In a widely-panned press conference on August 8, Alberta’s Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, and Curriculum Advisory Panel Chair Angus McBeath took turns denigrating Alberta’s current education outcomes, and worse yet, Alberta’s youth.
Education outcomes in the province have been heralded in the past. In 2015, Alberta ranked first in Canada and second out of 72 countries in science, reading, and math, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
That was before an NDP government governed Alberta for a full term, however.
“We now have a new ministerial order that no longer focuses on constructivist approaches to learning – instead, the new ministerial order will give students a foundation of literacy and numeracy and a knowledge of the rich and diverse history of Alberta and Canada,” La Grange said.
Interestingly, constructivism as a method of learning poses a specific threat to the “because, I said so” method of teaching due to the fact that constructivist theory maintains “learning is understood to be a self-regulated process of resolving inner conflicts that become apparent through concrete experience, discussion, and reflection“; or, the ability to process new information or experiences and accept an outcome that may be different than one originally believed or expected. One could even call such a process ‘fatal’ for certain beliefs that rely on a lack of questioning and evaluation.
Albertans may recall that between the years of 2016 and 2019, a great deal of shade was thrown on Alberta’s education system for allegedly including values-based instruction.
In November, one well-circulated assignment (which is identical to the reading comprehension portion of Law School Admissions Tests, or LSATs, if anyone is interested) used a topically relevant passage from an environmental perspective and is followed by questions to test the reader’s understanding through inference.
The questions ask students to identify the author’s intention and infer what the author would also probably say or believe based on the passage provided. As this particular passage was anti-oil sands, petro-patriots in Alberta lost their collective mind.
But that’s old news – moving on.
“Our students will explore life opportunities that develop their unique talents and potential, provide a sense of purpose and belonging, and affirm the dignity of work. They will become life-long learners who will cultivate the virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control, justice, charity, and hope,” LaGrange added.
Note that “dignity of work” does not equate to equal pay for equal work under a United Conservative government, who rolled back wages for youth under the age of 18 in 2019… I’ll come back to that.
“Ultimately, this ministerial order is a return to proven teaching methods that will set up Alberta students for rich personal and work lives,” LaGrange said, referring to changing an educational system that has previously produced some of the most impressive academic outcomes in the country.
“With this ministerial order in place, we will immediately get to work on reforming new curriculum that falls in line with this new vision and fulfills the expectations of Albertans,” she concluded.
Now, I understand that making inferences is not something this government wants to encourage, but LaGrange’s speech tells us that the Education Minister, and her caucus, believes Alberta’s youth are currently lacking. Based on independent ranking of Alberta student testing, they were not lacking in academic achievement – so, this is about the “virtues” LaGrange mentioned.
Angus McBeath, a former teacher and superintendent of Edmonton Public School Division who held the role as Chair of the Curriculum Advisory Panel, provided the most cringe-worthy examples of how Alberta’s youth are not currently meeting the expectations of generations gone by, but it wasn’t all bad.
He said the curriculum would remain inclusive and that they wanted all Albertans to be represented in their education.
“We want every to student to say ‘I’m at home in our schools because the curriculum speaks to me – it includes me and respects me’,” he said.
Actually, that was the only good part. Still, I stand by the claim that it wasn’t all bad.
McBeath made the most revealing insights into his biases with personal anecdotes.
He spoke of how his “young relative” was fired from the Gap.
“After four days, she asked for three weeks off – they laid her off. I thought, clearly this young person didn’t understand the world of work culture. So, we think all young people should be exposed to work culture,” McBeath said.
“This is not a curriculum that’s over-focused on the workplace, but we believe that – and we’ve heard from employers – many of them dissatisfied that our students aren’t sufficiently prepared for the world of work.”
Now, he didn’t say why she asked for the better part of a month off, but it obviously wasn’t because there was a party she really wanted to attend.
Three weeks is a cross-Canada tour or back-packing in Australia. Three weeks is also likely something that was planned before she got the job and should have mentioned in the interview. That isn’t a failure of Alberta’s education system – it’s a failure to provide funding for certified career practitioners in Alberta schools.
But I digress.
“We want every Albertan that we produce through our schools – along with their families – we want every young person who graduates from our schools to be the kind of person you’d want to be selling you a used car; because you can trust them,” he said.
Now, he didn’t actually suggest that they should sell used cars, just that they should be trustworthy enough to tell us the truth while doing so. The offensive part is that he is saying youth in Alberta are not currently those people.
“I said to the minister the first time I met her, that you can have a really bright student graduate from high school and they get a job and they’re fast and quick and they know how to fill orders and they wait on customers,” McBeath recounted.
“But if they steal ya blind, are you sure you got a good one?”
Who has to ask that question? Employers certainly do not. This flippant comment shows the crux of Alberta’s re-education plan is based on mistrust of the youth of this province.
“We want to teach students a certain reverence for honesty, integrity, perseverance, stick-to-it-iveness, resilience, respectfulness, and many other virtues that we think are important for students to possess,” McBeath declared, as if these are not already expected behaviours at K-12 schools in the province.
Jason Kenney plays a long game – and the discussion of virtues and personality traits in the curriculum announcement appears to be planting a new seed: Alberta’s youth are not trustworthy. You don’t have to look far to find out why that would benefit Kenney’s provincial (and federal) parties.
Provincial polling in 2017 showed that the youngest voting cohort, 18-34 year-old Albertans, favoured more progressive-minded options over the UCP. In the lead up to the 2019 provincial election, the results were the same.
After decreasing post-secondary funding, implementing a youth minimum wage, and thus far still lagging in job creation and building a diversity of opportunity in the province, the United Conservative Party may well be preparing for a youth revolt in 2023.
From the day Kenney entered Alberta’s political arena in 2016 until election day in 2019, the UCP told Alberta their enemy was the NDP – in 2023, they may decide the enemy is our children.
This post contains opinion.
Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political analyst physically distancing in Southern Alberta.