Regardless of what the calendar says, it seems as if school never took a summer break in Alberta this year. That’s because of the seemingly endless controversy over the government’s planned updates to the provincial grade school curriculum, now partially underway.
In March 2021, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) released a 550-page draft of its plan to remake the entire kindergarten to grade 6 curriculum all at once. This enormous undertaking was touted as a shift back to a more traditional “content rich” style of education that emphasizes “literacy, numeracy, citizenship and practical skills.” It was also seen as a deliberate reaction to the previous NDP government’s curriculum efforts, which had emphasized ideology over content. In 2016, for example, former NDP education minister David Eggen had declared of his party’s planned school changes: “Now more than ever we need to teach about inclusion, to teach about equality and social justice.” (Predictably, the NDP vows to scrap the UCP’s planned curriculum if it regains power in 2023.)
A “content rich” curriculum entails a strong focus on facts and building cumulative knowledge through memorization and structured learning across all subjects. Alberta’s curriculum plan also concentrates heavily on Western history and thought, beginning with Ancient Greece and Rome and continuing to Europe and England in the Middle Ages, since these civilizations laid the intellectual foundation upon which Canada was formed. All this is in stark contrast to the prevailing educational orthodoxy that emphasizes the interests of the child over history and facts.
As with any change to the educational status quo, there’s been plenty of opposition from teachers’ unions, education professors, school boards, politicians, parents and even religious groups. Political opponents have complained the first draft was racist and Eurocentric, inadequately covering topics such as race, colonization and Indigenous people. Some academics have claimed the move is too content-heavy for young children to handle, incorrectly favours passive rote-memorization over active hands-on learning and is “unsupported by current research.” An initial lack of consultation appears to be the most significant problem, a foregone opportunity to better pitch the curriculum’s merits, make adjustments as warranted and build support.
“The government tried to do the rewrite all at once, and insisted that it would implement all the components at the same time,” observes John Hilton-O’Brien, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, an Alberta group that has been paying close attention to the changes. Further, he says, “The curriculum was not absolutely perfectly written – there were errors that allowed the teachers’ association to call it ‘amateur’.”
The result, Hilton-O’Brien says, was “pushback from all channels.” In particular, “There was a great deal of alarm among teachers who would have to adjust their content.” One big problem for educators, he notes, is a lack of detailed knowledge about Western civilization and history. “Many, for instance, apparently did not know who Charlemagne was, or that the name means ‘Charles the Great,’ and were terrified that they might have to teach about him.” (For those who don’t know, Charlemagne was an 8th century Frankish king who united most of western Europe and is commonly considered the “father of Europe.” Two generations ago, virtually every child in Alberta learned about Charlemagne by age nine.)
When the pushback became too great to ignore, the government announced it would instead roll out the new curriculum in phases. The 2022/23 school year will only update math and English from kindergarten to grade 3, and Phys-ed and wellness to grade 6. Other subject areas, including the contentious topic of history, are on pause. This compromise has done little to calm the waters, as the new curriculum remains a hot-button issue. In early August, Parents for Choice in Education hosted a debate featuring five of the seven UCP leadership candidates. All five stated their commitment to the new curriculum and voiced serious concerns about its possible cancellation by the NDP.
Given the sweeping political implications, no new curriculum release is ever going to be problem-free. In Alberta’s case, the lack of consultation was likely complicated by the rollercoaster of Covid-19 restrictions, including closed schools – plus a distinct reluctance among many teachers to return to the classroom. If so, the new, slower approach may be a lamentable but necessary delay that helps achieve the project’s completion. That’s because there’s far more at stake here than just a see-saw struggle over which learning style the government in power happens to favour.
The debate over content versus skills actually gets to the very heart of what makes a society function. This is because schools produce more than just graduates: they also produce citizens. As the great Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) put it, “The Education of youth is, in all governments, an object of the first consequence. The impressions received in early life, usually form the characters of individuals; a union of which forms the general character of a nation.” So how can Alberta shape its school curriculum to produce citizens of good character?
