Abandoning the Enterprise? Alberta’s 1936 and 2021 Social Studies Curricula Compared

Kirk Niergarth

Author’s Note:  Alberta’s new draft K-6 curriculum, released in the spring of 2021, has unleashed a flurry of criticism. The Jason Kenney-led United Conservative government has followed through on their 2019 election promise to scrap an ambitious curriculum re-development project initiated by a Progressive Conservative government in 2008 and continued by the NDP government after 2015.  The new draft curriculum was produced much more rapidly with aid of a panel of expert advisors, including, controversially, historian C.P. Champion

Since the draft was made public in March, it has drawn criticism from parents, teachers, and scholars. Carla Peck of the University of Alberta, in particular, has published several incisive critiques and others have argued that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate and contains numerous factual errors. A number of analyses have been compiled here and news coverage here. On 28 June, the Calgary Public Library organized a panel of Mount Royal University faculty to comment on the draft curriculum. As the only historian on the panel, naturally, I looked to the past to recall a previous moment when Alberta curriculum experienced dramatic changes and became, briefly, a pedagogical outlier in Canada, leading all the provinces in its embrace of “progressive” education.  The text of my brief remarks follows:

In K-6 Social Studies, the new Alberta draft curriculum changes the existing program of study in terms of content, but more profoundly in terms of educational philosophy. It represents, in my estimation, the biggest shift of this kind since the traditional subjects of history, geography, and civics were merged to become “Social Studies” in 1936. The new curriculum, alberta.ca proclaims, will help students “develop gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before…and a pride in the free, prosperous, peaceful and welcoming society that they built and that students have the responsibility to carry forward.” The key concepts here: gratitude, pride, and responsibility are not absent from the current curriculum nor from the original 1936 Social Studies version, but the degree to which they have eclipsed developing skills and fostering critical inquiry represents a significant change.

In the 1930s, Alberta was a forerunner in North America in what became known as the “Progressive Education” movement. The 1936 social studies curriculum was part of what was intended to be a dramatic transformation of the nature of schooling in this province. Known as “the Enterprise,” the new curriculum aimed to put the ideas of John Dewey and other educational theorists and psychologists into practice and foster learning that was activity-based and child-centred.  As the first of the curriculum’s guiding principles put it, “learning is not something children get, but something that they do.” Teachers were assigned to be guides and helpers rather than taskmasters. As one of the program’s architects, Donalda Dickie, explained: “The modern teacher thinks of himself as teaching not a subject, but a child. The teacher who teaches a subject…naturally thinks first of [the] subject…The teacher who teaches a child thinks first of the child.”[1]

The goal of Social Studies, according to the Enterprise, was to investigate the “organization and development of human society” and to prepare “future citizens to take an active role” in shaping a democratic community. The past was conceived of as a resource to be drawn upon when relevant to understanding and solving the problems of the present. The curriculum gave teachers considerable leeway in how to achieve learning aims in this new subject.

There was, for example, no specified program for social studies in Division I (grades 1-3).  Rather, these students were to explore history and geography through a series of “Social Activities” which were class projects of various kinds. One, for example, had students planning a play which would demonstrate the reliance of a household on various workers in the community. Students would research and write and perform about the work of farmers, carpenters, police officers, postal workers and so on. Another involved the students planning a trip to Japan and learning about the history and geography of that country in so doing. The curriculum authors thought about 5 or 6 such “social activity” enterprises would amount to a year’s Social Studies work in Division I.

Division II (grades 4-6) was somewhat more prescriptive and assigned a number of “studies” to each grade level. The studies were all connected to the concept of “community” – communities that that radiated outwards from home to encompass school, city, province, nation, and the world. Grade 4 studies were focused on communities in different kinds of natural environments – from the arctic, to the tropics, to deserts. Grade five situated the Canadian west both in terms of world geography and historical patterns ranging from the distant (the arrival of Europeans in North America) to the proximate (the emergence of Alberta as a province). Grade six focused on community growth, looking at the development of communities in England, Latin America, the United States and Canada, before comparing community life in various parts of the British Empire. Accompanying the description of each study was a substantial list of resources that students and teachers could consult and compare in their inquiries (indeed, one of the problems with the implementation of the curriculum was a dearth of school library resources, particularly in rural schools).

In addition to the “studies” that covered the year’s major themes, teachers were also to lead their classes in projects that the curriculum called “Social Experiences.” These were conceived of as a series of problems that students would need to solve and, along the way learn relevant historical and geographical content (along with science, math, art, literacy, drama, and other subjects). “Water and Life:  An Exhibition,” for example, envisioned a class preparing a museum-style exhibition for the school or community. Solving the “problems” of making this exhibit led students to investigate the history and geography of Canadian waterways, the use of water and irrigation systems in agriculture in Alberta, and more distant histories about the origins of ocean travel and exploration. Outcomes of this and other enterprises included knowledge (divided by subject area) but also skills, abilities, and attitudes and appreciations.

