Inspiring Education Report Lacks Inspiration: New report leads province down wrong path

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


Alberta’s public education system needs to undergo an informed transformation over the next twenty years. At least that’s the dramatic conclusion of the Inspiring Education report released by education minister Dave Hancock last week.
What really stands out about this report is how long it is on edu-babble and how short it is on substance. Inspiring Education states that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners,” and “apply multiple literacies.” To achieve these goals, schools should move away from the “industrial model” of school, become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”
Despite the fact that Alberta students regularly outperform students from other provinces on academic achievement tests, the report concludes that students are not well-served by the current education system. “Very few Albertans believe today’s children are learning in a manner that responds to current or emerging realities,” state the authors of the report.
Inspiring Education explains that in today’s information-based society, knowledge increases at an exponential rate. As a result, schools need to place less emphasis on covering content and more emphasis on teaching students how to look up information on the internet. It does not come as a surprise that the report also recommends moving away from traditional grade and subject divisions and towards a more integrated curriculum model.
While the education minister may believe that his report outlines a new approach to public education, the reality is that it is simply yet another manifestation of an anti-knowledge romantic progressivism which goes all the way back to 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is the same thinking that brought us failed innovations such as open area classrooms, the whole language approach to reading instruction, and the “new” math.
Contrary to what the authors of Inspiring Education appear to believe, the increase in the amount of knowledge available does not make the learning of specific facts unnecessary. The claim that schools should teach students how to look up information rather than pass on specific facts to them is fundamentally misguided. It is through having extensive background knowledge about their culture, what author E. D. Hirsch, Jr. refers to as core knowledge, that students make sense of the world around them.
Nevertheless, the report asserts that schools less focused on content make it possible for students to 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. After all, a student 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. 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.
Another area of concern is the way the report virtually ignores the importance of standardized testing. Alberta has the most advanced standardized-testing regime in the country and there is good reason to believe that this is largely responsible for the fact that Alberta students do so well on international comparisons of academic achievement. Considering that Alberta leads the way in this field, it is disconcerting that this report nowhere acknowledges the importance of maintaining these exams.
The report also suffers from a lack of inspiration in another key area—school choice. While it pays lip service to the importance of flexibility and local control of schools, it nowhere mentions making it easier for parents to choose the school that their children attend. This is a curious omission considering that Alberta is home to more than a dozen thriving charter schools and its second-largest school division, Edmonton Public Schools, has for more than three decades successfully made the expansion of school choice central to its educational philosophy.
Transformative change in education does not come about by dressing up the failed romantic progressive ideologies of the past in a fancy $3 million document filled with edu-babble. Inspiring Education is neither inspiring nor focused on real education.