Sunday, February 28, 2010



Alberta should be proud of its school system. It ranks second in the world behind Finland in terms of educational outcomes. Our schools are also ranked by several studies to be the best in Canada and are strongly supported by local communities. Of course, there are challenges – there always will be. But our students, working with their teachers and supported by parents and the community, are generally doing well and our schools are amongst the best in the world.

The challenge for Alberta is that doing well now may not be good enough for our future. As a small jurisdiction – just 3.5 million people – we face growing competition from others for talent, capital and resources. “Good” may no longer be good enough – we need our schools to be great so that Alberta can build its next generation economy, enhance and develop our communities and sustain our environment.

It is time for change.

Our social and economic well-being requires a different kind of school and learning from that which helped build such a successful Province. Essential skills (literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, digital navigation) remain essential, but so are other skills – social networking and team skills, problem solving, participatory democracy skills, Imagineering and creative skills, design…there are many such lists and different conceptions of what these lists mean. The point is simple: we need to rethink what it is our schools are doing and how they are doing it, building on our success in doing so.

What we have to do as citizens is decide what our schools are for – “what is the purpose of our schools in the 21st century?”. Then we can work out just what schools should work on to continue to be amongst the best in the world.

Schools are the foundation of civil society and they lay the foundation for life long learning. They are the hub of communities. Teachers, as professionals, need to be nimble and adaptive as knowledge and understanding changes so quickly. They also need to be respected as professional. Parents need to be engaged in their child’s learning. Students need to be seen as citizens in their own right and their rights should be respected.


We are preparing our young people for a world that is different from the one we grew up in, for jobs that don’t yet exist and for the reality of constant and faster change. What is clear, is that the new economy is driven by knowledge and the speed at which people adapt and learn will become critical to both their success and the future of the Province.

Also clear is that an old reliance on basic skills will not be enough to secure the long term well-being of individuals, families or communities. We need to see education is the primary investment we will make in our Province’s future – they are the foundation for lifelong learning.

Education is also the bedrock of democratic society. Education is the great leveller – it allows people to develop to the potential of their intelligence and hard work, and breaks down the cultures of entitlement based on social class, bloodlines, race or religion. Citizens must be literate, have a decent understanding of history, science, politics, math, and be able to apply reason, evidence and critical thinking both to his or her own life and to the broader context of society and the environment. They must be encouraged to use their own minds and conscience to guide their decisions, rather than abdicating this responsibility to authority figures. They should also learn the difference between scepticism and denial of evidence.

Critical thinking should not be confused with criticism of thinking.

An investment in education and learning should be driven by some core principles – principles that commit us to a vision of schooling that focuses on excellence, supports differences and makes sure we do not loose out on the global “war for talent”.

We know that the Government of Alberta intends to introduce a new School Act. This should be an Act that stands the test of time, that helps Alberta build its future and enhance its position in the world.

The Act and the work associated with it needs to be based on some key principles. We should make these principled commitments as a Province so that our schools continue to be amongst the best in the world. You can help by signing up to these principles – we will let you know how to do so shortly, but use this blog to register your interests.


Success for all is a corner stone of our shared commitment to provide good schools for all students.

Ability comes in many forms and learners need to be supported to enjoy success no matter where their talents lie – education is not just for and about “academics” – we need to be a Province rich in all the talents.

The educational success of learners should not depend on the background or social status or economic characteristics of learners and their families. Schools, communities and families must work together to close gaps in attainment and give each learner the opportunity to find their talent, nurture that talent and be excellent. Success for all requires a significant investment in early childhood learning - without this, learners and the community spend their resources “catching up” rather than developing the talents of their learners.

Education should engage the learner with exciting, relevant content and opportunities for learning through experience and doing. The curriculum should balance abstract and practical knowledge so that every learner can access high quality knowledge and skills as well as vocational opportunities. Teachers should be able to add adapt and develop curriculum – it should not be “over-prescribed” by the Province.