The desired attitudes to be fostered seem to me the most remarkably enduring aspects of this nine-decades-old curriculum.  Social studies was meant to foster inquiry, both critical and open mindedness, tolerance, responsibility, appreciation, creative self-expression and self-cultivation, willingness to co-operate, and sympathy for others. With these attitudes, the curriculum aimed to help children develop a “realistic understanding and appreciation of human relations” with a view to participating in improving those relations.

If the teacher had “exercised good judgment” in the choice of enterprises, the curriculum framers wrote, the students should leave Division II with a “fair working knowledge of the past and present of Alberta and of a few of the outstanding geographical features of Canada.”[2] History, as this quotation suggests, was not envisioned as a discreet body of knowledge which students would learn in a chronological survey. As the curriculum puts it, social studies dealt “essentially with the ‘here’ and ‘now’…subordinating the ‘there’ and ‘then’.” When history or geography “sheds any light on the problems under study, it is then introduced.” As historian Amy von Heyking explains, the authors of this curriculum believed that “history was not about memorizing facts, it was about understanding and explaining trends in the past.  It was about using information about the past to make sense of current issues.”[3] This conception of history is much less evident in the current draft 2021 curriculum.

Ostensibly, the new draft curriculum is concerned with the way the past influences the present.  Students in grade two, for example, are asked to identify the significance of ancient wisdom in our daily lives and to compare a worldview from an ancient civilization to a present one. Grade one students are asked to explain “some features that make Eastern civilizations like China different from civilizations mostly founded on European laws and cultures, like Canada”. Perhaps, based on their study of Confucius, the Emperor and the Forbidden City, gunpowder and fireworks, the Great Wall, paper, and silk, these six year olds will be able to make a meaningful analysis of the essence of an “Eastern” civilization, as opposed to a “mostly…European” one like Canada. Most professional historians when asked to make generalizations of this kind – about a past “world view” or the features that distinguish a civilization – would tread with considerable care. I suspect the answers of grade one and two kids will be much more amusing.

It is very easy – and tempting – to poke fun at the large assemblage of facts and dates in the new draft curriculum and there are experts on child psychology and pedagogy far more qualified than I to speak to the age appropriateness of the level which these facts are introduced (as for example the fun activity in grade two in which students will compare the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and Covid-19. I suppose kids that age do sing “Ring around the Rosy”…). But what I would like to comment on today is the way that history is conceived in the curriculum. I would note a few fairly obvious themes:

  1. History is to be taught chronologically from ancient times (in Grade 1 and 2) to the early 20th century.
  2. History is a set of facts to be mastered as opposed to a series of problems to be solved.
  3. The present flows from the past in narrative fashion. Democracy descends from Athens through the Magna Carta to the establishment of responsible government in Canada. Canada likewise descends from New France, to British Conquest, to the arrival of United Empire Loyalists, through Confederation, and the building of the CPR.

This, I think, is the core of the curriculum, albeit the periphery of the curriculum is a broad one. There is, for example, a parallel narrative of Indigenous history being taught that begins to intersect with settler history in Grade 4. There is attention paid to the migration histories of various groups and an acknowledgement of Canadian racism and discrimination, including the history of residential schools in grade five and, in grade six, the Ku Klux Klan, which according to the curriculum “appealed to Americans and Canadians who felt distracted by social changes and the advances of groups they believed were inferior.” I am not sure, exactly, what “felt distracted” is shorthand for here, but to leave aside the question of when and how this curriculum approaches the history of Canadian White supremacy and colonialism, I would note that these are two of the very few instances when the chronology of the curriculum is pushed beyond the early 20th century.

Aside from these examples, there is one mention of the 1982 Charter of Rights and a reference to First Nations gaining the federal franchise in 1960, but essentially this is a history that stops before the outbreak of the First World War. There is no Depression, no Second World War, no referenda on sovereignty, no Free Trade agreement – in short, no events of the lifetimes of the parents, or grandparents, or even, I suspect, the great grandparents of the students who will study this curriculum. The curriculum favours “origin” stories over more recent historical time. An idea like “the American character” features in this curriculum drawing on “founding fathers” and constitutional documents. More recent events – say, the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement – are, apparently, less essential to national “character.”

