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Unpacking the Alberta Education Curriculum Update

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

I remember being a teen and being told I can’t have friends over until I clean my room. Not an inch of the floor is visible and there are piles upon piles of clothes, garbage, hair tools, and books all over the place. I remember looking at the mess and thinking where do I even start? This is how I feel trying to unpack the ‘information’ about the new Alberta curriculum that was presented during a press conference of August 6, 2020. This has been in the works for the better part of a year, yet I could not find any pertinent information online. They haven’t even put up the new guiding framework. So what we are left with is trying to read between the lines of political jockeying, jargon and incoherent streams of words.

What do these words even mean?

First off let’s strip back and cut through the jargon. What is constructivism? If you don’t have a background in education or psychology you may not be familiar with this term (and the politicians are banking on that). Cognitive constructivism arose from the practice and research of Jean Piaget in the first half of the 20th century. His research and theory influenced a myriad of educational and psychological theories and philosophies, including social constructivism (Vygotsky), that have been in practice and evolving for decades. This is not whimsical, it is well researched educational theory that has been in practice for many decades.

Constructivism asserts that learners are in an active role as creators of knowledge. We make meaning through our own lived experiences, and that prior knowledge connects with and informs new experiences to create meaning and new understandings (aka knowledge). It recognizes that we all bring our own experiences and our own abilities to develop knowledge. The idea is that learning and knowledge is constructed, not consumed or received. This means learners play an active role in the process. Earlier theories of education or knowledge development (epistemology) saw learners as having a passive role in which they receive information from another source. In the latter model the learner is often described as ‘an empty vessel’ waiting to be filled with the knowledge of the teacher.

Inquiry-based learning is an approach that emphasizes the student’s active role in the development of knowledge. Students explore, ask questions, experiment, engage in small group discussions and share different ideas throughout the process. Discovery learning is a method used in inquiry-based learning that further encourages student-led knowledge development. The idea here is that you learn by doing and exploring.

What is literacy? “Alberta Education defines literacy as the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living. Language is explained as a socially and culturally constructed system of communication.” (2016) In addition, UNESCO defines literacy as "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” Literacy spans a range of subject areas and is constantly shifting. Traditionally many would think of reading and writing when they think of literacy. As our world evolves this now encompasses visual, media, and computing literacies. What is numeracy? “Alberta Education defines numeracy as the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with quantitative and spatial information to make informed decisions in all aspects of daily living. A numerate individual has the confidence and awareness to know when and how to apply quantitative and spatial understandings at home, at school, at work or in the community.” In short, this is the ability to use math in everyday life.

These are all “in a nutshell” explanations, if you are curious and want to learn more about these terms, theories and methods I would encourage you to fall down the rabbit hole, I don’t have time for that in this post.

Break it down now

In the current curriculum it can be understood that constructivism is an educational theory about how people learn by developing knowledge. Using inquiry-based learning and discovery learning as approaches or methods in teaching to promote knowledge development. Literacy and numeracy are learning outcomes. Theory - Method - Outcome. So the Alberta Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange, is suggesting that Literacy and Numeracy replace constructivism. That outcome replace theory and method.

Constructivism does not say literacy and numeracy are bad or don’t belong in education. Constructivism provides a theoretical basis that uses different methods to allow the learner to develop knowledge in these areas. The suggestion that constructivism, through approaches like inquiry-based learning, does not allow students to grow and learn in the areas of literacy and numeracy is simply false.

So, why the attack on these theories and approaches to learning?

When a learner is seen as having an active role in knowledge creation and development they are an empowered learner. They recognize that their experiences are valued and have meaning in a greater context. They see that there are many different possible ways to achieve a particular outcome or meet a goal. They are more likely to critically question what is happening in the world around them. And, to take action. This proposal to kill inquiry based learning, discovery learning, and constructivist approaches in the Alberta curriculum is a way to kill the free and critical thinking minds that keep us from being apathetic robots working as cogs in the system to benefit those in positions of power. (I feel my heart rate increase; I’m going to take a few deep breaths)

The emphasis during the press conference on “work culture,” “work force,” “work life” leads me to believe they are reverting back to a model that came out of the industrial revolution. This is a model that is geared towards creating workers that will operate within the system that is in place. This model is draconian and oppressive. It benefits the people who are in power and who hold power because it molds individuals into what it wants them to be rather than have them discover who they are.

