The bitter battle for Alberta

What can we learn from the acrimonious debate prompted by the publication of a new draft curriculum?

I’ve been following curriculum developments across the world for some time and so I was interested to see that a new draft curriculum had been published in Alberta, Canada. I have also been aware of Nhung N. Tran-Davies and her long campaign for better maths teaching, so when I learnt that she approved of the changes to the mathematics curriculum, I tweeted that this was extremely promising.

I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed. A stream of presumably Canadian commentators took issue with my tweet, some referencing quarrels they had with the provincial government that appeared to have little to do with the curriculum. Others just tweeted abuse. My particular favourite levelled what I assume is a common North American insult before noting that my, ‘hair sucks too’.

Comments about the actual curriculum seemed to operate at a number of levels. There were claims that it had plagiarised other materials - claims that appear to have substance although maybe not to the extent suggested. Despite my specific interest in maths, most of the criticism seemed to target the new social studies curriculum. It is perfectly proper, once a draft is released, for people to have their say on whether it strikes the right balance between one topic and another. This is part of the democratic process and to be expected. As I have argued, the contents of a curriculum should satisfy nobody entirely and should always be a topic for debate. It is a debate that I am ill-prepared to take part in as I am not an Albertan and know little of the specifics of, say, Albertan history.

However one element of this discussion sparked my interest. A number of people suggested the new social studies curriculum is not ‘developmentally appropriate’ and, from there, I was drawn to a blog post by Dr Carla Peck that repeated this claim, alongside a number of other criticisms. It is these that I would like to address because Dr Peck appears to be quite wrong in many of the arguments she makes.

Firstly, before explaining why Dr Peck is wrong, it is important to understand how many researchers view the mind (e.g. in this paper). A useful, simplified model is to consider the mind as being made up of two components that are relevant to learning: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is roughly the thoughts that we are consciously processing at any one time. It is extremely limited and can process only about four items at once. In contrast, long-term memory has no known limits and knowledge stored in long-term memory is critical in the development of expertise.

Researchers assume knowledge is stored in long-term memory in networks - often called ‘schemas’ - where items are arranged according to their meaning and relationship to each other. Picture something like a concept map. Importantly, knowledge stored and accessible in long-term memory seems to be able to be brought effortlessly into working memory and used without coming up against the usual working memory constraints.

So, it is important to understand that nature’s workaround for the limits of working memory lies in long-term memory. This model should also cause us to pause before accepting the idea that students can rote learn lots of information. If by ‘rote’, we mean learning without any understanding then that’s extremely hard to do because of the way long-term memory is organised. In fact, those who practice the art of memorising sequences of playing cards use techniques to add meaning to the random sequence. Therefore, we can relax a little about the concern that any curriculum will cause large amounts of rote learning.

Dr Peck begins her critique with the contents of the social studies curriculum. As I have suggested, this is a legitimate issue to discuss. However, one of Dr Peck’s concerns is more general - there’s just too much content:

”As an expert in history education pedagogy, I agree that facts are important. However, it is how students engage with factual information that matters. In a time when almost everyone has a computer in their hand, back pocket, or backpack, students can easily look facts up, what we need to teach students is how to evaluate and critique the evidence they encounter. If you want to kill students’ interest in history, force them to memorize a long list of facts, to which they’ve attached no meaning, and then give them a test. They’ll forget more than they learned and will not be developing their historical or critical thinking skills. Anyone can memorize a list of facts. It doesn’t mean they understand what those facts mean.”

Facts stored on the internet are no substitute at all for knowledge held in long-term memory. For a start, unlike knowledge held in long-term memory, they cannot help a student avoid the constraints of working memory, so thinking will be slower and more laboured. The idea that you can perform historical or critical thinking with such information is far-fetched.

If you have underdeveloped schemas, your first problem is knowing what to look up on the internet. Your second problem is in comprehending what you find. It has been known for a long time by reading researchers that reading comprehension is highly dependent upon having relevant knowledge in long term memory. One model of reading that has been validated experimentally is known as the ‘simple view’. This sees reading comprehension as the product of decoding ability - turning the squiggles on the page into words - and language comprehension - knowing what the words mean and what they refer to. Without a substantial amount of background knowledge, we are stuck. Take, for example, this passage about the sport of cricket:

“After a relentless display of line-and-length bowling from the Bulls’ quicks, NSW crumbled inside two sessions for 143 — losing its last nine wickets for just 96 runs.

In reply, Queensland reached stumps at 1-58, losing just opener Joe Burns, who was caught behind off the bowling of Josh Hazlewood for 20.”

Most educated readers can get a sense of what’s going on, but you need to know quite a lot about cricket to fully understand it. That’s how many passages children read online or in books look to them if they lack relevant background knowledge.

Innovative school systems are now attempting to deliberately teach children the kind of general knowledge they need to support general academic reading through a knowledge-rich curriculum. It’s early days, but there are encouraging signs (see here and here). It looks like the draft Alberta social studies curriculum is an attempt to be similarly innovative.

Dr Peck argues that disciplinary thinking should be the priority:

”Social Studies skills should reflect the disciplines of the social studies and include the following: historical thinking, geographic thinking, economic thinking, political thinking, legal thinking, and so on.”

Again, it’s hard to see what rich, nuanced ‘geographic thinking’ can take place in the absence of a substantial amount of geographic knowledge. Knowledge is what you think with.

As mentioned earlier, Dr Peck’s argument against a knowledge-rich curriculum hangs on the idea that it is not ‘developmentally appropriate’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what this phrase means, but many draw on the theories of Jean Piaget to suggest that children develop through a series of cognitive stages and that young children can only cope with ideas directly relevant to their lived experience. This idea has been largely debunked (see Willingham) and it also does not pass the common sense test - children like stories about fairies and monsters in faraway lands.

Similar ideas by the influential early 20th century philosopher, John Dewey, are behind the ‘expanding horizons’ model of social studies that Dr Peck also seems to favour. This specifies that young children should start by learning about their own family and local area and only gradually work outwards towards the wider community. Kieran Egan, hardly a conservative reactionary, was arguing against this model as far back as 1980, pointing out how boring it makes social studies, holding it responsible for a general dislike by American students of social studies and making the point I just made about fairy stories. Nonetheless, it seems like a difficult misconception to dislodge.

Which seems hard to understand. Anyone who has met a young child will know how easy it is to engage them with tales of the ancient world - the more gruesome the better.

Overall, Dr Peck’s critique reads like the opinions of someone locked into the old paradigm. It has few references to relevant research or cognitive science. For instance, Dr Peck claims that, “Chronology matters, of course. But to help students develop a deep understanding of the past (and how it connects to today), a focus on themes, continuity & change, historical perspectives, etc. is much more effective and powerful. And, it’s supported by research.” And yet there is no reference and no link to this research. We are just left to imagine what it might be.

There is much to debate in any new curriculum. The balance of ideas is rightly contentious and I am not the one to resolve that. However, I do think a better understanding of the science of learning is needed in order to raise the level of discussion.

Update: Following publication of this post I became aware of a recent peer-reviewed article that exactly addresses the point about how long-term memory helps overcome working memory constraints. It’s by Forsberg, Adams and Cowan and Nelson Cowan wrote the paper I link to above that gives a working memory capacity limit of about four items. The paper is paywalled, but you can get a sense of the argument from the abstract.