If this current draft curriculum is implemented – and at the moment many Boards of Education have refused to pilot it next year – teachers will have a great many facts to teach elementary school kids. But, whereas, the Enterprise was far more interested in the how than the what of learning, in the new draft curriculum, as the University of Alberta’s Carla Peck has pointed out, there is “no attention at all paid to developing attributes or dispositions related to citizenship or to developing an understanding of skills within the various disciplines of the Social Studies. There is no progression (growth in skills over time) because students are asked to do the same thing over and over: Discuss, explain, describe.”[4] Perhaps this lacuna will give teachers the space they need to find inventive and age appropriate ways – perhaps even social activities and social experiences – to deliver what they are able of the plentiful content compiled here. It is possible, too, that this curricular experiment may begin to address what does seem to me, based on the anecdotal evidence of working with university students, is a problem with Alberta Social Studies. My students often arrive from high school lacking not only general historical knowledge, but also with weak senses of chronology. Improving the coherence of Alberta’s social studies curriculum may not be a bad thing, albeit I suspect that it is the high school level rather than the elementary level at which such reform might be most suitably aimed.

I want to close by offering some historical speculation on the motivation of the curriculum framers in 1936 and in 2021. Most often, it is the Depression that is pointed to as the immediate cause for the progressive experiment of the Enterprise. Certainly, Alberta had problems enough in the 1930s that training a generation of problem solvers must have seemed like a good idea. It seems to me, however, that while the economic collapse was the most proximate cause to allow for experimentation of this kind, the ideas of the experimenters themselves were intellectually formed earlier. Consider them reflecting on their own elementary education in the early 20th century when they were taught, relentlessly, to take pride in the British Empire, to be grateful to its heroes and of their responsibility to serve it. Serve it many of them did in the First World War, a war that many who lived through it referred to as a holocaust. If you can imagine four 9/11 attacks every day for 1566 consecutive days, then you can imagine the kind of psychological wound left upon the generations come of age during the First World War.

For this generation, if studying history meant memorizing the Kings and Queens of England and the lines of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” – Ready? Aye, Ready! – and the result of this education was the mass industrial slaughter of a generation without much apparent purpose, one can understand why the educational theorists of the interwar period thought their own children might do with less gratitude, pride, and responsibility and more critical inquiry and open mindedness.

The same distance that separates 1936 from the First World War is the distance between 2021 and the boom-oil years of Alberta at the turn of the millennium when taxes were flat, Ralph Bucks flowed to every Albertan, and all was well in the Progressive Conservative universe. For those formed in this era, the past is not a source of anxiety and pain as it was in 1936, but a place they might long to return to, with fewer “distractions” caused by the social changes of the last decade. In this sense, this new curriculum can be seen as a conservative one, in that it envisions a return to a more traditional mode of history education and seeks to instill a set of values and perspectives in students that are in no way questioning of or threatening to the status quo.

But, really, in Alberta, this new draft is hardly a traditional curriculum. The tradition and legacy of the Enterprise method extends beyond the memories of all Albertans less than 90 years old. The 1936 experiment had many flaws – problem with resources, assessments, and teacher-training were never fully solved and more radical aspects of the approach to pedagogy were clawed back beginning less than a decade after the program was launched. And yet, many aspects of the philosophy of that 1936 curriculum persisted in Alberta schools. The students who studied within them somehow managed to help transform Alberta from a bankrupt and desperately poor province to the “free, prosperous, peaceful and welcoming society” for which today’s draft curriculum wants future students to be grateful. Let us hope that the best aspects of a truly traditional curriculum in Alberta – which is to say, child-centred and activity-based – persist as the students of Alberta prepare to face the challenges that the present and the past have endowed upon their future.

Kirk Niergarth is an historian and Associate Professor at Mount Royal University.

[1] As quoted in Amy Von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905-1980, 69. Von Heyking is the foremost historian of Alberta’s progressive education era. She served on an advisory panel that was consulted about the new curriculum, but her view of the final results is perhaps suggested by the fact that she was a signatory to an op-ed critical of the draft program for social studies. See Carla Peck, Cory Wright-Maley, David Scott, Amy von Heyking, et al., “Alberta’s draft social studies curriculum will hinder students,” Edmonton Journal 6 April 2021, https://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-albertas-draft-social-studies-curriculum-will-hinder-students

[2] Amy Von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905-1980, 68.

[3] Amy Von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History and Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905-1980, 69.

[4] Carla L. Peck, “Analysis of the Draft Alberta K-6 Social Studies Curriculum (Part 1),” 29 March 2021 at https://carlapeck.wordpress.com/2021/03/29/analysis-of-the-draft-alberta-k-6-social-studies-curriculum-part-1/


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