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How will Alberta’s social studies curriculum size up?

Experts say a focus on facts isn’t enough.

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Edmontonian Vivian Giang reluctantly admits she’d consider moving to British Columbia—not for a better job or a bigger house, but for a better curriculum.

Giang’s children are going into Grades 1 and 4 this year, and she’s worried about what they’ll be learning in 2022, when Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) plans to launch a new elementary curriculum. After shopping around, she believes B.C.’s curriculum would best resonate with her family.

But for Giang, 2023 will be the real test. If the UCP is re-elected, “it would signal the values of our province,” she said. “I would hate for our values to become so divergent that I would be happy to leave.”

So far, at least 57 school boards across the province have decided not to pilot the draft curriculum this September. Of all the subject areas in Alberta's draft, social studies is often flagged as the most concerning.

In most Canadian provinces and territories, according to subject area experts, social studies curricula are designed to help students develop an understanding of the past, a sense of the future, and an appreciation of their responsibilities to others.

But those same experts say Alberta’s new draft is an outlier—educationally regressive and developmentally inappropriate while othering diverse people and neglecting to meaningfully engage Indigenous perspectives. This leaves many Albertans worried the curriculum would set the province's pedagogical clock backwards, and put Alberta on the wrong side of history.

A false dichotomy

In protest of the draft curriculum, advocacy group Support Our Students made a kind of “spin the wheel” game that highlights some of the learning outcomes. Outtakes from the social studies curriculum include “six-year-olds to explain the origins of writing,” “seven-year-olds to compare the Black Death to COVID-19,” and “nine-year-olds to make a business plan for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.”

I would hate for our values to become so divergent that I would be happy to leave.

Vivian Giang,

Parent, Edmonton

But Giang, whose cultural background is Chinese, is acutely aware that the railroad was built by exploiting thousands of Chinese labourers who were assigned the most dangerous tasks, paid the lowest wages, and made to purchase their own supplies. “How would it make my kid feel, trying to make a budget about how to make the CPR profitable on the backs of people that look like us?” she said.

Examples like this speak to the draft’s overall flaws, says Alan Sears, professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick’s faculty of education. An international expert in social studies and civics, much of Sears’ scholarship has compared national and international curricula. When asked if he knows of any other provinces with curricula similar to Alberta's draft, Sears was blunt.

“No,” he said. "I don’t think there’s anything like this.”

Sears calls the draft a “throwback,” referencing a long-standing tension within history and citizenship education since the late 1800s. At one end, these subjects (key strands in social studies) have been ways to induct students into society, teach a set of stories about the state and encourage patriotism. At the other end, they can help foster a more critical form of citizenship, where students question long-held understandings of what citizenship should entail, and what society should look like.

Sears says social studies should be seen as a symphony made of many notes or themes. Canadian education, for instance, has variously emphasized nationalism, critical citizenship, and pluralism. But with this new curriculum, Alberta essentially plays one (outdated) note: the rote memorization of facts in service of the status quo.

Supporters of the social studies draft curriculum cite figures like E.D. Hirsch or Natalie Wexler, both of whom have ties to the ideologically conservative Fordham Institute. Educators in this tradition are in favour of a content-heavy curriculum that emphasizes building an established base of core knowledge; many also suggest this kind of curriculum is better for educational equity than one based more in critical thinking.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange often calls up this language herself, emphasizing the draft’s renewed emphasis on “essential knowledge,” and the need to leave behind “education fads” like inquiry learning. But according to Sears, a line of argument that pits critical inquiry against the learning of essential knowledge is based on a false dichotomy: No good educator would encourage critical thought without also emphasizing knowledge.

Sears believes a harmony can be found between critical thinking and rigorous content. For example, whether students learn about enslavement in ancient Greece or assimilation through residential schools, they must have a strong command of facts. But those facts can also be used “in discussing the way society is and the way it should be,” Sears adds, as well as to encourage inquiry.

Alberta’s draft curriculum is a laundry list of dates, names, and time periods.

