Education in Alberta is a very mixed bag. There are public schools. There are Catholic schools. Both are funded through the public purse. There are charter schools and private schools and there is homeschooling. These receive some public funding and also some parental contribution.
There are contentious issues such as school fees, Gay/Straight Alliances, and an overhaul of the curriculum. There are catch-phrases like “Schools of Choice”, and “parental rights” that don’t mean quite what they sound like.
There is so much that is politically charged in the education of Alberta’s children that one article cannot delve deeply enough into all the issues. So, let us begin with a current hot-topic, the changes proposed to the social studies curriculum. Now, apart from incorporating indigenous history into the program, it may be hard to imagine what could be controversial about teaching history and geography. You might be surprised.
Recently elected head of the Alberta PCs (in the process of morphing into the unfortunately named UCP), Jason Kenney, has made his feeling about modern education known. Kenney feels that students and young people have been overly influenced by left-leaning thought, as he explained to Ezra Levant at the 2016 Conservative Convention.
“I think it’s the first generation to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hard-wired with collectivist ideas, with watching Michael Moore documentaries, with identity politics from their primary and secondary schools to universities. That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party, any party of the centre-right, and we’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.” – Jason Kenney, 2016
Kenney carried it a bit further, suggesting to Edmonton Journal columnist, David Staples, that the NDP’s curriculum overhaul is off-course and should be focused on reading, writing, arithmetic, and be assessed by more standardized testing. He suggests that there is a conspiracy to indoctrinate Alberta’s children with anti-conservative notions about social justice, unions, and collective action.
The most recent hot potato in this debate is the newly proposed changes to the social studies program which will present history as a process of change. David Staples, again, accuses the NDP of creating a curriculum that would turn Alberta’s youth into radical socialists. The expert he consults for opinion is Stuart Wachowicz, the former architect of Alberta’s curriculum under the previous PC government, and a Director for the organization, Parents for Educational Choice. While the name of the group is benign, the group itself seeks, among other things, to curb sex education in schools, and supports Jason Kenney in his view that students who join gay/straight alliances should be outed to their parents.
Staples and Wachowicz are troubled by the repeated use of the word “change” in the draft of the new social studies curriculum for K-12. They want to know how learning this way can be tested. Obviously, it is much easier to test memorized dates and places but, as Jarett Henderson rebuts, history is the story of change and the individuals or social movements that effected those changes. This new curriculum directs educators to dig into the Why of history, rather than just the Who and When. Old school history was a recitation of dates and battles, Kings and Queens, and that is easily testable material. But without understanding the contexts and social movements that lead to changes in government, migrations, and ways of living, there is no depth and no mechanism to better understand today’s geopolitical movements through the lens of the past. Furthermore, anyone with a grasp of the psychology of learning knows that some people are set up to fail in a system that relies on pen and paper exams designed to evaluate the students’ memories.
Albertans seem to be divided. Twitter battles rage on this issue. One faction seems to feel this is a better way to make the lessons of history real and applicable through a deeper understanding of the processes of change. The other faction appears to want to make this into something sinister. But, what exactly do they find so very alarming? Is it teaching Alberta’s children to think critically? Is it opening up the study of history to include the social conditions which led to change, and which continue to lead to change around the world? They protest that this is a radical departure from Alberta’s academic philosophy, that it amounts to “social engineering”. But, perhaps it is the Kenney/Jean-led right in Alberta that has radically changed? Do they share the philosophy and world-view of their predecessors on the right in this province? Or are they more the product of the right-wing movement in the United States with strong evangelical influences? Last word goes to an experienced Alberta teacher who finds no inconsistency with the goals of the new social studies curriculum and the goals of those in the past, introduced by successive conservative governments.