Core Knowledge: English

Dear Colleague,

I am greatly looking forward to your arrival to teach in Canada. In your most recent message you asked “what does every Canadian need to know today”? This is a vast topic—a vastness, I would suggest, is rivaled only by the Canadian landscape. Indeed, it is perhaps best to begin with a truism on Canadian core knowledge by Nova Scotia poet Alden Nowlan: Canada “is a country” where one “can die simply from being caught outside.” In keeping with Nowlan and the vastness of both the Canadian landscape and your query, I would plead your indulgence as I limit my response to your question to its relation to the English literature curriculum.

In Canada, education falls under the purview of the provincial governments. In the case of British Columbia, where you will be teaching, the province is in the process of revising the education curriculum and has identified three “core competencies” that “are at the centre of the redesign of curriculum”; these core competencies are communication, creative and critical thinking, personal and social learning, and are “embedded and evident in the learning standards” (British Columbia). When we consider these competencies, it is evident that the new curriculum is concerned less with a list of prescriptive items to be learned and more with the process of learning itself. Thus, while I could expound on ‘what’ Canadians need to know, I have found it more useful in my own pedagogical practise to focus on ‘how’ students know.

In my emphasis on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ Canadians need to know, I follow Dall’Alba and Barnacle who observe that the traditional “notion of knowledge as foundational and absolute has been extensively challenged”; indeed, Dall ‘Alba and Barnacle argue that “making meaning and the associated production of knowledge are essential features of meaningful learning. Regarding learning merely as something to be managed overlooks its potentially transformative nature whereby learners engage with, and embody what they learn” (qtd in Parsons, 106). Dall’Alba and Barnacle represent knowing as a fundamentally dialogic process, where meaning is dynamic and negotiated among text, reader, and community. This notion of dialogically negotiated meaning(s) is opposed to what Patrick Dias has defined as the “cultural heritage model of English” which emphasizes the “preservation and transmission of the culture as curricular content” (10).[1] Against this model, Dias writes that “knowledge ought to be defined as a gradually evolving network of relationships between a reader, literature, and society, present and past” (15). In this vein, I believe that what Canadians need to know should privilege knowledge as relational rather than as content based. Indeed, Dias has argued that such a content based definition of core competencies is necessarily inadequate in the face of the socio, economic, and cultural diversity of Canada (11).

Following Dias, in my own pedagogy I believe that learning occurs when students trust that the classroom is a place that respects and reflects their lived realities. When planning literature units, for instance, I select works that reflect the social, cultural, sexual, and economic diversity of my students. Similarly, I seek to avoid works that depict deficit models of poverty, behaviour challenges, sexual orientation and gender identity, and family composition. To be specific, my recent Grade 12 poetry unit included Rita Joe’s poem “I Lost My Talk” about her residential school experience, Joy Kogawa’s poem “What Do You Remember of the Evacuation” about her World War II experience in internment camps, and Floyd VB’s poem “The Sun and the Moon” about gender non-binarism. These poems address facets of Canadian identity.

As the examples above attest, a range of content may be used to guide students in how to learn in general and in the core competencies in particular. In most schools, however, content is dictated less by pedagogical philosophy and more by the reality of the book room, guaranteeing that Shakespeare and Huxley will be taught for years to come. And yet, as I have suggested, the text itself matters less than how we as educators approach the text and our students; as Dias writes, the text—whether Atwood or Shakespeare, Kagawa or Pound, should not remain the “sole possession of the teacher who functions as the guardian of its meaning” but rather educators we must encourage students to enter into dialogue with the text, “to appropriate the text for themselves” (14). It is in this is dialogic negotiation that learning—and knowing—occur.

I hope my small observations on your question can help guide your reflections as you prepare for your time here. As I was preparing my response, I posed your query to my eight year old son, asking him “what does every Canadian need to know today”?   My son’s advice, though brief, may prove more relevant than my considerations; he replied, “Don’t buy a selfie stick.”

I wish you all the best and look forward to meeting you!


[1] The cultural heritage model is represented by, among others, Cheney, Hirsch, and Ravitch and Finn (Dias 10) and necessarily begs the question as to who determines what is included (and, by extension, excluded) in a definition of culture.


Works Cited

British Columbia. “Transforming Curriculum and Assessment.” British Columbia:                  Ministry of Education. . June 21  2015.

Dias, Patrick. “Cultural Literacy, National Curriculum: What (And How) Does Every             Canadian Student Really Need to Know?” English Quarterly 24: 3-4 (1992).  10-19.

Parsons, J. & Beauchamp, From knowledge to action: Shaping the future of             curriculum development in Alberta. Alberta Education, Planning andStandards Sector: Edmonton, AB. June 21,  2015.

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