Greg Bass, an architect of Alberta Education’s discovery education agenda …

The Great Alberta Curriculum Debate, Pt. 27: First Jeff Johnson, now Greg Bass, have moved out of Alberta Education. Is the massive focus on transforming the system to discovery learning next to go?

New Premier Jim Prentice has yet to make the major announcement that he’s dropping the planned and radical massive curricula rewrite intended to make the entire system mesh with a discovery and inquiry agenda, but Prentice’s new government is sending out big signals that the rush for transformative change is no longer in the cards.

The biggest signal is that Greg Bass, the discovery/inquiry guru who acted as former Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s deputy minister, has quietly moved to a new department. There’s no official announcement of this, but on Bass’s Twitter profile he now lists his job as Deputy Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training, and Labour in Alberta.

Bass was recently criticized by educational reformer Nhung Tran-Davies in a letter to Prentice. Tran-Davies said she came to realize early last winter that the Alberta government was so slow to correct its failure with its discovery math curriculum partly because Bass and others in Alberta Education were so deeply tied to the discovery/inquiry learning movement: “I did not understand why there was so much resistance to rectifying obvious concerns, but then news of a proposed radical whole curricula redesign came to light and their agenda became clear. The ‘Inspiring Education’ dialogue, a project chaired by Jeff Johnson and shaped by individuals such as education deputy minister Greg Bass, with its mandate to enforce an inquiry-based (constructivist or discovery) pedagogy, is based on the false premise that knowledge and understanding are mutually exclusive. Therefore, the curricular redesign has been focused on the “how”, i.e. the ‘understanding’, at the expense of the subject content, i.e. ‘knowledge’. Considering that Bass’ reputation rest upon his post-doctorate thesis promulgating this 21st Century Learning model, the conflict of interest is glaring.”

The roots of the push to discovery/inquiry education in Alberta

The hallmarks of discovery/inquiry learning are group work, project work, students working at their own pace on personalized projects, and teachers not acting as instructors so much as guides on the side or facilitators. The push for discovery/inquiry learning in Alberta came as high-ranking proponents of the movement realized in the early 2000s that their ideas and agenda would never be adopted in every classroom if teachers were left up to their own devices. Too many teachers wanted to do things their own way and for many that didn’t include them acting as “guides on the side. For the transformation to discovery/inquiry learning to happen, everything had to be changed, including the curriculum, the way principals were hired, groomed and rated, and the way teachers were rated and kept their licences to teach.

inspiringed.slogans

Bass wrote his thesis on “21st Century Learning,” the name given to discovery/inquiry learning mixed with technology — when he was still superintendent of Alberta’s Rockyview School District. At the time, Bass had been hard at work in that district for several years implementing the ideas that would be embedded in “Inspiring Education,” the 2010 blueprint for transforming Alberta education along discovery and inquiry lines.

As Bass described it in an on-line essay: “Our entire jurisdiction has been working to transform classrooms in our system, which retroactively is in direct alignment with the ‘Inspiring Education’ vision of Alberta Education, and invested resources, both monetary and people, into creating a system that is truly student-centric. This vision of embracing student autonomy as sacrosanct is not new in theory, but entirely new in practice.”

Bass continued: “Instead of making things more comfortable for labor groups (eg. less supervision, more prep, smaller classes) and expecting that to transfer to better learning outcomes, the focus needs to shift on what the learner needs and wants with emphasis on transforming teacher practice.”

Both Inspiring Education and the Task Force on Teaching Excellence  envisioned a massive shift in the way Alberta teachers do their jobs. As the Task Force reported this past June: “To achieve this (Inspiring Education) vision, the entire education system, including the role of the teacher, must undergo significant shifts.”

And how must teachers change?

“What teachers do must shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery,” reported the Task Force. “‘How teachers and the education system function must shift as well, placing children and youth at the centre of all decisions related to learning.”

The Task Force’s essential goal was to find ways to make sure teachers, principals and superintendents follow the inquiry/discovery vision of Inspiring Education. The Task Force proposed to do this by having the government’s existing standard for teacher practice rewritten to conform to Inspiring Education doctrines, then have teachers assessed for certification on whether or not they follow the new standard. If a teacher didn’t get on board the discovery/inquiry train, their license could be revoked after five years.

The major problem is that when renowned educational researchers such as New Zealand’s John Hattie actually examined what works and doesn’t work in classrooms, these discovery/inquiry methods were found in study after study to get only weak-to-OK results.The methods sounded good, they excited many teachers and parents, and students often enjoyed this kind of classroom work. It just didn’t serve to educate them very effectively.

