Ghosts of Flawed Teaching Techniques Threaten to Haunt Alberta Classrooms

Commentary, Education, Michael C. Zwaagstra

Michael Zwaagstra, January 13, 2017

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education policy.

Education gurus come up with new ideas, temporarily retreat from them when they prove to be a flop, and then rename them and try again with a new crop of unsuspecting teachers and principals.

Perhaps the worst of these “new” ideas is the notion that specific content knowledge doesn’t matter a whole lot. Since knowledge is changing more rapidly than ever before, the gurus argue that students should not waste time memorizing a bunch of useless facts. Hence, the move away from teacher-directed instruction to various manifestations of inquiry- or project-based learning.

In 2009, the previous Alberta government unveiled its Inspiring Education initiative, which was replete with edu-babble. The report that ushered in the brave new world of education emphasized that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners” and “apply multiple literacies.”

Not surprisingly, Inspiring Education said that schools should move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”

However, there was nothing new about Inspiring Education, as it did little more than repackage some very old ideas. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known American education professor, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record entitled The Project Method in which he outlined the approach.

In true progressive fashion, Kilpatrick made sure to explain that the process of learning is far more important than any specific factual content. Had Kilpatrick not written this article nearly 100 years ago, one might have thought he plagiarized it from the Inspiring Education report.

Despite an avalanche of criticism from academics and other subject-area experts, the government pushed its Inspiring Education agenda forward. The department of education even went so far as to create a two-minute promotional video that proclaimed “Everything is changing.”

At the same time, the government announced its intention to scrap many of Alberta’s top-notch standardized exams and replace them with assessments that focused on the process of learning and not on the content.

And then the election happened. In a surprising development, the Progressive Conservative dynasty was toppled by Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Initially, there were some encouraging signs that newly minted Education Minister David Eggen would scrap the Inspiring Education agenda and bring back a much-needed academic focus. His decision to add a 15-minute calculator-free component to the Grade 6 provincial math assessment was a welcome rebuke to the failed discovery math approach that has taken hold of Alberta schools.

Sadly, despite this positive step, there are many indications that the ghost of Inspiring Education lives on. The Alberta government is currently in the midst of a curriculum review process that has every indication of moving away from specific content knowledge and focusing more on the nebulous process of learning.

The public survey being used to gather feedback consists of a series of questions that talk about various “ways of knowing” and various “21st century competencies.” The phrasing of these questions certainly makes it appear that parents are being led to a predetermined conclusion. The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum, which was recently published by Alberta Education, shows that the fix is in.

This framework is long on the values it wants students to adopt and short on the importance of content knowledge. Even worse is the three-minute promotional video on the department’s website that promotes “student-centred” learning and describes teachers as learning facilitators. It dismisses textbooks as “artificial constructs” and suggests that classrooms need to be more like the real world. William Heard Kilpatrick would have been proud.

While the government might have changed last year, the same bad ideas are still alive and well in Alberta Education. Until the education minister fully renounces the Inspiring Education agenda, Alberta’s world-renowned education system will continue to decline.

Originally posted in The Calgary Herald.