Students Should Learn More—Not Less: Reducing the amount of content in Ontario’s curriculum is a big mistake

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


If the Ontario government has its way, students will learn a lot less content in school by the fall of 2011. According to a special advisory group consisting of principals, teachers, superintendents, and trustees, students are drowning in too many facts from current K-8 curriculum guides. The solution, they argue, is the removal of unnecessary facts that are “cluttering up” the curriculum.
Recent comments from Karen Grose, the superintendent of the Toronto District School Board, make it clear just how dim a view many educators take of factual knowledge. “Our kids live in a world where they are immersed in content through things like Twitter and Google, so we don’t want them memorizing facts they can access easily, but we want them to think about how to apply that knowledge, and how it affects how they live as citizens and workers.”
When a school superintendent claims that access to Twitter and Google makes the memorization of facts unnecessary, we know our education system has hit a new low.
Common sense tells us there’s a huge difference between students with substantial background knowledge and those who don’t know anything unless they look it up on the internet.
Anyone who doubts this statement should ask themselves who they would hire to fix their vehicle—a trained mechanic or an amateur with a collection of engine schematics and do-it-yourself repair manuals. Of course, virtually everyone would choose the trained mechanic. Mechanics know a lot more about how engines operate than amateurs and they can use this knowledge to quickly diagnose and correct mechanical problems.
The same principle holds true in other professions. No one would consult a lawyer who needed to check the internet when answering even the simplest of legal questions. Nor would anyone be particularly impressed with a doctor who constantly refers to his medical textbook throughout every routine checkup. We expect professionals to possess a certain amount of specialized knowledge about their field. Without that knowledge, they are no more useful than an amateur with an internet connection.
Those who wish to reduce the amount of content in the curriculum claim this helps students think more deeply about important issues. What advocates of this approach forget is that it is impossible to think deeply about something that you know nothing about. Someone who needs to consult Wikipedia in order to find out the date of Confederation or the name of our first prime minister is unlikely to provide much deep thought about the historical development of the Canadian constitution.
In short, deep and critical thinking is most likely to be done by those students who possess the most extensive knowledge base about the subject in question. This fact makes it all the more essential that we immerse students in content-rich instruction.
Prescribed subject matter content also plays an important role in helping students learn how to read more effectively. Although current language arts curriculum guides treat reading comprehension as an abstract skill, there are solid reasons to challenge this approach. In his 2006 book, The Knowledge Deficit, well-known education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr. cites an exhaustive number of research studies that back up the contention that background knowledge, often called cultural literacy, is the key to reading comprehension.
The Core Knowledge Foundation (, an organization founded by Hirsch, publishes detailed content-rich standards that are in stark contrast to the vacuous generalities offered by most provincial curriculum guides. Research studies comparing core knowledge schools with regular public schools consistently demonstrate that students in schools with more curricular content outperform those from schools with less content.
As for the argument that the current curriculum is overcrowded with a jumble of disconnected facts, let’s make sure we connect the facts in a coherent fashion. Rather than reducing the amount of content studied, structure the curriculum in such a way that it fits properly together. The last thing our students need is a curriculum even emptier of content than it is now.
It’s time educational administrators and bureaucrats stop using school children as guinea pigs for their pet ideologies. We need to provide our students with the best education possible. The evidence is clear that our students need to learn more content, rather than less.