Combining Energy and Expertise

March 1, 2017

A glimpse at the efforts of Alberta’s curriculum working groups

This collection of articles has been contributed by teachers who are volunteering to participate in the curriculum working groups assembled by Alberta Education. Their names are being withheld to protect their privacy.

Teachers Are Doing Excellent Work

Upon learning that all curriculum areas were going to be reworked and updated, I know that Alberta teachers had a lot of questions. What would this look like? What changes would occur? How will these changes impact me and my students? When the members of the curriculum working groups were notified in September of this year and started meeting in October, there were more questions, such as: what exactly is going on at those meetings? Well, I hope to give you a bit of insight into that.

As one of the Alberta Teachers’ Association representatives on the English language arts working group, I attended a meeting in September to select members of the working groups. Many applications had been received from all over the province from K–12 and post-secondary educators. While I know that many teachers who applied were disappointed that they were not selected to join the working group, I think it is important to know how fair the selection process was.

If you were not selected, this does not mean that you are not “good enough” or that you are not an expert in your field. The candidates were selected based on the criteria listed on the application form and to allow for diversity within the membership. The final curriculum working groups are balanced with experts from a variety of grade levels (early education, elementary, secondary, post-secondary) and from all across Alberta. If you work in a larger school district, particularly one of the larger metro boards, you likely had many colleagues in your district applying as well. One of the greatest strengths of the working groups is their diversity, which allows us to consider all students and teachers in all teaching and learning environments when making decisions about curriculum.

Members of the working groups met three times before the end of the calendar year — twice in October and once in November. We began our first meeting with a large presentation to welcome all members from all curriculum areas and to give us an idea of the task that we were about to take on.  The buzz of energy as everyone grabbed a coffee reminded me of that first day back at work before the students return — the fresh energy, the excitement to see familiar faces and to meet new people. This initial meeting set the stage for future meetings, ensuring that everyone was on the same page.  

When we moved into our different subject areas, finally meeting our new “families,” it felt like being the new kid on the first day in a new school. Where will I sit? Will I know anyone? Will I get along with these new people? Will I fit in? Will I have enough to contribute? Those nerves were quickly eased by our Alberta Education chair and her colleagues. Through the activities of the first few days, we were quickly able to get a sense of the work ahead and our individual roles in the process. 

Exhaustion and Excitement

You know how you feel at the end of a day of teaching when you were busy and “on” all day, but you felt that you actually made a difference and the kids really “got” what you were teaching — that mix of physical exhaustion with excitement and energy? That’s how I felt at the end of the first day of working group meetings.

I quickly had a sense of deep respect for my colleagues in the working group. It was clear that, despite our different backgrounds and different experiences, we are all working towards the common goal of ensuring that Alberta students continue to get the best education possible. I truly feel that our work has been student-centered, and that keeps us all productive, positive and pushing forward. Having this group of educators who are constantly asking “what is in the best interest of the students” gives me great optimism about what is to come. I have been impressed with the work that we have been able to do in a short period of time, and I think we are focusing in on what students and teachers need. 

On a personal level, this work has been satisfying because it is changing me as an educator. It has been fantastic professional development for me to have pedagogical conversations with English language arts teachers who work in very different settings with very different students. Learning from them makes me think about education and my subject area differently. Is there another way of looking at teaching, or another way at looking at English language arts, that I am not considering? 

If you have wondered what is going on in the working groups and how much they are actually accomplishing, I can assure you that teachers are doing excellent work. So far, my experience with the working groups has left me feeling refreshed and optimistic — I am looking forward to the future of education.

Change Is In the Air

Regardless of which emotions are evoked by the idea of unprecedented change in Alberta’s curriculum, most would agree that the update to a dated and disjointed curriculum is long overdue. Since Egerton Ryerson’s 19th century advocacy of free public education in Canada, prominent educational thinkers, including John Dewey, have wondered if the goals and structures of education adequately prepare youth for an unforeseen future. Echoing this sentiment, Education Minister David Eggen has identified our curriculum as being a mile long and an inch deep, conditions dissonant with deep, lifelong learning.

At the focal point of curriculum development is a delineation of education’s raison d’être, or what we hope and expect for our students: “Students are lifelong learners inspired to pursue their aspirations and interests; achieve fulfillment and success; and contribute to communities and the world” (Education Business Plan 2015–2018, quoted in The Guiding Framework, page 3).

This resonates with the message of Dr. Maria Sirois, a noted positive psychologist and author, who defines thriving in life as growing wise in doing what you love. By focusing on the long term development of our students and allowing them to reach their potential while contributing to a better world, the values-based and action-focused portion of the current vision makes me hopeful that education will become, as Nelson Mandela once said, the most powerful weapon with which we can change the world.

Alberta Education is responding to classroom and student needs in two significant ways. One way is by creating a digital platform called the Curriculum Development Application (CDA) and the other is by listening to the voices of all educational stakeholders, with an emphasis on activating classroom expertise through curriculum working groups. 

As a true representation of how technology can be a powerful collaborative and creative tool, the CDA is being designed to facilitate curriculum usage. It will include a search function for words and phrases with clickable links that enable users to gain further information and examples of key elements such as conceptual versus procedural knowledge and curricular links to reconciliation. There will also be drag-and-drop features that allow users to interact with and manipulate the organization of the curriculum. Moreover, personalized spaces called boards will enable users to create projects, lessons, activities or assessments that can be shared with varying degrees of permission. This means that teachers will be able to view and even follow the creations of other teachers in the province. The brilliant practicality of the application is a result of teacher input and IT skill that will undoubtedly redefine how teachers interact with the foundations that guide our work.

