The Absurd UCP Curriculum

Ideologically driven and lacking basic understanding of how children learn

By Carla Peck

Jason Kenney arrived in Alberta provincial politics with a laser focus on reforming K–12 education, and one of his primary targets was curriculum—what students learn in school. During the first annual general meeting of the United Conservative Party in 2018, Kenney announced: “If the NDP tries to smuggle more of their politics into the classroom through their curriculum, we will put that curriculum through the shredder.” This wasn’t a new position for Kenney. At the Conservative Party of Canada’s national convention in 2016, Kenney told Ezra Levant that the reason young Canadians don’t identify as conservative is because “it’s the first generation to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hard-wired with collectivist ideas…. That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party, any party of the centre-right, and we’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.” 

And so, when the UCP came to power in 2019, they brought with them their paper shredders and nutcrackers. In August of that year, Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange halted the curriculum development work that had been underway for almost 10 years and appointed a new Curriculum Advisory Panel. The 12-member panel included business leaders, administrators of colleges and technical institutes (but no universities) and three professors of education, although only one of these had scholarly expertise in K–12 curriculum theory and policy. Most egregiously, K–12 teachers were left off the panel. LaGrange had torn up a memorandum of understanding between the government and the Alberta Teachers’ Association that had been put in place under the NDP government. The agreement had formalized the role of the ATA as a partner in curriculum development: Teachers were to be included in every step of the process, from advice to conceptualization to development to pilot testing and implementation.

The Curriculum Advisory Panel submitted its report to LaGrange on December 20, 2019, and a new Ministerial Order on Student Learning came into effect on August 6, 2020. Such an order outlines official government policy and direction for matters related to student learning broadly and curriculum specifically. To give a flavour of the differences between the previous ministerial order and LaGrange’s, consider these two excerpts:

“Whereas education in Alberta will be shaped by a greater emphasis on inquiry, discovery and the application of knowledge than on the dissemination of information.” (2013)

Students “will inherit a rich, interconnected knowledge base.” (2019)

The word “inherit” is significant. It implies there is a body of knowledge that students need to receive and does not leave room for student interests or curiosities. This is characteristic of a philosophy of curriculum development that emphasizes universal truths and diminishes the importance of student prior knowledge, experience, choice and interest. Ultimately, it was Kenney’s strong beliefs about the purpose of education that influenced this policy shift. In rejecting the 2013 ministerial order, which had been implemented by a Progressive Conservative government, Kenney was determined to rid the education system of “failed teaching fads” and end the focus on “so-called discovery or constructivist learning.”

Students’ minds aren’t blank slates. Teachers need to do more than crack open a student’s head and deposit knowledge into it. 

What knowledge is of most worth? This question, memorably asked by Herbert Spencer in 1860, lies at the heart of curriculum design. It refers to the choices curriculum developers must make about what knowledge to include and what knowledge to exclude in the official programs of study for Kindergarten to Grade 12. Answers to this question are, of course, a value judgment, and reveal much about the person or people giving them. In the early 1900s, curriculum scholars such as Franklin Bobbitt argued that the most worthwhile knowledge was that which would prepare students for the needs of society at the time. Bobbitt advised curriculum developers to look to current conditions, most importantly a growing industrial society, and list all the knowledge and skills that would be needed by students to assume their role in society upon completing basic education.

More recently, as societal expectations change around representation and authenticity of the voices and perspectives included in curriculum, the people who shape programs of study must also ask “Whose knowledge is of most worth?” Influences such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action (2015), specifically calls 62–65, urge educators and those responsible for curriculum development in Canada to incorporate more Indigenous perspectives and histories, especially around the legacy of residential schools. Indeed, Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, argued that “education is the key to reconciliation.” Other developments, such as Black Lives Matter and research on teaching culturally diverse students, must also be taken into consideration when deciding whose knowledge should be included in the curriculum.

If the government officially implements this curriculum in Fall 2022, not one school in Alberta will have piloted the entire draft.

Important questions about scope and sequence—how much of and when should something be taught—must be considered, but asking “What and whose knowledge is of most worth?” is where curriculum developers should begin. In my professional experience the focus is still very much on the “what,” with the answer to “whose knowledge” often still assumed (white, Western knowledge is the default) or a matter that curriculum developers are only now beginning to explore.

Kenney’s determination to end “discovery” or “constructivist” learning reveals his lack of understanding of basic educational concepts. First, constructivism is a theory of learning, not a method of teaching. Constructivism is based on the idea that learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. It acknowledges that students come into any learning situation with prior knowledge and experiences that shape future learning. It posits that students actively work to integrate new knowledge with knowledge they already have. That is, this theory acknowledges that students’ minds aren’t blank slates and that in order to learn, students need to do more than crack open their head so that teachers can deposit knowledge into it. 

Second, while it’s true that a teacher’s particular theoretical orientation can guide the approaches they use in the classroom, constructivism doesn’t dictate that one teaching strategy be used above all others. Indeed, students construct understandings through a variety of teaching and learning strategies, including reading, listening to a teacher or guest speaker, discussing concepts and problems with peers, independent work, direct instruction and group work, among others. Teachers use their professional judgment to decide which approach will work best for the concepts they’re teaching, and for their students.