A child-centred “skills” education of the sort favoured by Alberta’s NDP and that is in vogue in most parts of North America today (and is also known as progressivist, constructivist, developmental, individualist or project-based learning) emphasizes the development of general skills such as reading comprehension and critical thinking. Specific facts and information form a small component of the overall mandated learning material. What content exists is “child-centred” – that is, chosen by the child or teacher as the means to develop the particular skill being acquired. Constructivist knowledge arises from the child’s individual inquiry and exploration, instead of through passive whole-class absorption via lectures and rote memorization handed down by the teacher from the front of the classroom. As the old cliché goes, a skills teacher is a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”
A skills curriculum does not focus on subject matter or specific books but, as the term implies, on general skills. Literacy standards such as “compare formal and informal uses of English” or “choose words and phrases for effect” allow teachers to plug in their own content. Skills education has also changed the names of the subjects themselves. History and civics have been replaced by social studies. Literature became language arts. As a consequence, actual literature – books, usually listed as the required content or subject matter – has taken on a diminished presence.
Of particular significance, skills-based teaching virtually guarantees students in different classrooms will be exposed to different content, even within the same grade in the same school. When “students” (i.e., young schoolchildren) themselves direct their own educational inquiries, there is little opportunity for the accumulation of common knowledge across the entire student body. This approach is supposed to foster every child’s special individual potential, creativity and freedom. But it prevents consistency and commonality in what is learned.
In contrast, a knowledge-based curriculum, as Alberta’s UCP government is rolling out, focuses on a traditional understanding of the subject matter. This involves fact-based learning in math, science, reading and writing, literature, history, geography and civics. Such a teaching approach is carefully sequenced from kindergarten to grade 12 so that each grade builds on topics learned in the previous one, deepening the subject matter knowledge in a brick-by-brick way. What particular skills children learn arise from their mastery of the individual subjects themselves.
This process of building a cumulative knowledge base through memorization and repetition is how schooling used to be delivered across North America before it was supplanted by the progressive imaginings of university education faculties. Today, this traditionalist approach is perhaps best expressed by the work of the Core Knowledge Foundation, an American non-profit institution that has developed a “core knowledge” curriculum template being used in an estimated 15,000 public, charter and private schools across the U.S. The foundation’s learning plans list not only the subject areas but specific topics to be addressed week-by-week and grade-by-grade and the material to be covered. In English, for example, the plan includes the names of specific authors, poems or novels to be read, discussed and written about. Above all, the curriculum is described by advocates as “cumulative and coherent and specific.” It requires whole-class rather than individual teaching and learning.
Sorting the Evidence
While Alberta’s new content-rich approach has been dismissed by critics as retrograde or unscientific, such complaints are factually inaccurate. Core knowledge schooling may trace its lineage to time-honoured education theories and practice, but it also boasts an impressive body of current evidentiary support. Much of this arises from the work of literary critic turned education reformer E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation; his 40 years of research in this area provides ample theoretical and practical support for Alberta’s content-rich initiatives. (Hilton-O’Brien pointedly refers to Alberta’s plan as “Hirschean reforms.”)
The utility of core knowledge teaching can be demonstrated with a plethora of examples. The Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, Virginia transformed itself from an underachieving and de facto segregated black school into the highest-scoring school in its district after switching from a skills focus to core knowledge under a new principal in 2004. Student and staff morale similarly skyrocketed. As Hirsch explains in his 2020 book How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation, the implementation of common grade-by-grade content at Lyles-Crouch school meant that “every child was more or less on the same page, learning a great many interesting things, and feeling a sense of empowerment and fellowship…The atmosphere…became electric with enthusiasm.” By 2017, the school was outperforming other Alexandria City district public schools, with scores in the 90th percentile and above. The school has won academic achievement awards putting it in the state’s top 5 percent.
Similar stories arise from schools in South Bronx, “the poorest, most disadvantaged borough in New York City, with the highest poverty rate,” as Hirsch describes it. A group of seven Icahn Charter Schools using the core knowledge sequence have come to dominate the surrounding districts in the key area of verbal competence. Icahn debate teams have won city-wide debating championships against students from more affluent school districts. In addition, every graduating eighth-grader in each of these seven schools was accepted into a top-tier selective high school.
