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The Mess in Education in Alberta

November 1, 2014

This past week, an article posted on an Edmonton Journal blog indicated that Alberta’s new Premier and the New Minister of Education have limited time within which to fix the “mess of education” in Alberta. While everyone is entitled to their opinion. The author of the blog is no exception. However, I do not agree with the blanket statement that the entire education ministry is both in disarray and pursuing radical changes that will “further” diminish the quality of education in Alberta. As such, I thought I might take some time to write about the amazing things I see going on in this province every day.

Redesigning the System

Public education in Canada began as a way to promote all things British. It was a method of ensuring the citizens of British North America possessed a similar understanding of religion, government and societal traditions. This view of the purpose of public education continued through the 1800’s where public education systems were seen as a way to promote appropriate thinking and behaviour. The overall goal was not the acquisition of academic knowledge, but, rather the establishment of  a system whereby students learned how to behave. This is how the system was framed at the outset of public, mandatory education in Canada. Students were arranged into age based grades and were taught about religion, science, history, literature, and mathematics. Teachers delivered facts, figures, and equations. Students were expected to memorize these items and were assessed on their capacity to recite them from memory.

This is the system created in the late 1800’s in Canada. What is most interesting is that the system looks very similar in 2014. Granted, classrooms have grown in size and some include various pieces of technology. But, the overall nature of schools and teaching have not changed for over 100 years. However, for the past four years, Alberta Education made attempts to alter this out of date model. Alberta Education introduced a number of initiatives designed to change a system that is out of date. Inspiring Education and the High School Redesign project are two examples of initiatives undertaken by the Ministry, teachers and administrators with the goal of creating a modern system of education. Opponents of these changes would have the public believe that they are radical and not research based, best practice. They will try to draw your attention to topics like “discovery learning” and “radical” teaching practices. Opponents of these changes will also suggest that teachers are given no choice in how to teach within their classrooms. However, what they fail to speak about is all of the teachers using research based teaching practices to guide the learning in their classroom. They do not discuss the higher rates of graduation due to the capacity for credit recovery available through the High School Redesign. There is no doubt that the redesign of a system in existence for over 100 years is going to take time and will not be perfect the first time out. But to label the changes as “radical” without giving the complete story is dangerous and detrimental to students and teachers.

Let’s Think this Through

Another piece that opponents of education redesign bring forward is student performance on standardized testing. Opponents of education redesign suggest student performance on standardized testing across all grades in Alberta has gone down since Alberta Education began to redesign the system. They suggest that a decline in student performance is indicative of the problems in the entire system. However, I would suggest this is indicative of the changing nature of our students rather than an indication of the quality of education they receive. The students we see in our classroom are diverse culturally, in religious background and in their personal academic strengths. This diversity has increased in Alberta classrooms over the past 20 years. However, the method used to assess the performance of these students has not. The methods used in the classroom, both in teaching and formative assessment have changed. Teachers work very hard to ensure they utilize a variety of teaching methods and assess their students in ways that best suit them. However, those students face standardized tests that do not take any of this into account. Then, when students perform poorly on these assessments, opponents of education reform are quick to suggest the new teaching and classroom based assessments are at fault. Is it not possible the students are performing poorly on the standardized assessments because they are a flawed assessment?

The Real World

There is no doubt I am in favour of redesigning the system of education in Alberta. I am a teacher and I want students to succeed. I also want them to be able to make connections with others to develop networks they can rely on; I want them to think and problem solve; and I want them to be able to express themselves in a variety of ways. I am also a parent of school aged children so I have a vested interest in their education as a father. Opponents of education reform are often quick to say “education needs to reflect what students will face in the real world.” When was the last time you were not able to access data and information to complete an assigned task at work? When was the last time you were not able to collaborate with colleagues to ensure you produced high quality work? When was the last time your performance at work was evaluated on a single, timed task? When was the last time you had to put up your hand at work and ask to go to the bathroom?

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. Have a great day,





  1. Nick permalink

    It might interest you to know that Australia, which had implemented a national curriculum based on some of the proposals being looked at by Alberta Ed just did a curriculum review.

    Their recommendations are a sobering read:

    “Slogans and clichés like ‘lifelong learning’, ‘learning how to learn’, and referring to children as ‘knowledge navigators’ and ‘digital natives’ and teachers as ‘guides by the side’ while sounding forward looking and impressive, disguise the fact that knowledge and an appreciation of the past is equally, if not more important, than focusing on contemporary issues.” (pg. 29)


    “Research related to cognitive psychology and the most effective way to structure and deal with the subject disciplines also raises concerns about the manner in which the capabilities are defined and dealt with across the curriculum. Learning theory suggests, as a general rule, that capabilities are best taught in a subject-specific context and that the ability to be creative or to act ethically is domain specific. As such, instead of being treated in a cross-curricular manner, they need to be embedded in specific subjects and learning areas.” (pg. 248)

    …also, even the OECD is distancing themselves from these ideas as well.

    “Scepticism is building in relation to so called 21st century thinking and skills, a movement which has permeated some of the educational establishment in some countries. Essentially this movement focuses primarily on competencies to the neglect of knowledge, and tries to minimise learning of content based in disciplines, preferring generalised attempts at interdisciplinarity. The OECD warns that knowledge is paramount and this requires discipline areas. It is a big mistake to replace disciplinary boundaries with cross-curricular competencies as students will lose the faculty of transferring knowledge because they do not have the conceptual understanding. They need to be able to understand concepts to apply them. And, once again, competencies cannot be taught without content, and critical thinking is best embedded in a learning area.” (pg. 34).

    As for testing, here is a great bit from Daisy Christoboulou from England’s Research Ed on assessment. Very interesting that she uses a question from a Canadian test as an example of how good a multiple choice question can be:

    Please, for the sake of the children whose future you hold in your hands, read Hirch, Willingham, Sweller, Hattie, Cristoboulou, Bennet, Dinham, Yates and listen to the OCED with an open mind.

    • Nick,
      Thank you very much for your comment. I will read the documents you quoted and respond in depth after that point. One thing I should mention, I am not suggesting the abdication of content for competencies. I agree students need to be able to apply concepts and should be provided with opportunities to do so. My concern lies in perpetuating a system that was designed to create automaticity.

      Thanks again,

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