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A Modest Proposal to Minimize the Risk of Experimental Education

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Shannon Fagan via Getty Images
Shannon Fagan via Getty Images

Alberta students used to have by far the highest academic achievement in Canada, but lately they have started to slip in the standings. Apparently the Alberta government is okay with this trend, because now it is mandating a new curriculum that is almost certain to result in an even greater drop. The new curriculum, Inspiring Education, stresses the co-construction of knowledge, and as a result the amount of content in the curriculum is to be reduced to only ten outcomes per grade per year per subject. Gone are cursive writing, most grammar, most geometry, map study, and much more. The new curriculum, which includes prescriptions for how the teachers will teach (discovery learning, use of a lot of technology), is to be imposed on all schools that receive government money, and in Alberta that includes charter, private, and distance schools.

More or less the same thing is happening in B.C. The new B.C. Education Plan plan has a singular focus on personalized learning, and the revamped curriculum is a mere dozen or so pages long. B.C. education leaders, in consultation with the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, have created an open-ended curriculum that stresses innovative learning and teaching practices. And although the Ministry of Education is quick to reassure parents that the basics are still to be taught at the elementary level, the evidence for this is not convincing. In math, for example, the operational procedures of fractions have been pushed back to Grade 8.

And in Ontario, a similar type of curriculum is already in place, although for the most part it has been brought in incrementally and with no fanfare over the past ten years or so. The exception is the new sex education curriculum which has attracted a lot of opposition in Ontario, but the rest of the changes, in particular far-ranging changes to the academic subjects, have been successfully kept under the radar.

Education leaders in Alberta, B.C., and Ontario believe that their ideas will create life-long, self-directed learners, citizens who are motivated problem-solvers -- the type of workers and citizens that business and the social sector want and need. These education leaders accept that test scores will drop some more, but they consider test scores to be meaningless measures. They are willing to take the risk that their new curriculum will increase the students' higher-order thinking skills enough to more than compensate for their decrease in basic skills in things like reading and math.

By way of contrast, many parents and teachers hold that test scores do capture important aspects of their children's learning, and these parents are in favour of educational processes -- like teacher-led direct instruction and a rigorous curriculum -- that are known to result in higher test scores. These parents and teachers point out that there is no research to back education leaders' opinion that their new curricula will result in life-long self-directed learners and that, if anything, the available evidence suggests the opposite. These parents and teachers are strongly resisting the new ideologies, but to date they are being stonewalled by governments.

Other parents and teachers favour the new ideologies and plan to willingly enroll their children in the new programs.

In a polarized situation like this, where it is not yet clear who is right, it is probably unwise to put all of one's education eggs in one basket. Furthermore, it is not really ethical for governments to impose untested ideologies on children over their parents' strong objections. Therefore, I am putting forward the following modest proposal as a compromise measure.

I propose that the Alberta, B.C., and Ontario ministries of education authorize the establishment of some schools with the experimental approach and some schools with a more traditional orientation, and then let parents and teachers choose between them.

In addition to not risking everything on an experimental approach, this method will have the advantage that the parents and teachers in both types of schools will agree on the school's mission and work together towards its achievement -- thus making all schools more likely to succeed.

The proof will be in the pudding. If, down the road, it becomes clear that education leaders' preferred agenda is superior, then the dissenting parents and teachers will see the light and it will be no longer necessary to ram the new approach down their throats -- a much more democratic and less risky approach than the one currently being employed.


Ontario Sex Education By Grade
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