Education minister hosts teleconference on curriculum redesign

More than 250 participants joined Minister of Education Jeff Johnson on a teleconference last week to discuss

More than 250 participants joined Minister of Education Jeff Johnson on a teleconference last week to discuss the much debated curriculum reform in the province.

He speaks through such teleconferences with parent councils biannually and used this opportunity to hear from stakeholders around the province. Alberta Education’s proposed rollout of the new Inspiring Education curriculum was prominent among the topics discussed.

Johnson says parents’ and schools’ feedback became the blueprint for Inspiring Education, which brings three Es to the equation. The goal is for students to be:

• Engaged thinkers

• Ethical citizens

• Entrepreneurial spirit

He said the focus is shifting to individualized learning, which is critical to this new model of education, whereby flexibility is the key to allow students to learn at their own pace and in their own way.

“All these things are centering around the student,” said Johnson.

There are two key initiatives to moving this forward: curriculum redesign and a taskforce on teaching excellence.

On the latter, a “Task Force for Teaching Excellence” has been working with teachers across the province on the many variables to providing education. The group has been working on this for some time and will be presenting recommendations May 5 in Edmonton at an education symposium.

“We are bold in our recommendations. We believe the report is transformative,” explained Glenn Feltham, chairperson for the task force.

The curriculum redesign will be a complete overhaul of all subjects, explained Johnson, rather than done in patches.

“It’s not nimble enough in a world that’s changing. Just think about Social Studies and just think about the maps of the world,” he said.

This curriculum work is intended to weave studies together, which will emphasize numeracy and literacy. Johnson feels students need to learn what he calls “soft skills.”

Singapore made these changes 20 years ago and is ranked second only to Shanghai, China in a 2012 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which presents data and compares countries’ education such as math, sciences and literacy.

“Those soft skills are problem solving, collaboration skills, communication skills, critical thinking skills. We have to be deliberate about seeing those as outcomes of the system,” said Johnson.

“I want to be clear that we’re not going to rush this through. If we don’t get this right, we won’t implement it more broadly,” he added.

Understanding math and problem solving

One caller took issue with the decline in the understanding of mathematics in Canada and Alberta.

“I am very concerned with the current math curriculum and with Alberta’s falling global ranking,” stated the caller.

Alberta Education has recently come under fire for the province’s drop in math scores and the caller suggested memorization is an important part of math that appears to not be important to the curriculum.

She suggested mastery through memorization as opposed to a demonstration of understanding is also a key part of a child’s education.

Johnson replied that mastery is already part of the curriculum but Alberta Education will be clearer with that direction.

He said there is misinformation on the cause of falling math scores. He took some time to clarify facts on the issue.

Math scores have dropped over the last three years by two and a half per cent. The drop has been slow and gradual since OECD started studying Alberta’s scores in 2000.

“They’re not concerned about Canada and Alberta because our decreases are statistically insignificant,” said Johnson.

One criticism has been that Canada has dropped in global rankings

Johnson said there were only 30 countries in that OECD group some years ago and today there are 75. Shanghai, Macau, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore have taken the top five spots for the last six years. Canada is tied for the 13th spot.

He says China puts emphasis on math knowledge with the average student in Shanghai spending two hours a week on math tutoring and 14 hours of math homework each week. This has given students a strong understanding of math basics. “This is the kind of thing that is happening with jurisdictions that are outperforming us.”

Despite the demand for high performance, students are not doing as well with problem solving and planners in China have sought feedback from Alberta, said Johnson. “That’s going to be huge in the 21st century.”

“Anyone that wants to point to curriculum as the reason that math scores have dropped is, I think, simplifying a very complicated issue,” he explained.

Diploma exams worth 50 per cent of the final grade

To a question related to the direction of diploma exams and how the new curriculum will work with finals, Johnson replied: “A multiple choice diploma examination weighted at 50 per cent of the final course grade does not parallel the type of learning schools are to implement.”

Johnson said there is not a strong answer for this question but he feels Alberta Education will have to assess it as Inspiring Education rolls out. He has heard concerns from students and parents on diploma exams and suggests planners will need to go in “eyes wide open.”

“If you decrease the weighting in the final, you’re going to disadvantage those students,” he explained.

Johnson said research conducted by Alberta Education shows that males do better on the final exam but not as well throughout the year and females do better through the year than on the final exam.

Support for gifted students

Differentiated learning for gifted students was a concern for one caller in the St. Alberta Catholic School District. She wanted to know if Alberta Education is considering programming to help students at higher levels. “Both for the gifted students and again to add more support to make sure that all of our children are getting the fundamentals of mathematics and language arts.”

Johnson replied that schools may look at bringing outside courses into their schools to meet some of these needs. He suggested the Task Force for Teaching Excellence may provide some suggestions on how to go about that.

“We need to look at every possible resource that’s going to make our system better and give our kids access to the resources they need to improve,” said Johnson.