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Has Alberta Education achieved impossible with Social Studies curriculum?

This new approach may be too bland and non-ideological for some, but that is evidently a big part of the point

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I never thought I’d again see the day where an Alberta government would introduce a new social studies curriculum without igniting a public uprising and political meltdown. But here we are.

The relative quiet around Alberta Education’s outline for its new K-6 social studies curriculum speaks loudly. The outline has been out for a week now, kicking off a public feedback process. There’s been some criticism from a handful of university professors, but so far no mass public unrest or fiery political storm. The silence is the story.

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Compare this muted response to 2018 and 2020, the first two attempts to rewrite Alberta’s social studies curriculum in two decades. Both of these rewrites might well have been obscure exercises in the musty, academic pursuit of curriculum renewal, something that had previously gone on for many decades in Alberta with little public notice.

Instead, the two drafts ignited firestorms, bringing on the kind of angry protest reserved for hot-button topics, such as abortion rights or major tax increases.

In 2018, the United Conservatives went ballistic over the NDP’s proposed social studies curriculum, attacking the NDP’s alleged disregard for Alberta and Canadian history and the alleged intent of using the curriculum to turn students into young socialists. The topic became a major campaign issue and was part of the reason Jason Kenney’s UCP ousted Rachel Notley’s NDP in May 2019.

Fast forward to the fall of 2020 when a leaked copy of the UCP’s new social studies curriculum became public and the NDP got payback. It accused the Conservatives of hiring racist curriculum writers with the goal of marginalizing Indigenous people and others. In the legislature, dozens of times the NDP raised its contempt for the UCP approach. The public outcry was so loud and persistent that Kenney’s UCP was forced to postpone the K-6 social studies rewrite.

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But now? The social studies curriculum has come up just once in the legislature. NDP MLA Amanda Chapman, a sharp and witty addition to the assembly, asked a series of questions on it, leading with the “danger” it presented, essentially that it was too dry and would “kill any love of social studies for a whole generation.”

Chapman also accused the government of ignoring experts. In a letter, eight university professors who had been part of the curriculum writing process said the new curriculum fails largely because “it emphasizes the acquisition of disconnected facts that does not prepare young people for active and meaningful participation in democratic life.”

What to make of this critique and the lack of fire opposing the curriculum?

From my own reading, this new outline is more balanced, more coherent and less ideological than previous NDP and UCP drafts. If it had been presented in 2018 or 2020 there would have been far less uproar.

It’s also worth noting that the world has changed dramatically since 2018-20. Current events have radically changed the public mood. We have moved away from an obsession with culture wars to a fixation on stopping the flood threatening to wipe out our collective prosperity.

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When folks are worried that they can’t pay for their groceries and afford housing, the public mind rightly concentrates on those issues, I’ll suggest.

But Alberta Education also deserves credit. The writers of this new curriculum have dropped any strong ideological slant one way or another, the clumsy kind of partisan overreach that riled up the political right in 2018 and the political left in 2020. As the eight profs themselves note, comparing this draft curriculum to the 2020 draft: “The newest draft social studies program rightly acknowledges First Peoples and their long-standing occupancy on these lands. It is also absent of overtly racist references.”

Along with attempting to avoid culture-war hot buttons, it appears the government has learned a few more lessons. This draft has a far more age-appropriate approach to teaching K-4 students, as opposed to 2020 when a lot of the material appeared to be too complex for most children.

There is now a clear, coherent and commendable focus on slowly expanding the knowledge of children, from a basic understanding of geography and the social and political world in the early grades to a major focus on world history and global connections later on.

This new approach may be too bland and non-ideological for some, but that is evidently a big part of the point. Such a compromise won’t please culture war combatants but it will help keep the peace in our public system with students from all kinds of ethnic, cultural, religious and political backgrounds. It’s a reasonable way forward.

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