Have you ever wondered why students need to learn a particular topic in school and not been able to provide a really compelling application in the “real world?” Students have long been asking, “Why do I need to learn this?” Our current Alberta curriculum is an excellent curriculum, but as access to knowledge continues to grow, it is time to revisit the curriculum and find ways to help students manage vast open access to so much information.
Our recent Holy Spirit Division Professional Development Day began with an opening panel conversation. Our esteemed panel consisted of our Superintendent, our Division Principal for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education, a High School Teacher who is a curriculum working group member and two High School Students. This panel conversation began with the comment that our curriculum in Alberta is changing and we needed to understand the “why” before we can begin to unpack the “what” and the “how” of our new curriculum Simon Sinek offers a compelling case for the importance of starting with “why” in his famous TED Talk. In another powerful clip, comedian, Michael Jr invites a music teacher to sing and demonstrates how knowing your “why” changes everything!
The first question for our panel was: “Why do we need a new curriculum in Alberta?” Annette BruisedHead, Naato’saakii, Division Principal for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education made a strong link to the way that First Nations Elders teach. In Blackfoot culture, teaching starts with the big picture and then zooms in to specific details and back out again to the big picture.
Brent Hogan, our high school teacher talked about how the new curriculum will encompass a common language from Kindergarten to Grade 12 across all subject areas. We will be using fewer words more often resulting in different subject area teachers using similar language, only “pronouncing it in different ways.”
Hannah, one of our High School Students, summed it up beautifully when she stated, “Often students want to know why we learn what we learn and this reinforces that everything we do has a purpose outside of just gathering base knowledge.” Rebecca expanded on this idea when she talked about the importance of including competencies in our new curriculum. “Essentially, incorporating and promoting competencies sets up individuals for success outside of the classroom… (which leads to) more rounded individuals that can lead others in society. School (should) be a place where individuals can develop not just their minds but also their character.”
Superintendent, Chris Smeaton summed it all up by reminding us that our “Why” is our students! Our students deserve the very best education possible to prepare them well for their future and we are called to do our best for them.
In the architecture of our new DRAFT Alberta Curriculum, the “Why” is specifically identified in the Essential Understandings. Each subject area in Kindergarten to Grade 5 has only 4 to 6 essential understandings, which are big ideas or broad statements that frame what students will learn. Essential understandings are unpacked through guiding questions and learning outcomes.
One essential understanding, for example, is:
“Exploring connections strengthens our understandings of relationships to help us make meaning of the world.”
This essential understanding is common from Kindergarten to Grade 4 and appears in the Mathematics, English Language Arts, French Language Arts, Social Studies, Arts and Wellness curriculums. With this one enduring understanding, students will make meaning of the world through their developing understanding of connections and relationships through a variety of lenses. Here are a few examples:
The essential understanding is unpacked slightly differently in each subject area and at each grade level, but it is the same big idea applied to different situations and contexts. With repeated exposure to this idea over time and across contexts, students will develop a deep understanding of what this means to them and how it applies to life beyond school. Teaching for transfer of learning is a key component of this new concept-based curriculum.
For me, one powerful reason “WHY” we need a new Alberta curriculum is to help our students take the knowledge and skills that they learn to a level of conceptual understanding that is transferable across time, place and situation. Framing the learning around essential understandings will provide the structure needed to accomplish this.