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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The New Curriculum: Following the Yellow Brick Road

The Ministry of Education’s attempt to transform the British Columbia public school curriculum proves that its view of education has finally been reduced to the level of adolescent musing. When I was a senior in high school in 1964, a number of my classmates and I complained to our teachers that we wanted to study concepts, not facts.  We were ignored, of course, by our teachers and the administration, and with good reason: we were wrong.  I didn’t realize we were wrong until my first year of university when I discovered that concepts can only be discussed and debated when one is in possession of a very large number of facts.  What concept would one want to consider?  Evolution? The historical significance of gunpowder?  The value of triangulation in the construction of roof trusses?  Homer Simpson’s influence on American thought? Without facts at one’s disposal, any discussion of a concept becomes merely an expression of uninformed opinion, a reality that the social media embrace and that even the traditional media now encourage with their new emphasis on “feedback” from readers and viewers.
            Yet this is the vision of the Ministry of Education: a population of students that have somehow “learned” concepts without learning any facts. The “Overview” of the curriculum’s transformation on the Ministry’s website states: “Educators say the current curriculum has too many objectives to cover and with so many objectives it can in some ways restrict student learning. Moreover, its highly prescriptive nature puts it at odds with the vision of a more personalized learning experience set out in BC’s Education Plan. Similarly, it tends to focus on teaching children factual content rather than concepts and processes – emphasizing what they learn over how they learn, which is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do. In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Private school teachers and administrators must be laughing.  Their success is based on offering exactly the opposite view of education.
            I don’t know who the educators are that are steering the Ministry in this direction, but I doubt that they were ever successful classroom teachers.  Students are not always eager learners; school work is often hard. Instead of struggling to ensure that students master content that is difficult, it is much easier to have them learn only what they want to learn, to pursue “personalized learning.” To state that “too many objectives” actually “restrict student learning” is illogical and laughable. In addition, for a Minister of Education to state that what students learn is not as important as how they learn only confirms that he has succumbed to the latest, nonsensical EdSpeak and will strengthen the view of many British Columbians that public education is failing.  The 21st Century will require more than ever a well-informed, knowledgeable public.  What that public learns or doesn’t learn in school is of vital importance.  Knowledge exists only after the acquisition, analysis and synthesis of relevant information.  The central task of the public school system has always been to, first, provide students with that relevant information and then, second, to teach the skills of analysis and synthesis so that they can develop the knowledge to make the informed decisions that society requires.  The Minister and the “educators” that have steered his decisions apparently think that when facts are learned they merely sit in the brain in tidy, discreet little packages waiting to be regurgitated on school exams.  The lack of understanding about the way the human mind works is astonishing.  Learning is a creative process.   Each student internalizes information differently.  That information can and will be combined with, compared to, and used with a vast array of other experiences and bits of information in ways and at times that cannot be predicted. 
To decrease the number of educational objectives and to de-emphasize and devalue content is to surrender to the contemporary views that opinion and fact are interchangeable, that truth and belief are indistinguishable, and that the Internet/Tweetisphere, like the Great and Terrible Oz, is all-knowing and all-powerful.
The Minister, alas, does not apparently have the heart to look behind the screen. 

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