B.C.’s new curriculum will shortchange students

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, September 5, 2023
B.C.’s new curriculum will shortchange students

Suppose you had a problem and needed advice from a friend on how to solve it. What would you do? If you would first describe the situation to your friend, then you live in the world of common sense. After all, no one expects to receive helpful advice from someone who knows nothing about the context or background of the problem. It doesn’t matter how good someone’s critical thinking skills are if they are completely ignorant about the problem at hand.

Simply put, facts are the building blocks that make critical thinking possible. That’s why someone who has never heard of Sir John A. Macdonald won’t have anything useful to say when asked whether schools or other buildings should be named after him. Nor would we ask someone who knows nothing about internal combustion engines how to fix a car.

Unfortunately, when British Columbia students return to class this week, they’ll face a new curriculum that places too little emphasis on background knowledge. A promotional brochure from the B.C. government even states that its redesigned curriculum places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.”

This juxtaposition between deeper understanding and memorization of facts perpetuates a false dichotomy. It suggests that because the world is changing quickly, there’s little point in having students memorize specific facts since they will soon be outdated.

Thus, B.C.’s new curriculum focuses instead on “Core Competencies” such as communication and critical thinking. The appeal of this approach is obvious; because these competencies are applicable to all subjects, they act as a unifying theme throughout the whole curriculum.

However, while this approach might look great in a brochure, it doesn’t work in classrooms, as evidenced by steadily declining literacy and numeracy scores in B.C. It also ignores the fact that skills such as reading comprehension are subject-specific. Research has long shown a direct relationship between background knowledge about the topic of a book or article and one’s ability to understand it.

One of the most important studies on this topic took place more than 30 years ago. Researchers Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie took 64 junior high school students and divided them into different groups based on their level of knowledge about baseball. They found that students with a great amount of prior knowledge displayed better understanding of an article about baseball than students who lacked this level of prior knowledge.

Many other studies came to the same conclusion. Simply put, the evidence showing a strong causal relationship between reading comprehension and background knowledge is overwhelming and cannot be ignored, no matter what some B.C. curriculum consultants might say.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, is one of the best-known advocates of a content-rich curriculum and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which has created a curricular sequence with a strong emphasis on building up the background knowledge of students. Hundreds of elementary schools across the United States have adopted the Core Knowledge curricular sequence.

A new long-term study led by David Grissmer from the University of Virginia has recently shown the remarkable benefits of a content-rich curriculum. Grissmer and his co-authors traced the academic performance of approximately 2,300 students who applied for admission to a Core Knowledge charter school in Denver, Colorado. Specifically, they compared state test results of students who were admitted to the Core Knowledge school with those who attended a different school. Those who attended the Core Knowledge school significantly outperformed those who attended other schools.

Considering these findings, it makes sense to place a strong emphasis on helping students acquire a significant amount of background knowledge, which means ensuring that schools adopt a content-rich curriculum. Minimizing the importance of content knowledge by calling it the memorization of “isolated facts” does students a disservice.

This schoolyear, B.C. students deserve better than what they’ll get from their public education system. A content-rich curriculum packed with facts might not be as flashy as B.C.’s new “Core Competencies” curriculum, but it would benefit a lot more students.

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