Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Changing What and How We Teach Needs Time

Alberta is engaged in a major curriculum reform – the cornerstone of its strategy to ensure its sustains its position as a global leader in education. At the heart of these reforms are these shifts:

  1. A strong focus on the student and the process of learning – increasing the sense of ownership, involvement and engagement in learning – making learning more focused on the way in which the learner learns.
  2.  Less focused on content and more focused on competency – students will still study subjects like science, arts, maths but will do so with the intention of developing skills, knowledge, understanding and the attitudes and methods required by those subjects to achieve outcomes. Some have suggested that this is all about discovery and projects – and these will be a significant part of how students learn at some stages for some subjects – but there will be a strong focus on competencies and outcomes.
  3. From a prescribed study schedule and curriculum to greater flexibility – professional teachers will be able to make many more decisions about how best to achieve the competency expectations for their students through locally relevant, meaningful work and activities. All students in Alberta at each grade will still be expected to have mastery of the competencies associated with that grade – how they achieve this will largely be determined locally.
  4. A focus on assessment for learning  - students will be assessed, but the focus for this assessment will be on the question “what else does this student have to do to master these competencies?”. There will still be Provincial assessments, but the focus for these will change.
  5.  Less print, more varied forms of learning materials – so much quality learning resources are available online, in print and through simulations, interactive learning resources and through global collaborative projects. Teachers and learners will have more choice over what to use to support their learning.
  6. Less development of curriculum by Alberta Education and more development through the engagement of local stakeholders (e.g. teachers, employers, post-secondary institutions,  First Nations and Metis communities, nonprofit organizations and community organizations, students) so that what is taught and being studied by students reflects the needs, resources and skills in the community in which the student lives and works.

These changes are significant and substantial, but reflect not only what is needed in Alberta but also what many other jurisdictions around the world are doing. The intention is to ensure that students leaving school  are able to:

  •          Know how to learn
  •         Think critically
  •         Identify and solve problems
  •          Manage information
  •         Innovate
  •         Create opportunities
  •          Apply multiple literacies
  •         Communicate well and cooperate with others
  •        Demonstrate global and cultural understanding
  •         Identify and apply career and Lifeskills

To put it succinctly: we are looking for our school system to enable our young people to be engaged thinkers, ethical citizens and entrepreneurial. This requires changes to what we teach, how we teach and how we assess what has been learned. The Government of Alberta committed to these changes in a series of actions and decisions making clear the direction our education system would take (see here for a short video about curriculum change and here for the Ministerial commitment to these changes). 

These are not the only changes taking place in our school system – there are changes which enable students to take college or university credit while at high school, for more flexibility in high school programs, changes to Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) and Diploma Exams, encouraging locally developed courses and investing in the use of technology for learning. But changing what students do every day – the curriculum – and how we assess them are key to delivering on the promise of Inspiring Education.

These changes are causing concern. One parent, concerned about declining performance in mathematics in Alberta, has started a “back to basics” in maths petition which has already been signed by over 10,000 persons. The Wildrose Part – Alberta’s official opposition – appears opposed to these curriculum changes.  Others have expressed concerns that some of those engaged in the process of curriculum change are major oil and gas companies (as well as several other businesses, nonprofits, First Nations groups and other stakeholders). All appear concerned about the speed at which these changes are intended to be made – completed within two years.

At the heart of these conversations are some interesting questions:

  1. Who should set curriculum?  The teaching profession, government, communities? In theory, the Province sets curriculum guidelines which teachers than adapt to local circumstance. For a major overhaul, should we not all be involved, with the final decisions in the hands of professional educators?
  2.  What should be the focus of assessment? The strategy is to shift to a competency based assessment coupled with an assessment of learning outcomes. In math, this would mean “can a student successful perform the following calculations and get the right answer” (competency) as well as “does the student understand the basis of these calculations” (learning process and outcome).
  3. What should drive change? The focus on the new math is interesting – the suggestion is that students can no longer perform basic math and this is because some “eductrats” adopted a “fad” known as “discovery math. Our Math curriculum, despite what “traditionalists” might say, is extremely strong. It is based on solid research on child development, and was developed not by a couple of bureaucrats sitting in an office, but rather through the exhaustive input and review of 43 Math teachers, professors, and consultants from four provinces and the then two territories, and when revised in 2006 had input from an additional 24 consultants from four provinces and all three territories (for more information, see here).  Further, our PISA results in Math are impressive. Alberta’s scored  51-  only two points behind Finland, one of the leading educational systems in the world Given our (both at the Canadian level, and specifically Alberta) diverse and very heterogeneous population, our country’s Math teachers must be doing something right. Ahead of us are places like Liechtenstein (population of 36,000), Macau, Shanghai – in fact just a 2 per cent reduction in our raw score on math over a period of three years has led to ministerial handwringing, parents initiating petitions, newspaper columnists launching crusades and CEOs descending from on high to chastise teachers. Should PISA envy be the driver of curriculum change?

Public support for education is always complicated. It is clear that much more could have been done much sooner to engage parents, employers, First Nations, communities and teachers in the work of curriculum change. It is also clear that change is needed. Lets take the time it takes to do it well.

(This post first appeared at the Innovation Expedition

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