Doing the Math in the Alberta UCP Leadership Review

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The UCP’s long-overdue K-12 curriculum reforms could be threatened depending on the vote result

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The ballots in the United Conservative Party’s leadership review are probably being counted right now to determine whether Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will remain the party’s leader. Should Kenney lose the vote, one can’t help wondering if triggering a UCP leadership race will only weaken the party’s chances of winning the next election. More than Kenney’s leadership is at stake. UCP-inspired policies currently in development or being implemented could also be in jeopardy.

One of the more crucial policy areas that would be threatened is the K-12 curriculum reforms that are underway. The UCP initiated a long-overdue review of the provincial curriculum, and the NDP has vowed to scrap these plans should they come back into power.

The new curriculum will replace the current approach, which has been in place since 2005. The new curriculum has some flaws that need to be worked out, but the framework is bold and it replaces the progressive-style curriculum with one that is much more solid and content-based. If seen through to its conclusion, these reforms will provide Alberta’s students with a comprehensive and coherent overview of basic subject areas: science, math, literature, world history, and Canadian civics.

To take one example, the Alberta government is working with the Canadian-based non-profit JUMP math program to train teachers to deliver the new K-6 curriculum. Where this has been piloted, the student gains have been impressive. As reported by David Staples in the Edmonton Journal, math students improved two full grade levels in just one year. But Staples also pointed out that teachers are often reluctant to embrace this approach because it appears too “old school.”

Teachers have been in the grip of the progressive mantra for many years, which tells them learning happens best when students “inquire” and “discover” answers on their own. The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) likes to trot out pleasant-sounding phrases like “inquiry-based” learning to pacify anxious parents who are concerned that that math scores in Alberta have been dropping for at least a decade. The teachers’ association even started a website to oppose the new curriculum. It begins with the rhetorical question, “Is this 21st Century Learning?”

It’s as if the ATA still believes that inquiry-based learning as opposed to content-learning works, and not only that, that it was specifically designed to deal with today’s challenges. And even if they don’t believe their own myth, they obviously want parents to believe it. Yet, the real source of this so-called 21st-century learning is the American progressivist John Dewey, who published his education theories in the early 1900s. Hilda Neatby was already criticizing Dewey’s “inquiry-learning” approach that was creeping into Canadian curricula in her book “So Little for The Mind,” published in 1953.

These progressive approaches sound great, but they have proven to be ineffective. Yet teachers, inundated by the rhetoric of their unions and school boards, are reluctant to consider alternatives. Educational psychologists Paul Kirschner and John Sweller have pointed this out. “In each decade since the mid-1950s,” they write “when empirical studies provided solid evidence that the then popular unguided approach did not work, a similar approach popped up under a different name with the cycle then repeating itself. Each new set of advocates for unguided approaches seemed either unaware of or uninterested in previous evidence that unguided approaches had not been validated.”

It’s sad when those in charge of the institutions charged with cultivating critical thinking skills seem strangely incapable of exercising those skills themselves.

The latest cognitive science shows that students learn best when they are provided with solid content built up over time in a coherent sequence. That might look old-fashioned, but the main point is that it actually works, as the JUMP math program proves. And you’d think that would be what the teacher’s association should be most concerned about, in which case they should endorse the new curriculum rather than oppose it.

Alberta is the first provincial jurisdiction in Canada to attempt to restore some balance to public education, an institution crucial for the health of our liberal democracy. If the UCP cannot get re-elected, the opponents of the new curriculum, including the teachers’ union and the NDP, will be eager to scrap it. They will double down on the failed approaches of the 1950s, which they persist in calling 21st-century learning.

Those who are interested in our young people actually learning so as to be able to compete in the competitive 21st-century economy will be watching anxiously as the UCP leadership votes roll in.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

David Livingstone

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David W. Livingstone, Ph.D., is a professor in the Liberal Studies and Political Studies departments at Vancouver Island University. He has published articles and book reviews on a variety of topics, including Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s contribution to Canadian confederation.



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