Alberta is about to transform its school system. The Alberta Teachers Association, School Boards and Minister of Education appear aligned on basic intent and will seek to reach a new three year Province wide teacher labour settlement to create the stable base for this work.
At the heart of this transformation will be a new emphasis on learning rather than instruction. That is, reduce the sheer volume of content requirements (there are over 1300 objectives in the Grade 7 curriculum for example) and focus more on the competencies and skills required in each subject to be knowledgeable and able to use that knowledge intelligently. While the Minister talks of this in terms of
“personalizing” learning, the focus is really on shifting the emphasis to knowledge in use and knowledge assessed through competency, rather than time on task.
A second key feature is a rethink of the teaching profession. Under discussion is the idea that teachers, like lawyers and doctors, will be certified by the profession and will be required to undertake continued professional development to sustain that certification. As teachers take on more responsibility for curriculum and competency based assessment and will increasingly be responsible for student assessment, it is critical that they update their skills and enhance their knowledge. A reform of initial teacher education will also be desirable.
A third key feature of the informed transformation relates to the use of technology. In the last decade, Alberta Education has invested close to $2 billion in technology for schools – not all of it smart investment. It is important to look carefully at the role technology can play and what the limits to its use can be – while we need to leverage technology, it is not a substitute for effective learning by problem solving or being taught by a person in real time. While some school boards have interpreted “personalizing” education in terms of making the Provincial curriculum available online so that students can study anytime and anywhere, the real meaning of “personalizing” is that means are found to build a stronger sense of student engagement with their learning. If technology can help, then fine – but the real challenge is to make the learning interesting and challenging.
The final feature of the transformation is to permit schools more independence from the top down control regime which has gradually overwhelmed the system. Not all schools have the same resource base, the same kind of students, the same kind of parental support or the same quality of teachers – not all schools are equal. Schools need room to manoeuvre so as to give the students the best chance of success. Some experiments are already taking place – there are designated flexible high schools, for example – but more is needed.
There will be changes to the School Act - students will be required to stay at school until they are seventeen, adding an additional year; there will be changes to school governance; changes will also be made to the accountability regime – but these are the symbols of change. What really needs to be different is how students think about their education and how engaged they are in pursuing it.