cancel an agreement with the Alberta Teachers Association by which teachers had been carrying much of the load on curriculum development. Why is he so suspicious of teachers? Because they’re organized. He doesn’t trust organized workers.
Kenney created an advisory panel to lead his curriculum review, not one of whose members, as one educator put it on Twitter, “has been an active teacher in a classroom in this millennium.” The new curriculum is now “paused.” It will likely be “walked back.” I’d put money on its eventually saying: “Scientific opinion differs as to whether human actions are responsible for global warming.”
When it gets to Earth, I hope it doesn’t say: “With respect to the shape and motion of our planet, opinions differ.”
Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.