Alberta social studies plan raises questions on history, religion, First Nations

EDMONTON — Alberta’s proposed school curriculum is being criticized for blasting historical facts at kids, missing the mark on First Nations and religion, and including a reference to Premier Jason Kenney’s bandleader grandfather.

“Honestly, I want to point to something (positive), I really do. I want a curriculum that is solid and good for students,” Carla Peck, an associate professor in education, said Tuesday.

“I can’t find anything so far.”

The proposed kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum was introduced Monday by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and is to be piloted in some schools this fall.

It overhauls study in eight core subjects to stress fundamentals and real-life skills and applications.

The social studies section has kids learning a wealth of historical detail intermixed with financial literacy.

Grade 1 students are to explore the origin of writing, First Nations culture, ancient civilizations, the divine right of kings and the existential question of whether money can buy happiness.

In Grade 2, it’s Socrates, Plato, Charlemagne, the Black Death, the Magna Carta, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, along with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

By Grade 4 students are to learn about explorer Peter Pond, the Palliser Triangle, the Plains Cree and how business plans were devised to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s.

Students in Grade 5 are expected to learn about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and dangers to consumers from modern payday loan operations.

The horrific legacy of residential schools — in the United States — comes in Grade 6. There’s also a deep dive into at least eight world religions focusing on beliefs, holy books, parables and rituals.

Peck said it’s far too much and far too complex for youngsters and comes at the expense of critical-thinking skills.

“It’s like the people who wrote this have never met a child,” said Peck, who focuses on social studies in education at the University of Alberta.

“The whole philosophy is they don’t want kids to understand any of this. They want kids to be able to make a passing reference to it. In other words, you can do really well on (the game show) ”Jeopardy.“ You don’t actually have any depth of understanding.”

Margie Patrick, an associate education professor at The King’s University in Edmonton, said religion is an important study topic, but the proposed curriculum lacks context and avoids larger discussions on the role and relevance of religion, including non-belief systems.

“Why are we learning it? What is the understanding that we want students to take away from this?” asked Patrick.

She suggested developing empathy and understanding of other beliefs can be done through illustrative examples and religions don’t need to be taught in minute detail.

“It will feel certainly to some students, and it will be interpreted by some parents, as this is just indoctrination _ which is what you don’t want.”

Yvonne Poitras Pratt, a University of Calgary associate professor who specializes in Indigenous education, said the curriculum is a perfunctory nod to broader First Nations culture while focusing on its role in the European migration.

“What I see in K to 6 is very much a celebratory story about the colonial side of our history, where the Indigenous people are more of an add-on to this bigger colonial story,” she said.

“They’re not looking deep inside at the negative impacts of the colonial past on Indigenous peoples. If you think of the Metis, for instance, there’s none of the inclusion of the ways in which the scrip process was flawed (and) in which lands were taken away.”

Dwayne Donald, a University of Alberta associate professor of education focusing on Indigenous curriculum, agreed.

Donald said in the proposed curriculum, the Indigenous experience seems bolted onto a timeline, a box to be checked off. The Indigenous experience suffuses the North American experience, he said, and the curriculum needs to draw on that accumulated wisdom and worldview.

Instead, said Donald, “There is this moral success story (the curriculum designers) want to tell, and the story is based on how liberal democracy coupled with market capitalism has morphed together to create the most successful societies the world has ever seen.

“(They want) to bring students into this tradition of this moral success story and say to everybody, ‘Your best option, if you want to be successful, is to accept this story, to get on board with it.”’

In the music section, Grade 6 students are to study jazz and big-band sound, focusing on Glenn Miller and Mart Kenney, the United Conservative premier’s grandfather.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley questions why Black musicians aren’t used as exemplars.

“(It) is a profound display of whitewashing,” said Notley. “You do not learn about jazz without learning about Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

“Any curriculum that proposes or purports to teach jazz by only talking about white musicians — even those who are related to the premier — is a failure.”

Kenney’s spokeswoman Jerrica Goodwin said in an email that the premier was “not involved in the inclusion of Mart Kenney in the draft curriculum; he was not even aware that Mart Kenney was included until today.”

Alberta Education spokesman Justin Marshall noted that Black jazz artists including Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lead Belly and Ray Charles are also included in the curriculum.

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