April 27, 2021

Opinion: Is Alberta's draft curriculum for K-6 really knowledge-rich?

Maren Aukerman in Calgary Herald
Maren Aukerman
Maren Aukerman says kindergarten to Grade 6 students need skill- and knowledge-rich curriculum.

Knowledge is vital for reading and for content learning. One might think that, as an education professor, I would therefore be cheering the 2021 Alberta curriculum draft, touted as “promoting knowledge.” Instead, I am deeply disappointed, for it teaches knowledge ineffectively, focuses on the wrong knowledge and virtually ignores everything else children should be learning, as I explain below.

How well does this curriculum align with what research says will support lasting knowledge development? The research says:

Students need to relate what they learn to what they already know. Yet, this curriculum frequently presents material so far outside children’s experience that it will be hard for kids to make connections. Try asking second graders to link “the scale and importance of the Mongol empire in human history” to their daily lives.

Students who are interested in content, find it relevant and have opportunities to actively apply it will develop knowledge better. This curriculum eliminates some topics that students often find engaging (like dinosaurs), replacing these with strings of facts with less kid appeal. It also offers few chances for students to apply material they are learning in meaningful ways.

Students should deeply explore concepts, with enough time and rich experiences to truly make sense of them. Myriad disparate target outcomes in this curriculum make such learning impossible; there’s not time. The likely result is shallow “learning” without staying power.

Students learn more from reading multiple texts on single subjects than from reading unrelated texts on lots of different topics or from just reading a textbook. Unless considerable financial resources are allocated, classrooms won’t have multiple high-quality texts about, say, the Han Dynasty (Grade 2). Kids can’t read what isn’t available. But, even with ample resources, there is no way teachers could allocate sufficient time for deep reading, given the sheer volume of material. Students also need to read widely and extensively on their own, but the curriculum doesn’t emphasize or leave time for that either.

Taken together, these flaws make it highly unlikely that students will effectively learn the very knowledge this curriculum says is important for them to know.

But does this curriculum even target the knowledge that should matter most? A well-designed curriculum should:

  • be accurate, reflecting development by experts with deep content understanding. Instead, when released, this one was riddled with inaccuracies, from requiring children to locate gravity on a globe to demanding that they find Regina on a map of Alberta. Even if errors get corrected, this inattention to accuracy, coupled with the presence of documented plagiarism, raises questions about curriculum writers’ ability to synthesize material well.
  • reflect knowledge of national, regional and local importance, drawing on a range of perspectives. This curriculum has tons of U.S. content but leaves out important Canadian matters, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has been widely critiqued for Eurocentric content; biased inclusion of religion; lack of attention to Indigenous, Metís, francophone and Asian Canadian concerns; and its highly ideological slant.
  • focus on vital, enduring understandings. Do Alberta children need to forever remember that “Canada’s first bank was the Bank of Montreal, founded in 1817” (Grade 5)? This curriculum often focuses on such factoids but seldom on deeper understandings that put knowledge into context.
  • address knowledge of the present as well as the past. This curriculum provides scant opportunity to examine current events and contemporary concerns. It treats Indigenous peoples as though they only existed in the past, and makes no mention of LGBTQIA individuals or homophobia — even though such students face a heavy burden of bullying and lack of acceptance.

The knowledge in this curriculum, in short, is not at all what Albertan children need.

And does the curriculum adequately address other things, in addition to knowledge, that children also need to learn?

In a word, no. It is simplistic to say that curriculum should emphasize either knowledge or skills; children need both. Students will be expected to participate in 21st-century society as skillful users of knowledge. They need to be able to think critically, determine if internet content is credible, and listen deeply to other people’s perspectives. These skills (and many others) are ones that the curriculum mostly ignores. It also does nothing to build important habits of mind, such as reading motivation.

Knowledge matters, but it is not all that matters. Let’s not underestimate what a curriculum can and should do, and let’s not serve up a knowledge-poor and skills-poor curriculum to Alberta children.

Maren Aukerman, previously a professor at Stanford and at the University of Pennsylvania, is a Werklund Research Professor in curriculum and learning at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education.