If this is all new to you, or even if it’s not, I would highly recommend watching this video. It illustrates the shift that was taking place ten years ago around education reform. It also gives a bit of a history lesson and context around how education systems have been designed. Despite it being ten years old it helps to illuminate the downfalls and dangers of an education system that is designed around creating workers. Watch this video and you’ll see what LaGrange mean by “return to proven teaching methods that will setup Alberta students for rich personal and work lives.”

Furthermore, it could be argued that the old ways of education allows for bigger class sizes, assessment is streamlined and standardized because there are right and wrong answers and less professional development is needed because teachers just have to follow the curriculum. This is at the cost to all young learners, but particularly to the many students who do not learn through these objective and standardized methods, who require more hands-on opportunities, and who may take a little longer digesting what they have been told.

Pulling the curtain back…

Is the great and powerful Oz really just an old man with a microphone?

I want to pull the curtain back on what that press conference was really saying (Guess what? This is me practicing media literacy skills). The UCP government has decided that education is going to be one of their political pawns. The lack of actual information shared, the use of jargon and empty sentences demonstrates that they really have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to education. They just want to undo the work of the NDP. Furthermore, the chair, Angus McBeath, has not worked in a school (K-12) since 1986. That is 34 years (those are my numeracy skills). He is a financial contributor to the UCP government (finances and economy are also numeracy skills) and his son has worked on the campaigns for the Wildrose Party and Conservative Party of Canada. Recently his son was the Director of Training and Marketing for the Manning Centre a network which “supports Canada’s conservative movement by networking best practices and ideas pertaining to limited government, free enterprise, individual responsibility and a more robust civil society.” So, tell me again about bias in the current curriculum Minister Lagrange. But again, we’ve all come to expect that from politicians.

I could spend sometime speculating and decoding all the ‘key’ terms they are using. Things like accountability, student and parental responsibility (homework), assessment (done through increased standardization), eliminate bias (tell you our version of truth), virtues and Albertan values (UCP ideology and values), fundamentals and core subject areas (emphasis on subject areas they deem important for the economy). I could go on and on. The point is that we need to think critically about how they are using these terms to their benefit.

And, if you want a sense, or a taste, of how Mr. McBeath views ‘teaching’ this press conference really illustrated that. He believes teaching is scolding and shaming people. His example of having to “speak to somebody quite severely” and viewing that not only as how to teach but also his right as a teacher really highlights how he envisions the relationship between students and teachers. This is the person steering the curriculum change. There are no members of the committee who have taught K-12 learners in recent years.

Bigger Perspective

I may not live in Alberta right now but my personal and professional connections to Alberta remain strong. I care about what is happening because I know people who are affected. I also care about it because we should all care that this is happening, because it can happen anywhere. I care that education is being used as a pawn in a political game. I care that politicians without experience in education are making claims against educational theories they have not spent time neither studying or practicing. I care that the people making the decisions believe in archaic practices that oppress students. I care that this is happening to children and will affect their development and the way they experience learning. I care that teachers are being placed in a more and more challenged position to do their jobs. LaGrange says it will be “inspirational and aspirational” but how are teachers going to be able to foster this without adequate support. We all must be questioning why these decisions are being made, by whom and at what cost.

Resources for your trip down the rabbit hole

Problems with Standardization and 'Accountability' : Blinder, A., (2015, 04 01). Atlanta educators convicted in school cheating scandal.The NewYork Times. Retrieved from

Theoretical underpinnings: Noddings, N. (2015). A Richer, Broader View of Education. Society, 52(3), 232-236.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2011). The dynamics of the schoolchild’s mental development. (A. Kozulin,Trans.)Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology,10(2).pp. 198-211 (Original work published 1935

Wagner, A. & Shahjahan, R. (2015). Centering embodied learning in anti-opressive pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(3), pp.244-254.

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