In Alberta, we’ve seen this play out with the elementary math curriculum, which has moved increasingly to a discovery focus since the early 2000s, culminating in 2008-09 with a complete redoing of the curriculum on discovery/inquiry lines. But at the same time as Alberta adopted this discovery focus — downplaying such things as  memorizing times tables and no longer having students master standard math practices — the number of math illiterate children doubled in Alberta. The failure of the theory to work in Alberta schools led to a massive parental revolt last winter, which many teachers and other math educators quickly joined in on. In June, the Alberta Teachers Association went so far as to vote on a unanimous non-confidence motion in regards to Johnson, who was shuffled out of the Education portfolio earlier this week.

And now Bass has moved on as well.

But what comes next? 

Gordon Dirks, Alberta's new Minister of Education

Gordon Dirks, Alberta’s new Minister of Education

It’s worth noting that the new Education Minister Gordon Dirks spoke glowingly of traditional education practices when he was chairman of the Calgary School Board in 2006. In a speech, he singled out the board’s then new traditional-teaching schools for praise, saying: “I should note here that one of the recent success stories for the CBE has been the establishment of our what we have called our Traditional Learning Centre schools, or TLC’s. These schools combine a strong emphasis on teacher-directed learning, rigorous academics, second language instruction, with a very strong focus on character education, with all students wearing the TLC school uniform. A few thousand students are being educated at our TLC sites with a robust waiting list of interested parents and students.”

Of course, it’s early days of the Prentice regime. While Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and her education critic Bruce McAllister have made it clear they stand for a more traditional approach to education, one based on hard work, clear grades and high standards, it’s not clear yet which direction Dirks will go. At the same time, it’s evident that the discovery/inquiry movement has many ardent supporters in positions of power throughout the educational hierarchy. That includes large multi-national textbook companies pushing discovery/inquiry textbooks and computer programs and equipment. These companies have been involved in Alberta Education’s mass and unprecedented curriculum rewrite right from the start.

It will be no easy battle to bring back a focus on the mastery of basic in English and math against such power vested interests.

The Great Alberta Curriculum Debate

Pt.1 Alberta plans radical write of curriculum

Pt. 2 Fad reforms pushed by educational consultants trying to make a new for themselves, says retired Alberta teachers

Pt. 3. Is Education Inc. driving radical changes to the Alberta school curriculum?

Pt. 4. Criticism of curriculum rewrite doesn’t add up, Johnson says.

Pt. 5. “Student-centred” curriculum rewrite comes up in Throne Speech

Pt. 6. Wildrose attacks edu-crats leading curriculum rewrite

Pt. 7. “Our education system is fantastic,” Johnson says in face of growing discontent

Pt. 8. Real teaching means real learning. Red Deer teacher in favour of curriculum redesign.

Pt. 9. Margaret Wente of Globe Mail: Canada’s math wars heating up

Pt. 10: Changes to curriculum a “little bit rushed,” says ATA’s Ramsankar

Pt. 11. Is the Alberta government backing away from its radical curriculum rewrite

P. 12. ATA’s Teghtmeyer raises concerns about teacher autonomy under new curriculum

Pt. 13. Globe Mail commentary: Alberta’s Discovery curriculum fails kids

Pt. 14. Alberta parents need to be very worried about a fluffy curriculum, despite assurances from Education Minister

Pt. 15: A distinguished Alberta Educator with his scathing history of Progressive Conservative handling of the education file

Pt. 16: Johnson tells teachers that province has already accepted “inquiry-based” learning.

Pt. 17: Alberta government attempts to put a new spin on its radical curriculum rewrite

Pt. 18   The mistakes made with the new “constructivist” or “inquiry” math curriculum: Prof. Anna Stokke digs in

Pt. 19. Alberta’s Radical Curriculum Redesign will damage our economy and harm students, says curriculum experts

Pt. 20: School superintendent’s group supports Alberta Education’s call for change

Pt. 21: Does Education Minister Jeff Johnson know what his revolutionary bureaucrats are up to?

Pt 22. Teghtmeyer:  “Inspiring Education” in critical care

Pt. 23: Is “Inspiring Education” really about forcing teachers to conform?

Pt. 24. Premier Hancock insists competency of teachers must be addressed

Pt. 25. The Top 9 reasons why Education Minister Jeff Johnson is in such hot water

 Pt. 26. Blueprint for change is biased and unrealistic, Porteous says

 

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