Another indicator that Alberta Education is moving in the right direction is the commitment to democracy and pluralism. During the month that it was open, more than 40,000 Albertans responded to an online survey with discernments on the strengths and deficiencies of our current curriculum. Wherever possible, stakeholders are actively participating in the process of redefining our curriculum, ensuring that the final product will represent a collective effort. Teachers will also have future opportunities to respond to the curriculum development and provide their insights into what works and what will not.

My involvement with the curriculum change began as an ATA representative on the panel charged with reviewing the hundreds of teacher applications sent in for the few dozen spots on the science working group. Applications included qualities such as multiple degrees, international teaching experience, careers spanning multiple divisions, extensive leadership experience, and coming into teaching as a second or third career. It was both enthralling and humbling to recognize the extent of talent in Alberta’s schools.

The challenge for our team was to create a balance of representation across divisions, disciplines, locations (including urban versus rural settings), Francophone, First Nations Metis and Inuit perspective, and years of experience to truly capture the diversity in our classrooms. It was not an easy task and took about 10 people two full days to complete, but the voices we invited to the working group table are representative of the diversity of science teachers in Alberta.

What impresses me most is Alberta Education’s demonstrated commitment to honouring teacher expertise. While they have completed years of research and participated in international conversations, they filtered the information into the Developers’ Guide for Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum (Programs of Study) and provided working group participants opportunities to meaningfully engage in the rationale behind the change. Working group participants have then engaged in the iterative process of examining interjurisdictional data, identifying priorities, and then writing multiple drafts of various aspects of curriculum. We have frequent opportunities to respond to each others’ work, within our science-focus group and with the other subject areas, and to then further refine our work as we cross-pollinate our ideas. During our “time off” from curriculum writing, Alberta Education employees gather and examine all of our product, reorganize and consolidate the information as necessary, and then structure another series of activities to guide us further in the challenging and messy yet hugely meaningful task of writing curriculum.

To date, each of the working groups has streamlined the subject descriptions to capture the essence of our curricular documents and are moving through the scope and sequence writing. Through the scope and sequence, we are ensuring that we create developmentally appropriate progressions with subject matter and also explore opportunities to match our levelled work to facilitate cross-curricular projects, if that is what a teacher wishes to undertake.

I am confident that the upcoming changes are well-researched, incorporate multiple perspectives, and are responsive to teacher and student needs. Whether the volume of outcomes in the current curriculum keeps your focus on short-term content retrieval rather than on developing long-term concepts and procedures, or if cross-curricular projects and vertically aligned progressions make you shudder at the sheer organizational effort required of the tasks, the goals outlined in The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum (Programs of Study) are cause for celebration.

J’attends impatiemment

Le Nouveau Programme D’études De Français

En septembre, l’ATA a invité les enseignants de la province à se porter volontaires pour participer à la révision des programmes d’études de l’Alberta, et je fais partie du groupe d’experts responsables d’élaborer le programme d’études de français langue première.

Dès la première rencontre, lorsque la facilitatrice du Ministère et ses collègues nous ont expliqué le processus, j’ai vite compris qu’il s’agirait d’un travail méthodique de longue haleine. Notre tâche consiste à analyser en détail plusieurs programmes canadiens et internationaux, afin d’en rédiger une nouvelle version tout en respectant certaines lignes directrices. Pour cela, l’équipe se retrouve régulièrement au Ministère où chaque rencontre est organisée et encadrée.

En fait, le plus difficile est de quitter ma salle de classe deux ou trois jours par mois pour me rendre au Ministère, car il est parfois compliqué de planifier des leçons pour l’enseignant suppléant qui assurera mes cours. Heureusement, mon équipe-école est formidable, et mes élèves suffisamment engagés dans leur apprentissage.

Certes, cette aventure de réécriture comporte des hauts et des bas. J’avais l’impression lors des premières rencontres que tout était décidé d’avance. On nous demandait notre avis, on en discutait, puis on nous répondait que ce n’était pas possible ou que ça n’entrait pas dans le cadre pédagogique du Ministère. De là s’ensuivaient des discussions souvent très animées.

Voilà quatre mois que nous travaillons à l’élaboration du nouveau programme et à présent, je comprends mieux l’importance que nous soyons bien encadrés. D’ailleurs, à chaque nouvelle rencontre, nous commençons toujours par lire une version provisoire rédigée par le Ministère à partir de ce que nous avons composé la fois précédente.

Bref, après des heures et des heures de travail d’écriture, mais surtout de lecture d’études récentes sur l’apprentissage au Canada et dans le monde entier, j’ai vraiment hâte de commencer à travailler à partir de ce nouveau programme d’études de français langue première.

Bien sûr, il n’est pas encore terminé, mais je suis convaincue que les parents, enseignants et élèves vont l’accueillir avec enthousiasme.

Curriculum Work Exhausting but Invigorating

Having met with the English working group several times now, there are two things that leave an impression on me each time. First, it is so valuable to meet with other English teachers from around the province and across the K–12 and post-secondary spectrum. Having always worked in an urban centre, it is important for me to hear what challenges and joys there are working in rural and isolated communities.

As a high school teacher, I need to have conversations with the educators who have impacted, shaped and influenced my students long before they come to me, as well as those who will help my students continue their learning journeys after they have graduated from high school.

Secondly, I am repeatedly amazed as the working group collaborates because, despite such a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, in drafting curriculum, we are able to agree on the concepts, knowledge and skills we want our students to experience, engage in and explore. And even when we don’t agree, the conversation and debate are founded on both professionalism and a common desire to best represent the needs of our students.

This is hard and tiring work, but it is also invigorating to be part of this recursive process of creation, reflection and revision.