United Conservative Party Uses Straw Men to
Attack Alberta's Curriculum Reform

Alberta's United Conservative Party (UCP), run by former Harper federal Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney, has released its political platform for the Alberta provincial election. One of the platform statements about education reads: "End the focus on so-called 'discovery' or 'inquiry' learning, also known as constructivism." Not surprisingly, this is complete disinformation, not to mention verbal nonsense. The UCP platform-makers are either being deliberately obtuse to push their own agenda or they know very little, if anything, about teaching and learning.

The context for the UCP's attacks on education is the current process of curriculum reform by the NDP government. This reform is an urgent need; with a number of curricula now well beyond their best-before date. The elementary science curriculum for example is 23 years old. The elementary art curriculum is 34 years old. This is the result of 44 years of Conservative governments that continuously starved education of funds and directed public money as pay-the-rich schemes to the mostly foreign-owned energy companies, which continue to dominate Alberta.

For starters, "discovery," "inquiry," and "constructivism" are three different things. Discovery and inquiry are teaching strategies. Constructivism is a theory of learning. The reason the UCP is referencing discovery, inquiry and constructivism in its attacks on education is that they serve as convenient "straw men" for the UCP claim that education in Alberta is in a terrible state because irresponsible teachers are not doing their job properly and that the "cure" is to turn teaching into straightforward indoctrination, the very thing they accuse others of doing.

The term "discovery" came to the fore in the 1960s when North American science curricula were undergoing major changes sparked by the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite. This led to the ruling elite being concerned about "being behind." As a new focus for science education, "discovery" science emerged in the 1960s in reaction to the dominance of behaviourism in educational learning theory, which had conceived of students as passive assimilators of what they were taught. The main proponent of "discovery" was Jerome Bruner who was also known as "Dr. Discovery."

Bruner conceived of the learner as an active sense-making participant instead of a passive recipient of knowledge. This was an advance, a part of the slow transition from behaviourist to more cognitivist views of learning. What became important was not just what students could do but what they thought. It soon became clear that "discovery" science paid too little attention to the role of the teacher in introducing students to important scientific ideas and hence was long ago discarded by most science educators. As one science educator, Charles Anderson, put it: "Left to their own devices students may discover many interesting things about plants or light, but they will develop scientific ideas about photosynthesis or vision as rapidly as the human race. In other words, not in a single lifetime."

"Inquiry" or "scientific inquiry," not "discovery," is currently the main teaching strategy in science education. It did not fall from the sky but is based on what practicing scientists actually do to pursue scientific investigations. Students are encouraged to act like "little scientists" and to conduct scientific investigations using methodologies similar to what scientists use, e.g., controlled experiments. Conclusions about the world of nature are based as much as possible on student findings, which are discussed and interpreted using arguments based on evidence and reason, often first in a small group setting then as a whole class.

Again, when carrying out "scientific inquiry," students do not discover everything by themselves as teachers play an active role. Teachers participate by organizing lessons, assisting student learning, introducing students to current scientific knowledge and so on. The guiding slogan is not just "Hands-on" but, "Hands-on, minds-on." Currently, a strong consensus exists among science educators and many scientists that at present there is no better strategy than "scientific inquiry" for teaching science to students.

"Constructivism" is a theory of learning that became popular in the 1980s. "Constructivism" is based on the premise that students make sense of what they are taught in light of what they already know. Many science educators now include a lesson stage where they formally survey the ideas about the natural world that students have before the teaching takes place, i.e., students' pre-existing ideas. This is because research has shown that students (and adults) are likely to have non-scientific ideas, which can impede their learning of scientific ideas, again in contrast to the behaviourist notion that the mind is a blank slate to be written upon. An example of a pre-existing idea could be, "Gravity in space is zero."

"Constructivism" has its weaknesses but has led to important new science teaching strategies that take into account students' pre-existing ideas, which have proven to be more effective than previous strategies in terms of students advancing their understanding of scientific concepts. As one educator said, it helps teachers "make the science plausible in the context of a meaningful experience."

Teachers' implementation of "constructivism" has not weakened science learning but strengthened it. Of importance in this regard is to keep in mind that ideas about teaching and learning are always works in progress. They are tested in practice and upon implementation can be revised and/or discarded based on the evidence gathered from trying them out with students in the classroom.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 13 - April 13, 2019

Article Link:
United Conservative Party Uses Straw Men to
Attack Alberta's Curriculum Reform


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