Significantly, every parent of an Icahn student knows what their children will be learning, because they are provided with a monthly syllabus. According to Jeffrey Litt, superintendent of all seven schools, “When a child comes home, [and the parent] says ‘How was your day? Or ‘What’d you learn?’ The child says ‘Uh.’ In our schools, the parent knows specifically what to ask the child. ‘What did you learn about the solar system today? What did you learn about the Bill of Rights today? What did you learn about X?’ We know it’s critical for the parents to play a significant role…I want them to know what their child is being taught, what their child is responsible for learning, and having them demonstrate their knowledge. Every month, the first week.”
Core knowledge education significantly benefits minority and disadvantaged students. As Hirsch writes, “The only way the construct-it-for-yourself mode of teaching can work for a child is if she has the adequate prior background knowledge to deduce the right inferences. Disadvantaged children usually lack the background knowledge to be able to pull out the right inference from discovery-based methods. The discovery method will therefore tend to increase the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.” Advantaged children have parents who can supply them with books, travel, trips to museums and other experiences that provide the necessary facts and experiences omitted by child-centred, skills-based learning. Disadvantaged children do not. A core knowledge education narrows that gap.
French decline: This chart, reproduced in Hirsch’s 2016 book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories illustrates the precipitous drop in France’s educational performance across various demographics following a shift towards a child-centric or skills-based curriculum in the 1980s. (Source of graph: schoolperformanceinstitute.org)
Similar results can be observed around the world. As Hirsch explains in How to Educate a Citizen, international test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) plummeted in Germany, Sweden and France following child-centred education reforms in the 1980s and later. In Sweden, such curriculum changes in 2000 led to a 30 percentile point drop in literacy results, the biggest drop ever recorded in PISA tests. Sweden was able to reverse this disastrous outcome through a move back to greater emphasis on core knowledge pedagogy in 2012. Perennial PISA top performer Singapore is fully invested in the core knowledge concept, Hirsch explains, with a single set of textbooks used throughout the entire school system ensuring consistency and commonality. Core knowledge education gets results.
As for the skills or inquiry-based education that is so popular with the educational establishment (in spite of the PISA evidence), a large and growing body of academic literature points to its many failures, particularly in the early grades. Concerned by a recent drop in Australia’s PISA scores that seemed to track curriculum changes emphasizing skills or inquiry-based learning, last year eminent University of New South Wales educational psychologist John Sweller reported on “a causal relation between the emphasis on inquiry learning and reduced academic performance.” University of Virginia at Arlington cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has similarly observed that, “Data from the last 30 years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts.” Knowledge and skill, in other words, fit hand in glove.
Cognitive psychology and research in brain plasticity further suggest reading comprehension is a “domain-specific” activity that cannot be abstracted from specific knowledge. Poor readers, for example, do better at comprehending a text about baseball if they already know something about baseball than “good” readers without that prior knowledge. Consequently, asserts Willingham flatly, “A reading comprehension test is a knowledge test in disguise.”
Decades of work in education results and cognitive psychology thus support the case for a content-rich, fact-filled curriculum such as Alberta is developing. Building in stages upon a core knowledge base also reflects how long and short-term memory work. Sequenced, grade-by-grade learning in well-defined subjects builds cumulatively, deepening and enriching the student’s grasp of the subject matter. This is far more than the “rote memorization” that critics so often allege. And, when applied consistently across classrooms, schools and entire jurisdictions, this effect extends beyond the individual to form a common body of knowledge generating a completely different kind of memory – a collective national memory.
National Manners and Mores
In his decades-long crusade to promote better education through adherence to core knowledge, Hirsch has focused on the essential role of “prior, tacit, unspoken knowledge” in communication and interpretation. Understanding what someone else means when they speak naturally depends on the listener sharing the same set of facts and understandings as the speaker. In his two most recent books, How to Educate a Citizen and American Ethnicity: A Sense of Commonality (2022), Hirsch broadens this view to cover the requirements of national citizenship as well as interpersonal communications.
