Ontario History Curriculum: Many Questions to be Answered

By Samantha Cutrara

This academic year I’ll be writing a series of blog posts for Active History focused on history education in Canada. In these posts, I’ll be outlining the Canadian History and Social Studies curricula for each province and identifying some possible opportunities for collaboration between historians/archivists and teachers in elementary and secondary schools. As I mentioned in my introductory post, I am hoping that these posts can be interactive, with teachers and historians chatting in the comments about how they support each other in teaching the Canadian past.

To begin, I am going to start with the curriculum I know the best: Ontario. I have taught this curriculum, analyzed this curriculum, and supported this curriculum for over 15 years. After the 2013 revision, I worked with teachers on transitioning to the new curriculum, which had a heavy emphasis on primary source inquiry-based teaching and learning – a curricular turn that I will discuss throughout the whole series. Four years later, this 2013 version seems like the “new” curriculum to me and for this post I approached it analytically with a fresh set of eyes.

“First Book Canada Book Trading Zone,”
Ontario Library Association

Before I begin, I want to define curriculum. Curriculum, as I mentioned in my previous post, is a concept that holds a lot of weight and assumptions without any specificity. As many educators know, there is a hidden curriculum that we enact, reproduce, and embody in various sites of education that teaches through covert discourse, shaping knowledge, power, and relationships. Codified curriculum, on the other hand, is the overtly mandated content and skills an educator is required to teach. The objectives and standards found within the codified curriculum can be prescriptive or general, depending on a wide range of factors.

Both the hidden and codified curriculum are enacted at the same time, but often, as I have found in my experience as an educator and an educational theorist, when the general public speaks of “curriculum” they often implicitly blend both the hidden and codified curriculum into one general “curricula” that they then celebrate, laud, or attack.

To be clear, in this series I will lay out the codified curriculum related to Canadian history in order to demonstrate opportunities for the mandated content/themes/skills to be enhanced and/or augmented by subject matter experts, such as historians, archivists, librarians, and museum workers.

In Ontario, the mandatory curriculum covers the Canadian past in grades 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10. Over these six grades, the years 1700 to 2000 are covered along with an undefined “pre-contact” period. The turn of the 19th century (approx. 1780 to 1850) is the most widely covered time period, covered in four different grades: 3, 5, 7, and 8, and the grade 10 Canadian Studies course is the only course the covers the 20th century in any substantial way.Primary sources and inquiry play a large part in these curricula. As early as grade 3, students are expected to “use primary sources such as journals, letters, maps, and paintings to investigate how people in early Canada responded to challenges in their lives.” In grade 7, students are introduced to historical inquiry and are expected to “apply it to investigate different perspectives on issues in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Canada.” These foci on primary sources and inquiry are based in the Historical Thinking concepts most widely associated in Canada with Peter Seixas.

With an explicit emphasis on inquiry – developing questions, finding answers, presenting results – the curriculum in Ontario is not intended to be, nor written with the expectation that, History and Social Studies will or should be taught as an immovable timeline supported with textbooks and lectures. This is often the vision many people have of History and Social Studies curriculum, but in Ontario this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In each grade, the curriculum is defined by “Big Ideas” and “Framing Questions” that draw on disciplinary language and thinking to emphasize doing over memorizing. Those Ideas and Questions, define the Overall Expectations, with more Specific Expectations underneath. While the Big Ideas, Framing Questions, and Overall Expectations are broad, Specific Expectations, even in their specificity, still leave room for teacher choice, student interest, and resource availability. In the curriculum documents, the Specific Expectations provide “sample questions” can that guide the teacher and/or students in their inquiry. With doing as the emphasis, not simply knowing, content suggestions act as vehicles for students to demonstrate the inquiry and disciplinary skills they are learning, which is the real focus of the curriculum.

In other places, I have critiqued a skills-based focused in history curricula, and I am not going to repeat this critique here, but I will highlight that this open invitation for inquiry has many possibilities for collaboration and support between historians and teachers. That is, if historians (and archivists and librarians and museum workers) want to support teachers, identifying resources that can support inquiry into these Specific Expectations can be a great place to start.

One teacher I spoke to, Ben Gross from the TDSB, said that teachers are “desperate” for primary sources to use with their students. In my own work with teachers, I have found that teachers need a blend of supportive agency in their work with historians, librarians, archivists, etc. They don’t want prescriptive lesson plans nor do they want a whole archive to sort through. What they want is a small selection of curated resources that tell stories that are outside the dominant Canadian history narrative. Gross said that getting six to eight visual and textual primary sources on one topic, available either as reproductions or as electronic copies, would be an ideal support for his own teaching. He pointed to the questions found within the Specific Expectations as providing a guide for the types of content these resources could cover.

These Specific Expectations are the spaces for collaboration and support. The Ontario History and Social Studies curriculum is vast and full of possibilities but in order for this promise to be kept, the doing of history must be more accessible for teachers to facilitate.

For example, the grade 6 curriculum was revised into a new course: “Communities in Canada, Past and Present.” This course was intended for teachers to do anything related to inquiry and Canadian peoples in the past and present. In my experience, teachers were initially very frustrated by this carte blanche approach because it required them to learn and do in ways that were outside the ways they organized their classes.

In the four years since I discussed this curriculum with teachers, I have found that some of this anger has lessened. One teacher I recently spoke to said that she has appreciated the openness of this curriculum and as a result has taught a wide range of content with her students, from Africville to residential schools. She has a co-teacher, however, with whom she works, which may have made finding and developing resources a little less work. Working closely with a historian or archivist could make the work of teacher much easier in this regard. In other words, the stories invited through the curriculum are in need of primary sources to make the teaching of them real – and this is where collaboration can happen.

I conclude this overview of the Ontario curriculum by again providing links to the elementary and secondary curriculum, as well as to a document I created that identifies some interesting Specific Expectations questions that perhaps, historians, archivists, librarians can support teachers and students in exploring.

Please comment below for any other feedback that can lead to greater classroom-support for teachers.

Happy Collaborating!

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and is currently working on a manuscript for UBC Press entitled Creating a New “We”: Canadian history education for the 21st century. Find more information about her consulting and academic work on her website SamanthaCutrara.com.


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

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