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Are We Moving Forward On Curriculum Change? Maybe.

by David Clandfield

On November 11, 2009, Program Superintendent Karen Grose produced
a “briefing note” on the Education Ministry’s current Elementary
Curriculum Review for the Program and School Services Committee of the
TDSB. Its major focus was the report of a Board “Working Group” that
was “directed to examine the elementary curriculum and the question of
‘overcrowdedness.’” Normally, these reports aren’t worth bothering
about, as they tend to mindlessly reflect Ministry curriculum policy
in language designed to obscure any realistic understanding of what is
meant. This one is a little different. It is hard to know what it has
in mind. But it may open up an opportunity to raise some key
curriculum issues in the future.

Possibly this opening is the result of some regular classroom
teachers being part of the working group (mostly composed of Board
officials along with two trustees). Unfortunately, the teachers
weren’t appointed to the work group by their union, so there was no
possibility of a minority report. But perhaps something of a minority
report got worked into the text, whether teacher initiated or not.

The working group’s document – “ Supporting Learning and Teaching
in Ontario’s Elementary School Survey” – started out well: “Although
we believe a strong foundation of literacy and mathematics is critical
to every child’s success, the current elementary curriculum presents a
series of overly robust subject based documents which are
disconnected, overwhelming and full of content reflective of 20th
century knowledge.” God knows what they mean by “20th century
knowledge” (especially the “disconnected” kind), but other than that
it’s a useful beginning. Besides, the group goes on to say “the
curriculum does not engage students within their current realities nor
does it effectively balance and integrate the required skills and
content society hopes to see in a successful 21st century learner.”
Again, we have no idea what “a successful 21 century learner” might
need to know – the subject list that follows is no help – but the
phrase “does not engage students in their current realities” is
certainly one we can all use.

There’s a bit of a dip when we get to their second point –
prioritizing broad themes with a focus on “structure and skills – not
content,” as if content can be put to one side in this fashion. But
then they move on to the next question – “how could the curriculum be
made more engaging for all students?” – and things pick up again. Or
at least it can be read this way. “To engage students more readily,
the curriculum must place students at its centre,” the group declares.
Furthermore, “higher order thinking skills must take priority over
informational content if the curriculum is to reflect the needs of the
21st century learner as it should do. Expectations must reflect ‘big
ideas’ and ‘big questions’ that encourage students to think
critically, activate their voices and take a position.” “Higher order
thinking skills” is a lot of nonsense (Frank Smith’s To Think is very
good on this point) and we have again no idea of what is meant by the
“needs of the 21st century learner;” another fragmented list doesn’t
help. Nevertheless, encouraging students to “think critically,
activate their voices and take a position” is exactly right – a
perspective that would transform the official curriculum of the TDSB.

On the question of building “flexibility into the curriculum,”
unfortunately the work group buys into the general “outcomes” or
“expectations” framework (looking only to reduce numbers and cluster
related expectations) and continues the Ministry’s separation of
“skills” and “content knowledge,” imagining that helps a teacher
“tailor delivery of the curriculum to the needs of their students.”
Such a separation – especially when linked to disconnected outcomes –
is thoroughly destructive of teacher creativity, which, these days, is
often called “authentic teaching.” However, after making this point,
the work group then abruptly turns to say that a new curriculum should
“explicitly value the creativity of teachers as they align and
integrate the curriculum.” Furthermore, they go on to say, “to create
an integrated program of study, educators cluster enduring
understandings and big ideas/themes, focus on inquiry based learning,
collaborate with teachers in combined grades for example and set out
information to be current with what our learners are interested in as
part of all curricular discussions.” This latter emphasis on letting
our teachers teach is good stuff, as is their view later on that
“there must be adequate flexibility within the curriculum for teachers
to apply different perspectives to interpreting the curriculum in
order to develop critical thinkers who connect with their school
experiences as global learners.”

The document continues with more detailed discussion of
implementation strategies – with much the same contradictory quality,
but incorporating a number of good suggestions and perspectives. You
can read the whole document on the TDSB website under Boardroom/Agendas/Programs and School Services – Nov. 11, 2009/6.2 Elementary Curriculum Review.

What’s important here is that key issues of curriculum – it’s
connection to children, its purposes, its assessment – and teachers’
freedom to do their job are coming to the surface again. It’s up to us
to bring these issues much more forcefully into our parent and teacher
communities. This document and others like it may end up helpful in
this struggle. Certainly the message that we should encourage our
students to “think critically, activate their voices and take a
position” can be central to our campaign. And nowhere more so than in
our working-class communities, especially those that are poor,
immigrant and racialized.


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