Noah D. Arney

A career development professional's musings on books, education, politics, and cooking.

Alberta’s Draft Curriculum Is Built on Sandy Ground

A former twitter thread

In June 2021 Calgary Herald published an opinion piece by Dr. Martin Mrazik. It had a lot of issues, but most importantly it tipped the hand about how shaky the foundation of Alberta’s now introduced new curriculum was.

“The capacity to critically think emerges from a solid foundation of well-sequenced factual background knowledge.”

That’s… not true. Dr. Mrazik is making two of statements in that single sentence:

1) critical thinking is a result of background knowledge

2) specifically well-sequenced knowledge (and in context he means chronologically sequenced)

The capacity to critically think is aided by background knowledge, but it doesn’t emerge from it. If critical thinking emerged from content knowledge then the banking/blank slate method of education would always lead to critical thinking. We have over a century showing that isn’t true.

What is true is that critical thinking is improved by and relies on background knowledge, which is wildly different from emerges from.

Generally speaking, chronological sequencing makes it so that in the early grades students are taught an uncritical version of the content because the critical assessment of it is beyond their current abilities.

Chronological sequencing is one way to teach, and this curriculum is very interested in that. However, concept based sequencing is another way, and one that is more supported by constructivist and humanist educational theories.

The problem isn’t a new one from Dr. Mrazik. He said something very similar in May 2021 in the Edmonton Journal (side note: it was very telling that Dr. Mrazik was basically the only academic supporting this curriculum).

I spend so much time working with people who follow constructivist, humanist, transformative, and Indigenous education paradigms that I sometimes forget that there’s still a strong group of cognitivists out there.

Dr. Mrazik is a clinical neuropsychologist whose research is primarily into concussions and psychometrics. That’s where these editorials are coming from. From that perspective I understand what he’s trying to say. That having a “knowledge-rich curriculum” is important.

However, he seems to be ignoring, or perhaps critiquing (he mentions but doesn’t enumerate what he calls “controversial pedagogy and questionable teaching practices”) the theories that have come from the constructivist thread of theories, such as experiential learning theories.

There are many ways of looking at critical thinking. The one he’s approaching it from is the idea that you ensure a person has a store of knowledge and then you can teach them how to apply it and assess it critically. So first knowledge, then critical thinking.

One that’s more informed by constructivists would say that if you learn something that is relevant to your experiences you are able to apply critical thinking to it now. That instead of a house where knowledge is the foundation, it’s a tree where knowledge is the leaves.

Yes that means that you start with less of a knowledge store, but it means that from the beginning you train in critical thinking and apply critical thinking to all of the knowledge you gain.

Here’s where it matters. If you apply critical thinking from the beginning you train that as a skill. If you try to add it at the end, you might learn it well, but much of your knowledge store was never thought of critically.

And Dr. Mrazik is right, if you approach it from a cognitivist or perhaps even cognitive-structural development perspective this curriculum design makes sense. But it’s what Dewey would call education that is training for the future rather than present.

Rogers would critique whether it actually allows the development of the self-concept or would produce incongruence. Freire would be the strongest critique calling this “banking style” education.

Basically, we’ve spent the last several decades moving away from cognitivism in k-12 education because it doesn’t produce adaptable thinkers, it produces testable thinkers. So of course a cognitivist scholar of psychometrics will think this is a good curriculum.

But, what is needed for the future is adaptability, and this curriculum doesn’t lead to that.

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