What we call culture, says Hirsch, is a unifying, shared knowledge of language and other traditions that embraces our national values, ethics and patriotic sentiments in addition to the other accoutrements we normally associate with culture. All this is crucial to the formation of any properly functioning public sphere. A country can work well, he observes, “only if its members agreed to its universal founding principles, obeyed its laws, and spoke the same language.” (Or perhaps, one of two official languages.) The customs, habits, opinions, tastes, civic institutions, laws as they have evolved through our history thus form the foundation of a nation itself. This is what 18th century thinkers and writers such as Edmund Burke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even Jane Austen called manners or mores – the tacit, unwritten constitution of the nation that together constitute its national character and coherence.
And how is this national character built and shared? Schools are the most obvious and important point of contact for all young citizens. “In large nations, many people possess both a home language and culture, and a school language and culture,” Hirsch explains. “Such plurality and the integration of races and ethnicities in the modern nation is one of the most significant moral advances of modernity.” But unless students receive the same content regardless of where they are situated, and can thus agree on what their culture and ethnicity mean, this independently derived sense of commonality becomes impossible to achieve.
It is here that an inquiry-based or constructivist education delivers its most disappointing results by denying young citizens-in-training the predictability of a core set of knowledge. If even adjacent classrooms are learning different things, then how can we expect the students within to meet each other as adults on common ground? Tacit, prior knowledge both enables public communications and undergirds our ability to regulate ourselves.
This sense of self-regulation through manners is a hallmark of true democracy. As journalist Mark Steyn observed in his acceptance speech for the 2018 George Jonas Freedom Award from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, manners or mores represent an intermediate realm between rigid law and free choice. Quoting a 1918 speech by Lord John Moulton (reprinted here in 1924) , Steyn observed that manners are “a land of freedom of action, but in which the individual should feel that he is not wholly free. This country which lies between Law and Free Choice I always think of as the domain of Manners…it covers all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.”
But, warned Steyn, “this realm is rapidly shrinking,” squeezed as it is between the two growing extremes of oppressive over-regulation through law on the one hand and absolute, ungoverned liberty on the other. Core knowledge education seeks to expand the wholesome and necessary middle realm of national manners by providing greater commonality of experience in a way that nourishes these self-regulating freedoms.
Whose Content? Whose Culture?
Accepting the myriad benefits of a core knowledge curriculum, however, brings with it a complication. How do we decide what common content should be taught and shared through the school system? As Hirsch observes, “Except in the uncontroversial subject of mathematics…trying to get nationwide or statewide or even district or schoolwide agreement about specific grade-by-grade subject matter in history, literature, or the arts is like touching some poisonous object.” It is noteworthy that Alberta has begun its controversial curriculum revision with math as one of the first subjects.
In response to this dilemma, Hirsch argues that core knowledge education should not prescribe how teachers interpret and teach a given core content, just that they teach a common body of knowledge. Using the American example of Declaration of Independence-writing, slave-owning Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, Hirsch notes, “You can say Jefferson was a hero or you can say he was a hypocrite, but [teachers need to be told]: you will teach about Jefferson in grade X, and your pupils will be tested on whether they know some key facts about him.” In other words, don’t cancel – teach.
Such a position, however, raises the possibility that some politicians will seek to impose their own ideologically motivated facts upon a core knowledge curriculum. The shoehorning of critical race theory and equity, diversity and inclusion mandates into the Ontario school system sounds a warning on this front. This, however, is not actual content. Rather it’s bias masquerading as fact, and prejudice as critical thinking.
If governments (and their citizenry) properly understand and adhere to the foundational principles of a core knowledge curriculum, they will come to recognize that it stands as a bulwark against divisive attempts at educational revolutions. Rather, national manners constitute a slowly changing, intergenerational body of shared knowledge. It is an ordered liberty in the full Burkean sense, ensuring continuity far beyond the current fixations of our own present moment. Core knowledge offers both an anchor for troubled times and a steady, dependable path into the future.
Lorrie Clark is professor emeritus of English at Trent University; her doctoral thesis at the University of Virginia was directed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
Source of main image: Shutterstock/Triff.