Third, neither discovery nor inquiry learning means that students are free to roam the classroom thinking about whatever they want while the teacher sits at their desk drinking coffee. A good teaching approach allows for variations in methods but ultimately helps students achieve the aims set out in the curriculum.

Thus, this UCP policy shift, which is both ideologically driven (“break the nut” of collectivist ideas among youth) and based on misunderstandings of foundational educational concepts, has led to the development of a draft K–6 curriculum that has been widely criticized both in Alberta and internationally.

There is no doubt Alberta’s curriculum required updating. Some areas, such as Art, hadn’t been updated since the 1980s. That document advised teachers to use overhead projectors and laserdiscs. Other curricular areas had been updated in 2005–2010 (Social Studies) and 2015 (Language Arts and Literacy). While not as dated, this material nonetheless required revisiting given a growing consciousness in Canada about the TRC and social movements such as Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and climate action, not to mention current research on how children and youth learn.

Following the August 2020 release of the new ministerial order on student learning, LaGrange chose eight people to create a draft of the K–6 curriculum, in all subject areas. Once again, teachers were excluded. She also disbanded the province’s eight curriculum working groups assembled by the former NDP government, which had included 358 teachers and other experts. LaGrange’s all-male committee was later expanded to 19 members following public criticism of the lack of women and Indigenous representation. Of the 19 appointees, only one was a professor who specialized in curriculum. Two other professors were specialists in psychology, particularly as it relates to literacy development. Some of the remaining advisers had disciplinary expertise in areas such as computing science, math or history.

Revelations soon emerged about Chris Champion, initially the only social studies adviser. Champion, a former staffer to Kenney (when he was an MP) and the editor of a fringe conservative history magazine, has published commentary downplaying the deaths of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops (e.g., “most of the children likely died of disease (meaning they were not murdered).” In a 2019 article, “Alberta’s Little History Wars,” Champion argued that including Indigenous perspectives in curriculum is a “fad.” He refers to the KAIROS blanket exercise, a workshop designed to help teachers and students better understand Indigenous–settler relations (including “pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance”), as “deplorable agit-prop” that “brainwashes children into thinking of themselves as ‘settlers’ stealing the land.” After these revelations, a second social studies adviser was added sometime before February 2021.

These curriculum advisers worked into the fall, and in December 2020 a draft was ready for preliminary review. At that time, 102 teachers and 30 professors of education were given between two and eight days to review the draft and provide feedback. This was the only time that teachers and a wide group of academics with expertise in curriculum were included in the process—i.e., after the draft had been written. I was one of the professors who gave feedback (I focused on social studies); I was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement and therefore cannot discuss the December 2020 drafts.

At the end of March 2021 the draft K–6 curriculum was released to the public. It was immediately criticized. Tens of thousands of Albertans have since protested Kenney’s insistence on moving forward with a fundamentally flawed curriculum. In April the Alberta Curriculum Analysis website launched (full disclosure: I spearheaded its development and am a steering committee member); more than 70 academics and other curriculum and subject-matter experts have published detailed critiques in every subject area. Indigenous organizations including the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Chiefs, the Athabasca Tribal Council, the Métis Nation of Alberta, the Kainai Board of Education and the Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission rejected the draft curriculum. Elders said their perspective is absent and the draft curriculum treats them as “token Indian[s].” Other groups panned the draft as assimilationist, racist and omitting LGBTQ+ perspectives.

Lastly, 56 of Alberta’s 61 school boards (responsible for the education of 95 per cent of students in Alberta) have refused to pilot the draft curriculum, citing a combination of concerns about its poor quality and not wishing to impose a new curriculum during a pandemic. Four remaining boards agreed only to pilot certain subjects, none of them social studies. Westwind School Division, based in Cardston, announced only that “individual teachers who wish to pilot a particular subject… will be permitted to do so.”

This means that, should the government officially implement this curriculum in Fall 2022, not one school in Alberta will have piloted the entire draft.

All of this is a stark deviation from the previous curriculum development process in Alberta. Between 2008 and 2015 the PC government engaged thousands of Albertans, public and expert alike, in a province-wide consultation known as “Inspiring Education,” with a goal of creating a vision for public education in Alberta through to 2030. In 2016 the NDP picked up where the PCs left off, focusing on K–4 curriculum first. A first step was to form curriculum writing groups and teacher and educator focus groups for each subject area. Both groups had 300 people spread across six subject areas (50–60 per area: math, English/language arts, science, social studies, fine arts, wellness) to write and review the curriculum across its various stages of development. Had the NDP remained in government, the same process was going to be used for Grades 5–9 and 10–12.

Many curriculum specialists, particularly those in faculties of education, spend whole careers in their respective fields researching how children learn.

