British Columbia’s Exciting New Curriculum

British Columbia’s Ministry of Education is handing down a new curriculum.  Sure those vile words “representatives from stakeholder groups in education in British Columbia” were used to assure us that this curriculum was not being handed down to us by elites, but let us look at the ideology this “new” curriculum represents.

Before moving into an examination of the ideology it should be noted that this curriculum shares with the Common Core a feature critics of that curriculum have been pointing out for years: There has been no field testing of it.  We do not know if it will be better than what is currently on offer as it has never been tried.

Now let’s get back to the ideology.  In “Schooling in Capitalist America” (1976), Bowles and Gintis introduce the reader to the Progressive school movement in the United States by quoting Lawrence A. Cremin.  Cremin’s 1964 work “Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957” demonstrates how that movement was chalk full of buzzwords and phrases eerily similar to those included in BC’s new curriculum.  Compare “Teachers must be supported to work with students in a variety of roles: guide, mentor, coach, content expert” to “teaching children, not subjects”.  Does “more real-world skills” differ from “real-life experiences”? And how about “Personalized learning for every student” versus “recognized individual differences”?

So the catchy, easy to understand, phrases haven’t changed that much in the last century or so, what about the overall ideology? Specifically, is British Columbia moving towards a less hierarchical less conformist-centric system towards one that not only mouths platitudes about celebrating individual difference, but one that actually allows them to develop?

Let’s define the ideology that permeates this new curriculum.  To do this I read over “BC’s Education Plan” issued in February 2015.  This document is laden with terms like “21st century learners”, “learning empowered by technology”, “personalized learning”, and “flexibility and choice”.  These phrases are meaningless unless one understands the context from which they are written.  To me “personalized learning” probably means something vastly different than it means for George Abbot, the then Minister of Education whose name appears on the document.  Let us discard the first term, “21st Century Learners” as it is only used as a smokescreen, and look instead at the later three terms.

What does “learning empowered by technology” mean and who benefits from it?  In “No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy” (2015), Linsey McGoey describes how Pearson and the Gates Foundation partnered to allow for more “learning empowered by technology”.  After the Gates Foundation spent $255 million (USD) to push through the Common Core, Microsoft’s Surface tablets were announced as the exclusive home of Pearson’s Common Core material.  Thus any “learning by technology” done by tablet in US classrooms would likely be done by the Surface tablet and not the previously favoured iPad.  Is this indicative of what “learning empowered by technology” is? Not wholly, but it is an indication of how the private sector is able to benefit from these new curriculums being rolled out by neoliberal governments.

The term “personalized learning” sounds good when unanalyzed, but it is, without doubt, a gateway towards the further devolution of our public system.  According to BC’s Education Plan “passions are going to be explored and goals are going to be achieved for all students”.  Students “will play an active role in designing their own education and will be increasingly accountable for their own learning success”.  What if they are not?  What if a teacher has over thirty students in her classroom, two of whom are on the ASD spectrum, two of whom are diagnosed with a learning disability, and one of whom has severe ADHD?  What if the teacher is struggling to keep her head above water everyday, hell sometimes she even sinks?  Well doesn’t that get us to “flexibility and choice”?

The Flexibility and Choice component of BC’s new curriculum is one of the most ideologically telling portions of the document.  In this section our Ministry of Education promises:

“Parents and students will still have choice and opportunity to decide which school their child attends within the public and independent school systems.

We will create better opportunities for parents to engage in their child’s learning with more flexibility and choice with respect to what, how, when and where their child learns”.

This idea of flexibility and choice within the public and independent school system when coupled with the idea of personalized learning for all children is only a small step away from the School Choice Movement so common in the United States.  As the underfunding of our school system continues, the school that can offer the best personalized learning, with the best technology,  will be the one all engaged parents will be clamouring for (except in rural areas where no such schools exist), and these will invariably be private schools or those set in wealthy enclaves.  It is not a stretch to think that vouchers could be issued so that “personalized learning” could occur in whatever setting parents wanted for their students, further undermining our education system.

The teachers in British Columbia need to see the forest from the trees.  If you talk to teachers you will hear grumbling about the Core Competencies and how they are going to teach them (a very valid concern), yet what you will rarely hear is a questioning of the actual motivation for the wholesale switch to a new curriculum.  The switch is viewed as inevitable, out of our hands, or entirely appropriate.  We need to remember this change is not happening solely for the betterment of BC’s students, it is being done to further the agenda of the BC Liberals.  Do not forget the BC Liberal government, a neoliberal government in everything but name, has shown no love for public education, why would they start now?