Thoughts on BC Education Ministry’s new curriculum

Public school curriculum in British Columbia is undergoing a transformation, at least that’s the claim of the Education Ministry, which for the past two years has been conducting consultations with the public and an curriculum framework advisory group on a new curriculum.

The ministry’s efforts have largely been conducted without teacher input or participation, which is problematic, but the general aims of the new curriculum as represented in ministry documents are surprisingly promising, has I pointed out in a letter published in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun:

While it remains to be seen what the B.C. education ministry’s curriculum plans will produce, especially since teachers are not at the table, their aims are promising.

Reducing prescriptiveness and the sheer volume of the curricular mandate is laudable. As it stands, the breadth of the curriculum makes in-depth study of topics a pipe dream in most classrooms.

Curricular flexibility should allow teachers to foster more motivated learning, that is motivation of students to acquire new knowledge and skills, rather than expecting a standardized curriculum to meet the needs of all students.

Less of an emphasis on transmitting facts and more of a focus on big ideas will encourage increased student engagement and create graduates who are more likely to possess personally meaningful understandings of subjects they study.

A curriculum that focuses on concepts is not a curriculum that ignores facts. Concepts are abstract ideas generalized from particular instances or evidence (e.g., “facts”).

A fact is just a piece of information, which schools generally ask students to memorize. Concepts are understood.

Lastly, curriculum is more than a document or set of guidelines. It is what students experience, the dynamic interactions of teachers, learners, subject matter, and the context. The true measure of success in any curriculum will be found in its effects on students thinking and actions, not in how many facts students can regurgitate.

Predictably, there has been some negative reaction to the idea of a concepts-based (as opposed to facts-based) curriculum, from folks who think students are blank slates and education is about memorization. See, for example, this column by a former teacher in the Vancouver Sun.

I’m not without skepticism regarding the Ministry’s effort to transform the curriculum.

The ministry’s project is essentially about changing the content of the curriculum container. That is, when it comes to conceptions of what curriculum is, the BC Education Ministry operates on a hierarchical/industrial model of curriculum. For the ministry,“curriculum defines for teachers what students are expected to learn and be able to demonstrate in their grade or course of study.”

Thinking of curriculum this way separates the conception of teachers’ work from its execution. In other words, teachers are merely conduits through which “the curriculum” flows. The result is a de-skilling of teachers (and a degradation of the work of teaching) that is, teachers’ work is narrowly defined as delivering a product that has been produced elsewhere. Ironically, most teachers in BC and the teacher education programs that prepare them, accept this division of labor as natural.

An additional irony: the dominant conceptions of curriculum and teachers work in BC contradict the stated goals of reduced prescriptiveness and increased flexibility and responsiveness of the curriculum. Think about it, what we have here is a government mandating reduced prescriptiveness and more flexibility. Really?

Perhaps the rhetoric around curriculum transformation is just a cover the governing BC (neo)Liberal Party to advance profiteering in the education sector just has they have in others. See this analysis of what “personalizing” the curriculum might mean.

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