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Alberta school boards, private and charter schools agree to pilot new social studies curriculum

A diverse mix of schools across Alberta have agreed to participate in a pilot of the province’s new elementary social studies curriculum, Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says.

Of the 61 Alberta school boards using the province’s curriculum, 35 will take part in the pilot, including 27 public boards, six Catholic and two Francophone boards. The province’s four largest school divisions, which are public and Catholic boards in Edmonton and Calgary, are all included.

“It really aligns well with what we were hoping for because, with piloting, you want to try to get a good, broad kind of representative sample,” Nicolaides said in a Tuesday interview.

He said 12 independent schools, three charter schools and one First Nation education authority will also test the new program starting next September. It’s slated to become mandatory in elementary schools in fall of 2025.

With local communities a focus in the earliest grades, it’s crucial to ensure the new program is structured in a way that works for Indigenous and Francophone students, Nicolaides said.

Just how many teachers and students will participate in next year’s pilot is unclear. While some schools will require teacher participation, others are giving educators a choice.

Not the first attempt

The voluntary involvement of school boards is a marked departure from the 2021-22 pilot of the United Conservative Party government’s first attempt at a new social studies curriculum.

A freedom of information request revealed only seven private schools were willing to pilot that program in a handful of classes, while school boards balked at the content and approach.

Widespread opposition from educators, the public and academics prompted the government to start social studies from scratch, while rolling out new programs in math, English language arts, phys ed and wellness, science and French.

In social studies, critics objected to the sheer volume of content, age inappropriateness of some outcomes, an emphasis on memorization, a focus on Eurocentric worldviews, and tokenistic inclusion of Indigenous perspectives, among other pitfalls.

Nicolaides unveiled a new draft K-6 social studies program in March for public input, and published an updated version in April.

Although curriculum critics say the new version shows some improvement, they reject the underlying philosophical approach, which emphasizes acquiring knowledge over investigation and analysis.

Schools had until May 15 to say whether they’d be willing to test this latest iteration.

Pilot needs benchmarks, prof says

Nicolaides said the government wanted to give schools flexibility, meaning they can decide which grades to pilot, and which new units or topics. The minister said participation is broad enough that he’s confident all components will be tested.

Ministry staff will gather feedback from teachers and compile those responses for consideration.

He said the pilot year is primarily to determine where there are gaps in resources, such as books, videos, computer software, and other tools. For example, Grade 5 focuses on ancient civilizations, which is absent from the current curriculum.

Although he has no intent to markedly alter the structure of the proposed social studies curriculum, Nicolaides said “the door is never fully closed” on necessary changes.

carla peck
University of Alberta professor Carla Peck says a good curriculum pilot should include standards to ensure all content is tested across a variety of schools. (Mirna Djukic/CBC)

Carla Peck, a social studies education professor at the University of Alberta who was not involved in the curriculum’s development, said a pilot with no standards is baffling.

She said it’s an unexpected approach from a province that prides itself on standardized provincial testing.

Without minimum participation requirements from different kinds of schools and communities, and no requirement to deliver the full school year’s worth of material, Peck said it will be difficult for the government to determine whether the curriculum works for all students.

Peck was also surprised by the minister’s comment that piloting is focused on looking for resource gaps, rather than gauging if the program will work.

She questioned what would happen if — for example — the majority of teachers said the concept of imperialism was too complex for Grade 4 students.

“Yet, they’re not even open to the possibility of changing the program? It makes me feel like this field test is a farce,” she said.

NDP education critic Amanda Chapman said Tuesday it is especially important that schools with large Indigenous student populations test all grades and components of the new curriculum, given concerns expressed by Indigenous scholars and leaders.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action said Canadian schools should be teaching all students about treaty agreements and begin lessons on residential schools in kindergarten.

The new K-6 social studies curriculum does reference treaties, but not residential schools.

“I would say that this government is not really in a place where they have the good grace of Albertans right now,” Chapman said. “I think it’s healthy for us to really maintain a very healthy dose of skepticism.”

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