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April 14, 2014

Over the past few months, I have read and heard a great deal of negative commentary directed toward teachers, particularly my colleagues in mathematics classrooms. I could list the writers and commentators who have been particularly vocal in this arena, but I’m not going to. Nor am I going to make this a personal attack against those who disagree with my line of thinking, as has been done to many of my colleagues. But I am going to enter into the discussion.

19th Century Teaching and Learning

Imagine a classroom where student voice is not valued. One where students sit quietly in ordered rows and memorize facts presented to them by their teachers. A classroom where regurgitation of facts is most important. Where drill and practice is the dominate teaching methodology. A space where children are beaten should they dare to question the authority of the teacher. The goal of this classroom is to create adults who do not question authority and memorize the knowledge which is deemed as important by the experts of the day. Problem solving, collaboration, exploration, and empathy are not qualities valued in this classroom.

21st Century Teaching and Learning

Compare the classroom above to one where students and teachers work collaboratively to access information and solve problems. Where students and teachers reflect upon the process of solving problems and share their thoughts and solutions around the globe. One where thinking, analysis, and synthesis of information is valued over the simple regurgitation of basic facts. In this classroom, empathy, ethical citizenship and problem solving are the goals. Students are encouraged to continually try to solve problems and make changes to their thinking. The teacher no longer holds all of the facts but helps students work through a problem solving model. Feedback is related to the process of learning and synthesis of information rather than memorization of facts. Integration of modern information technology and mobile technology is seamless and forms a part of everything that is done in the class.

A Brave New World

The world my students will enter this year upon completing high school is drastically different that the one I entered in 1992 upon completing high school. It is unrecognizable compared to the world my parents entered in 1964 when they completed high school. The skills and knowledge needed to compete in the world now cannot be compared to the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in 1992, 1964, or 1864. Times have changed. As such, the process of education must change.

I think what is most interesting to me is that opponents to curriculum redesign suggest core processes are no longer taught. All you have to do is look at commentary on Facebook or in the media suggesting that the new math curriculum does not teach fundamental, basic mathematical processes. I’ve polled a number of elementary math teachers and have found consistently that this is not the case. Inquiry processes are utilized in classrooms. However, I think it is dangerous to suggest that teachers just leave students to discover everything on their own. Good teaching combines a mixture of both direct instruction with inquiry.

Another interesting piece to this puzzle is the suggestion that curriculum redesign in Alberta is being directed by “outside educational consultants” and industry. This is just false. The current Alberta Education curriculum redesign is being directed and completed by teachers. In the process of ensuring the curriculum prepares students for life after high school, post-secondary institutions and members of the business community are to be consulted. As are members of First Nations groups, community leaders and government.

This is an emotive topic as it deals with something everyone has experience with – school. It is also emotive as it deals with kids. As a parent and a teacher, I want my child and my students as prepared as possible to enter an ever changing world. When I asked a number of business leaders what qualities they looked for in their employees they wanted passion, curiosity, empathy for others and a capacity to manage problem solving and ambiguity.  Funny that memorization was left off the list.

One last note, I recognize that my opinion is just that. While it is based on 15 years of experience and post graduate research, I recognize that it is still my opinion. I value open dialogue and respect that others will not agree with me just as I do not agree with everyone. Hopefully, we can foster a conversation that has the success and well being of all students in mind.

Have a great day,


  1. Dan Scratch permalink

    Great post Sean! As we’ve discussed before I still don’t think industry/corporate input will be a good thing for the curriculum redesign. I think that teachers, parents, students and others can create a curriculum that focuses on “passion, curiosity, empathy for others and a capacity to manage problem solving and ambiguity” without having to consult corporate interests. Allowing this influence to happen (what that looks like yet, we don’t really know the specifics) opens the door for curriculum to be directed towards corporate interest, especially in K-3. I would say we’re better off keeping it “in house” by having teachers, parents, and students focus on inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, compassion, and empathy.

    That being said, I’m very excited for every other aspect of the curriculum redesign and to see what it will look like in a few years time. There is a lot to be excited about and the direction of education seems to be going the right way. I just hope it lives up to the hype!


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