This month, as part of the review of the History and Social Studies curriculum across Canada, Profs. Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck from the University of Alberta have reviewed the Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum to situate the current revisions within a larger context.
Current Curriculum Context
Based in “progressive” child-centered, inquiry-based curriculum reform that began in the mid-1930s, Alberta is the only province that requires students to take issues-centred, interdisciplinary Social Studies courses through to the end of high school. The current Alberta K-12 Social Studies Curriculum was introduced in stages from 2005-2009, and history is one of six interrelated “strands” that reflect the nature of social studies as an interdisciplinary subject. Alberta also has a mandatory social studies diploma exam in Grade 12 that is worth 30% of students’ final mark, and mandatory social studies Provincial Achievements Tests in grades 6 and 9.
Canadian history topics are introduced thematically in different grades throughout the K-12 curriculum, which has led to critiques of the curriculum for over-privileging thematic approaches and disregarding chronology. For example, in grade 2 students learn about three Canadian communities: Iqaluit, Meteghan, and Saskatoon, and one of the foci are the changes in those communities over time. In grade 4 students learn about the land, histories, and stories of Alberta, and in grade 5 students learn about the land, histories, and stories of Canada, including an examining Canadian identity. In grade 6 students focus on historical models of democracy including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and in grade 7 the curriculum focuses on the origins, histories and movement of people both before and after Confederation. Grade 9 includes a few isolated topics in Canadian history including the Indian Act and treaties 6, 7, and 8. The three compulsory senior high school courses are organized around multidisciplinary investigations of globalization in Grade 10, nationalism in grade 11, and ideology in grade 12. Canadian history topics are interspersed in these curricula, but not in any systematic or comprehensive way.
Given that the Alberta social studies curriculum was written and implemented while Peter Seixas was still conceptualizing the initial framework of historical thinking and the Historical Thinking Project was still in its nascent stage, the articulation of historical thinking in the Alberta K-12 curriculum is underdeveloped. Historical thinking is included as one of six “dimensions of thinking” (critical thinking, creative thinking, historical thinking, geographic thinking, decision making and problem solving, and metacognition) that assist students in making connections to prior knowledge, assimilate new information, and apply learning to new contexts. Although historical thinking is included in the curriculum at each grade level, historical thinking concepts are not specifically named and the concepts are not coherently organized to increase in complexity throughout the K-12 curriculum.
The “New” Curriculum
In June 2016 the Alberta government announced an ambitious six-year, $64 million plan to simultaneously rewrite all subjects in the K-12 curriculum. The official rationale was that the previous curriculum was out-dated, it did not focus on strengthening student competencies like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving, and each subject area needed to include more Indigenous content and perspectives. While this rationale applied to some subject areas, it did not apply to social studies, which was one of the most recently updated in Alberta. Furthermore, the current social studies curriculum already is “competency focused” in that the skills and processes included are remarkably similar to the eight competencies highlighted in the proposed curriculum. Although the scope and sequence and content needs updating in terms of adding Indigenous content and interweaving Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing, Indigenous as well as Francophone perspectives are foundational to the current curriculum, which could have been updated without rewriting the entire curriculum.
In 2015 the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) conducted a comprehensive survey of 498 K-12 social studies teachers in Alberta, and the 2016 summary report entitled “The Future of Social Studies— The Voices of Alberta Teachers” provided important insights, conclusions, and recommendations for the Alberta social studies curriculum. Teachers broadly supported the need for curriculum change in social studies, and in particular noted the negative impact that standardized assessment policies and practices has on students’ learning. It is unclear whether the recommendations and concerns elicited in the survey are being considered in the design of the new curriculum.
Beginning in the fall of 2016, Alberta Education staff and Curriculum Working Groups (CWG)  began writing the subject introductions and scope and sequence documents that outline what students will learn in each grade. The goal is to have the K-4 curriculum complete by December 2018, the grade 5-8 curriculum by December 2019, the grade 9-10 curriculum by December 2020, and the grade 11-12 curriculum by December 2021 (for a more detailed overview of the curriculum development process click here).
The curriculum writing process in general, and the social studies curriculum in particular, has been highly politicized in Alberta. After the social studies subject introduction and scope and sequence were released in May 2017, United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney criticized the curriculum for the absence of Canadian military history, and accused the NDP government of attempting to “socially engineer” students in the new curriculum. Others have panned the government for not including enough university subject area experts in the subject area CWG, for having to many left wing education professors as part of the CWG, and for refusing to release the names of the 409 CWG members. In order to clear up some of the myths about the curriculum writing process, we co-wrote an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal last October.
At this point it is too early to tell what the new social studies curriculum will look like, and to what degree it will be new, or simply a repackaging of the previous curriculum. Given the ambitious timeline for completing the new social studies curriculum and the speed by which Alberta Education has rushed through the curriculum writing process thus far, we feel it is important to raise the following questions for further consideration:
- What place will history in general and Canadian history more specifically have in the new curriculum?
- What historical topics and concepts will be included in the curriculum and how will they be organized and sequenced to increase coherence and understanding?
- How will the new social studies curriculum respond to the Truth and Reconciliation’s Call to Action #62 and #63, more specifically to make mandatory, age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Indigenous peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada, and develop and implement K-12 curriculum and learning resources on Indigenous peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools?
- What role if any will historical thinking play in the curriculum, and how will historical thinking concepts be articulated, and organized to deepen students’ disciplinary historical understanding?
- How will students’ understanding of the curriculum be assessed? How students are assessed will have a major impact on teachers’ approaches to the new curriculum and it is essential that assessment approaches are developed in concert with the curriculum writing.
- What support will be provided to teachers in terms of resources and professional learning to support them in implementing the new social studies curriculum?
Dr. Lindsay Gibson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta.
Dr. Carla L. Peck is an Associate Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta. Find more about her work on her website: https://www.ualberta.ca/education/about-us/professor-profiles/carla-peck
 As of September 2017 there were 409 people working on the Alberta Curriculum including education ministry staff (81), Public school teachers, including Indigenous representatives: (163), Catholic school teachers, including Indigenous representatives (68), Francophone teachers (19), First Nations, Métis and Inuit teachers (12), charter and private school teachers (8), university and college professors (32), Northwest Territories representatives (13), Nunavut representatives (3), others (10). The territories use large segments of Alberta’s curriculum, and are giving direct development input for the first time.