Far more people were involved in this process than under the UCP approach. The composition of the group creating curriculum was different too. Given the ATA’s memorandum of understanding with the NDP government solidifying its role as a partner in curriculum development, the NDP’s groups were comprised of public school teachers (40 per cent) and separate school teachers (16 per cent), with both of these groups including Indigenous teachers. The rest were francophone school teachers (5 per cent), First Nations school teachers (3 per cent), private and charter school teachers (2 per cent), post-secondary professors, including disciplinary and curriculum experts (8 per cent), Alberta Education staff (responsible for organizing and running meetings: 19 per cent) and other organizations (7 per cent), including members of the governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, jurisdictions that have, until now, used some of Alberta’s curriculum. Representatives from the NWT have recently suggested that the UCP’s vision for education does not align with their own and they might look elsewhere for curriculum.

Between 2016 and 2018 numerous in-person engagement sessions were held with a wide range of stakeholders including the ATA, school authorities, teachers, students, parents and First Nations, Métis, Inuit and francophone Albertans. Various organizations led these sessions, including school boards and Alberta’s Professional Development Consortia. In these sessions, paper copies of the draft curricula were shared and discussed and feedback was gathered. Hundreds of Albertans participated in these sessions. 

Other forms of engagement included public surveys about the draft documents. The NDP published all of the raw data from a survey in fall 2016 which gathered comments from more than 32,000 citizens. Anyone with internet access could see the spreadsheet and know who responded (teacher, student, parent etc.) as well as their answers to the survey questions. Other survey results were collated by Alberta Education and independent firms and published online. Overall, between 50,000 and 100,000 Albertans provided feedback over several years, a curriculum development process Jason Kenney now characterizes as having been done “in secret.”

The NDP government’s decision to involve 100 or more people to develop a single curriculum area is unusual for Canada. Much smaller groups (often somewhere between 15 and 20 people per subject area and level—elementary, junior high and high school—not including reviewers, consultations with experts etc.) are more typical, although these usually include a diversity of voices, either from committee members or consultants. Regardless of the group size, including multiple voices is critical and is preferable to the UCP approach—only one or two disciplinary experts and almost no curriculum or K–12 specialists involved in shaping the curriculum.

One person (of even two) is unlikely to know everything there is to know about a given aspect of curriculum. Relying on one person for advice means narrowing the scope of expertise. That person might even be top in their field, but the very nature of specialization means one person can’t know everything. For example, I specialize in history and citizenship education. I don’t specialize in geography, anthropology, political science or sociology. So, if I had been asked to consult on the social studies curriculum, I’d have been well equipped to provide direction on the history and civics sections, but on the other areas, not so much.

Many voices should be at the table. For example, disciplinary specialists have an important place in curriculum design. They provide insight into the central questions in their respective fields, and into the theories and methods about how knowledge is produced in those fields. A historian provides crucial information about what historical topics and questions are important and worthy of study. Historians also shed light on how members of their profession go about their craft, e.g., through analyzing evidence, evaluating progress and decline, determining causes and consequences
and so on.

A disciplinary specialist, however, is unlikely to understand how young children learn or what learning progression looks like through the grades. Skills and concepts grow out of the academic disciplines but need to be developed for children. Many curriculum specialists, particularly those based in faculties of education, spend whole careers in their respective fields researching how children learn. These understandings are domain-specific; knowledge in science differs from knowledge in history, for example. It’s vital that curriculum developers understand these differences.

Other groups, including teachers, students and representatives of Indigenous, francophone, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, also need to be at the table. All of these bring essential knowledge to the curriculum development process. For example, teachers know how to reach students with diverse learning needs. They understand what’s appropriate in terms of students’ development and what’s possible within a typical school day and year. Representation from marginalized groups ensure that diverse voices, perspectives and histories become an integral part of the program of studies. Decades of sociocultural research in education has demonstrated the importance of ensuring that all students can see themselves in the curriculum they encounter in school.

And although students are directly impacted, they are often left out of the curriculum development process altogether—an issue that should be rectified.

While parents, caregivers and business leaders usually aren’t experts in curriculum, they are experts in the children in their lives and in the characteristics they value in their employees. Representatives of parent school councils and chambers of commerce should be invited to present to the curriculum-writing teams and be part of the ensuing public consultation. While it’s impossible to integrate all feedback, developers can look for common themes and/or glaring errors or omissions that can then
be addressed.

Lastly, while the curriculum is being piloted, ideally across a range of grades and contexts, more feedback will be generated from teachers, students, principals, families, school-board-based curriculum consultants and people who work exclusively with exceptional learners. With all of the feedback gathered, the curriculum-writing teams return to the table and adjust as required. Then, and only then, should a curriculum be finalized. It may still require some tweaking after a few years of implementation—it’s important to continue to gather feedback and adjust as necessary.

In developing curriculum, the most important question—even moreso than “what knowledge” or “whose knowledge”—is What kind of society do we want? If we want a future that looks the same as what we have now, then we can follow Franklin Bobbitt’s model and study elements of society—jobs, laws, societal norms etc.—and develop long lists of knowledge and skills for students to master, the result of which will be graduates who have been taught to maintain the status quo.

But if we want citizens to look for ways to make society more just, to find viable solutions to the challenge of climate change, to develop new ways of tackling as-yet-unknown problems our local, national and global societies will face, then we need to think carefully and deliberately about the kind of education our children need to create a different future.

Carla L. Peck is a professor of social studies education in Elementary Education at the University of Alberta.

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