Education should help learners to understand how to be healthy and happy and support them in their efforts to develop and maintain their emotional, physical and mental well-being. Schools should recognize that learning takes place both in and outside of schools – we need to facilitate, enable and recognize learning from a variety of different settings.

Education must be a partnership.

The education of Albertans should be a partnership of schools, parents and the wider community in a local area. Learners have a valuable role to play in contributing to the design of their own learning, and in shaping the way their learning environment operates.

Every place of learning should be different and innovative and we must find meaningful, yet effective, ways of holding schools to account for their performance that reward rather than stifle innovation and creativity.

Trust in our schools and education professionals must be fostered.

Every teacher should be a creative professional involved in the design of curricula and learning environments, and should be supported and supported in their acquisition of appropriate skills to fulfill that role.

Decisions in education should respect the rights of learners as citizens.
Decisions about and in schools should be driven by evidence and research. Alberta needs to be world-class in educational research if its schools are to the lead the world in performance and success.

Decisions about schools need to be based on the outcomes of participatory democracy – communities should be engaged in the work of their schools.

Making Learning Accessible

Schools need a curriculum that is accessible, authentic and valued by learners. An academic curriculum is valuable to many, but so too is apprenticeship, the creative arts, sports and many other “routes” for the talents of our learners. Learners need choices and resources should be linked to the choices learners make.

Schools, colleges and universities should be accessible, affordable and effective. Making access and affordability for our post-secondary system is a pre-requisite for building Alberta’s competitive advantage and is essential if the links between schools and Alberta’s post-secondary system are to be meaningful.


We know that our schools, teachers and the students within them face challenges – lack of resources, uneven access to broadband and technology, testing and its impacts on real learning – the list can go on. What we need to do is to go back to first principles, secure agreement that these principles should be driving our thinking about our schools and then use these principles to drive decisions. We can’t deal with all issues in a single document. What we can do is establish the basis for future decisions.


Building on our past success, preparing Alberta for the competitive knowledge based economy, ensuring that every talent available to us is found, fostered and nurtured and developed to the fullest potential – this is what we need our schools to do. Our schools also need to lay the foundation for participative democracy, lifelong learning and citizenship.

If we want to move from “good” to “great” and do so in a way that nurtures respect, transparency and effectiveness then we must start from first principles.

If we want to tackle some key problems – high school completion rates are low, not everyone who enters post-secondary completes, many employees do not have the literacy skills required to be highly effective in their work – then we need to refocus and reshape our schools and the linkages between schools, colleges and universities.

If we can agree on these, then we can start working on the things that are getting in the way of moving from good to great. But don’t let these other issues get in the way of alignment on the big picture.Lets focus on what matters most.

If you support this thinking and these principles, then we will soon ask you to sign our Declaration of First Principles for Alberta’s Schools. You can also help improve the declaration by going to our Facebook group

As the Government develops the School Act, we will draw attention to this work and its support – the more that sign up, the more likely it will be that the School Act will reflect these principles. Sign now and make a difference.


Sharon said...

You say, "The curriculum should balance abstract and practical knowledge so that every learner can access high quality knowledge and skills as well as vocational opportunities."

I wonder if the distinction between abstract (academic) and practical knowledge (vocational) is one of those artificial industrial legacies that just needs to go.

After all, isn't medicine (becoming a doctor) vocational training, as is nursing, teaching, engineering, etc. Now that all people need some form of post secondary education, an education system for the future might do well to consider ways to remove this hold over from the factory, linear model of schooling.

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

Thanks Sharon.
Can you suggest an alternative wording for this .I was getting at opening up the system to work based learning....

Anonymous said...

I am a bit worried by this wording:

"The curriculum should balance abstract and practical knowledge so that every learner can access high quality knowledge and skills as well as vocational opportunities. Teachers should be able to add adapt and develop curriculum – it should not be “over-prescribed” by the Province."

as it could lead to teachers developing curriculum that teaches creationism.