Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Alberta Education: more scuttlebutt

Minsiter of Education Dave Hancock is listening to the people and following models such as Singapore and Finland while re-calibrating education in Alberta. (It's important to note that Alberta is not following the United States version of test and punish accountability)

Recent scuttlebutt tells us that there may be a move for more professional development days to be installed in the school year. This could mean 10 days in the school calendar that has teachers at school, with no students, working collaboratively with each other, advancing their professional development.

There are some obvious growing pains to come of this progressive change. Firstly, parents may not be too keen on having to provide care for their children for these days, and secondly, teachers may not appreciate having even less time to accomplish what seems like an infinite list of curriculum outcomes. To be fair, these teachers have a very legitimate gripe.

This brings us to the 500 pound pink elephant that is sitting on the education reform table that no one really wants to talk about - Curriculum.

So what's the problem with curriculum?

There's too much.

There's a reason why Robert Marzano, American education guru, says that in order for students to learn all the curriculum outcomes in school, we would have to rename school from K-12 to K-22.

The good news is that Alberta Education's key project working group titled Curriculum Process and Standards Redesign has been hard at work for the last year to address this over-wieght, pink elephant. The word on the street is that they have been given the task of slimming and trimming the program of studies. This

To understand what this committee is doing, let's use a popular analogy. If you have jar and you need to put a bag of sand and a couple big rocks in the jar, you have to place the rocks in first, then the sand will fit as needed. But if you place the sand in first, you'll never get the big rocks to fit.

So, if the curiculum is a jar full of sand and rocks, the idea is to focus less on prescribing the millions of sand particles and focus more on the big rocks.

So what might this look like?

If you are an experienced teacher who's been doing this gig for some time, you might remember a time when teachers had more time in their year for teacher or student electives. Again, the word on the street is this could equal 10% to 30% of the curriculum being left for the teacher and students to decide what it is they need or want to learn.

This all brings us back to why professional development is so important: How do we get those big rocks to fit in the jar? What are the big rocks? Are they more about process or content, or both? Will the sand take care of itself?

Ofcourse, I am being metaphorical.

Teachers need far more time to work together to develop their teaching practices. Finland provides a powerful model in this area; they understand that there is a lot of truth in the idea that if you teach less, you can learn more. Quality of instruction can not be driven by sheer quantity. Sometimes teachers are so busy teaching, they don't have time to stop to make sure the students are learning.

With the prospect of less curriculum on our plates, teachers will be better able to see these professional development days as supportive rather than an albatross.

It takes great courage to look at the United States' test and punish education reform and say "No Thanks", and it takes even more testicular fortitude to look at the seemingly counter-intuitve paradoxes of the Finnish model of education to shape our own progressive education reform.

Our most difficult challenges most likely still await us, but it would appear that Alberta is going in the right direction.


  1. This sounds very promising Joe. I think a review of Saskatchewan Education is in order too. We have ten PD days as well. A teacher might also request additional days for conferences and mentoring. I think we have that right. We have not abandoned testing in Saskatchewan. I don't have a sense of the trend here. Economics will always dictate less testing. I am hopeful. Our curriculum revisions have trended toward fewer more general objectives. These are your rocks. Teachers are to grind the rocks into sand themselves.This is being referred to as "unpacking"

    I need to acknowledge that as June approaches I am feeling pretty good about myself and teaching in Saskatchewan. That has to be in part a reflection on how curriculum, assessment and professional development are handled in this province and particularly how it is handled in the Prairie South School Division.

  2. I love your analogy of curriculum as rocks and sand. I teach at a DL school and right now all of my courses are canned; we purchase them from various places. Being part time and teaching 18 different courses I haven't been able to design my own online courses... yet. For many of these courses I definitely see them focusing too much on the sand and not enough on the rocks.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I've been saying this to deaf ears. Too much to cover is what I hear and I say, then don't cover so much! The US should follow Alberta's lead!

  4. There may still be hope for us in Manitoba too!! I hope.....

  5. There is another elephant that nobody talks about... the ineffective way that professional development is currently done (in BC anyways). Professional development is effective if it is focused, continuous, and consistent. In BC, we have 5 PD days per year and these all seem to be the sort of "flavour of the month" workshops with zero flow from one PD day to the next. To me, this is such a waste of money. I think that teachers should choose to focus on an area of something they want to learn about or grow in and stick with this... we all know that most of us go to a workshop, try it for a few weeks and then fall back into our regular ways. With the way you are talking about PD, through consistent collaboration, the ministry will see much more bang for their buck as hopefully pro-d will not just happen on those 10 days but also in the classes, staff rooms, staff meetings, etc. If we want deeper learning to happen with our teachers we need to keep the learning conversations going - we would never expect our students to have one day of something, not talk about it again, and have some sort of deep understanding. I could go on and on about my frustrations with PD in BC but I will end here... Thanks for posting Joe!


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