Lindsay Gibson, an assistant professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, believes balance between knowledge and inquiry is off-kilter in Alberta’s draft, particularly when compared to a province like B.C. (as an expert in his field, Gibson has worked on both B.C.'s curriculum and Alberta’s previous draft created under the New Democratic Party).

A handy online comparison tool makes the differences clear. B.C. is guided by core competencies—thinking and communication as well as personal and social awareness—and organized by “big ideas,” which help students come to a deep understanding of a topic.

In contrast, Alberta’s draft curriculum is a laundry list of dates, names, and time periods. While Grade 1 students in B.C. are comparing old and new pictures of their communities to examine change over time, students in Alberta would be learning the difference between BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) through studying ancient Mesopotamia.

A chance to reconcile

Carla Peck, a professor of social studies education at the University of Alberta, said the best social studies programs around the world strive to help students develop historical and geographic ways of thinking.

The latter is “not just about memorizing place names and the definition of what makes a mountain or a lake,” Peck explained. “It’s about asking, ‘how do we understand land and our relationship to the land through the tools that the geographer uses to understand place?’”

Experts like Peck say Manitoba’s curriculum is well-poised to develop that kind of thinking in children. Manitoba Social Studies Teachers' Association president Kevin Lopuck agrees, and also emphasized developing knowledge, understanding, and exploring one’s role in the world in developmentally appropriate ways.

Citing a classic example from education scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, Lopuck said good social studies programs foster citizenship on many levels. “We need the people that will contribute to a food drive, we’ll need the people that start the food drive, but we also need the people asking the question: Why the heck do we need a food drive in the first place?”

Manitoba’s curriculum also receives a passing grade from Frank Deer, Associate Dean of Indigenous Education at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair. But there is room for much improvement.

Deer, who is Kanienkeha’ka from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, shared a sentiment from Murray Sinclair, former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Reconciliation is the journey to a new relationship whilst maintaining a shared sense of the past.”

Alberta’s draft is similar to other provinces in one way: All have far to go in furthering reconciliation.

This work involves both codified efforts to realize the TRC’s Calls to Action, such as treaty education, Deer said, and also “something that is frankly more important in my humble opinion, and that is establishing a healthy, honest relationship with one another.”

Deer says Manitoba and B.C., for instance, are on the right path. But reconciliation is a relatively new area of educational concern, and “we are still negotiating what it means to cause or support learning in schools that ministers to these needs for understanding the Indigenous peoples’ experience,” he added. In this one way, Alberta’s draft is similar to other provinces, which all have far to go in furthering reconciliation.

With the country’s newest social studies curriculum, Alberta could be radically responsive to the TRC’s calls to action and those “healthy, honest” relationships. Instead, the government ignored the TRC’s call to begin residential school education in kindergarten, and key advisor Chris Champion recently tweeted that students who attended the schools were having an “absolute blast.” The Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations rejected it, and the Métis Nation of Alberta has asked for a redraft.

LaGrange ardently defends the draft, and CBC recently reported that eight elementary advisors would be returning to work on curricula for higher grades. Dwayne Donald, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of education, told Windspeaker News that “this insistence that this old story is the way to proceed, that we don't need any changes, that we don't need to reimagine ourselves … I have a lot of fear about the trouble it's going to cause if it goes ahead.”

And yet, parents like Giang trust educators to work hard for Alberta’s children, while lamenting that their hard work would be in spite of an untenable curriculum.

“When teachers say that this is not appropriate or that there are huge deficiencies, listen to them,” she said. “It’s not partisanship… Truly, their hearts are with our children and trying to build an educated generation that will help our society grow and be better.”

Brianna Sharpe is a freelance journalist who covers LGBTQ2S+ issues, politics, parenting, and more. She is a former social studies teacher and has a masters degree in education.

CORRECTION 08/09/2021: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kevin Lopuck's surname. The story has been updated, and The Sprawl regrets the error.

CORRECTION 08/11/2021: An earlier version of this story said Adriana LaGrange announced that eight advisors involved in the elementary draft would be returning to work on curricula for higher grades. This news was in fact reported by CBC and obtained by a freedom of information request. This story has been updated to correct the error, which The Sprawl also regrets.

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