Monday, November 02, 2015

Draft Curriculum Feedback

I thought I'd post an edited version of what I posted on the BC Ministry of Education site for curriculum feedback <> on Nov 2.  Like the curriculum itself, my thoughts about the 10-12 Drafts are a work in progress. The stuff below is specifically about Social Studies 10 and Human / Physical Geography 11/12. While these are my own views, I have developed many of them in collaboration with other Social Studies teachers.

Please leave your own feedback on the new curriculum -- they have a lot to work to do and will take their cue from the teachers that offer feedback.

1. What do you like about the proposal? Please comment on the core and optional curricula.

I like that the proposal is an attempt to carry the streamlined ideas of the K-9 courses forward for 10-12. Requiring students to take one "Socials" elective after Grade 10 is a bare minimum -- it should be two. Alternately, students should be required to take a set number of credits from Humanities (e.g. English and Socials electives) as well as Math/Science, such that it is natural and encouraged for students to take more than one post-Grade 10 Socials elective.

I appreciate that Social Studies 10 is in a tight position -- does it simply replace the old SS11 minus WWI, allowing it to "breathe" a little in the absence of a Provincial Exam, or does it try to be something new, a true "Social Studies" course that employs multi-disciplinary inquiry to examine Canada and the World in the last 100 years? At this point it is not quite doing either.  Ironically, this is due, in part, to the admirable (but very much history-based) competencies.  The irony is that the heart of the competencies (the so-called "benchmarks of historical thinking" developed by Peter Seixas of UBC among others) are a great way to study history and other related subjects, but as a day-to-day "skills" guide for Social Studies students they might be too much -- they may cloud the other joyous offerings of history (such the art of storytelling) and also cloud the strong role that geographic thinking (and other "competencies") should play in Social Studies. Nonetheless, I'm glad to see the "benchmarks" present as I (and many others) have been using them in Social Studies for years as a way to shift the focus from content-for-content's sake to content as a tool for developing thinking.

I like that Geography has been split into Human and Physical, although this will make it tough for smaller high schools to "fill a block of geography" with an even more specialized choice of courses. I think some teachers will be tempted to combine them where possible, just like some teachers will likely want to combine First Peoples Issues and Social Justice, or will want to include them as part of a larger program. Will this be possible? We don't know enough yet about the Grad Plan, funding model(s), cohort-based programs vs course credits, opportunities for blended learning, etc. It is difficult to apply for an innovation grant or envision how a new program will play without knowing if the proposals will even be possible -- schools have a hard enough time figuring out when their lunch time should start, let alone whether they are ready to upend the timetable to launch something like cross-curricular learning inquiry time/spaces.  I like that geographic thinking and literacy are mentioned (once) in the draft proposal -- this needs to be built on and used in both (new) geography courses.

2. What do you think should be improved? Please comment on the core and optional curricula.

First -- the proposed Social Studies 10. Too much content has been squeezed out of the old Social Studies 9, 10, and 11 into the new SS9, and as a result the new SS10 is, in part, too vague on content. Yes, teachers can now pick and choose the content they will use to address the big ideas and explore the develop the competencies in SS9, but there is too much history that will be glossed over -- if anything it encourages SS9 to be more of a survey course than ever. Speaking of which, the competencies rely so heavily on Seixas' history benchmarks that it takes away from other aspects of Socials, particularly Geography. I think that geographic literacy should have a more prominent role in the SS K-10 curriculum. Assuming SS K-9 will not receive further edits, one thing that can be done is to adjust the new SS10 -- it needs an additional content item: "development of Canadian Identity in the 20th Century at home and on the world stage." This will help make it clear to teachers that events of note in 20th Century Canada will still be something students get to learn about -- the Great Depression, WWII, Canada and the Cold War, Quebec Nationalism, etc. As it stands, there is nothing compelling in the content that suggest teachers need to pay attention to what was once the heart of the old SS11. At present, SS10 looks like a contemporary civics, issues, and human geography course (in fact very much like the old 3-part pre-2004 SS11 without explicit reference to the History section), and yet relies on history-based critical inquiry for competencies and mandates a timeline of 1919-present. If we are to do the job of teaching human geography effectively in the new SS10 (just like we did in SS11), there needs to be a term added to the content item "interconnections between demography, urbanization, environmental issues, and globalization." Between urbanization and environmental issues add "stages of development." Additionally, for the content item "development, structure, and function to Canadian and other economic systems" add "...and their impact on standards of living." This line of inquiry in the old SS11 (why are some nations better off than others and how do we close the gap) was for me, along with "why bother voting," the heart of the course. As for the SS10 Big Ideas -- they are quite generic and basically reiterations of the content and competencies -- they lack the nuance of the SS9 Big Ideas. As such they are not very useful as course organizers or even themes that could guide the construction of units.

Next -- the optional content. Geography 11/12 courses have a few serious issues that need to be addressed. I see that most of the competencies have been copy-and-pasted from other SS courses (the benchmarks of historical thinking plus statements about inquiry). These ones specific to historical thinking should out rather than suggest they should guide geography studies. To a lesser extent, the competencies for 20th Century World History 11/12, Contemporary First Peoples Issues 11/12, and Social Justice 11/12 will also need to be adjusted to make them more discipline-specific. Interdisciplinarity is great, but requires it's own "competencies" separate from those specific to the study of History. As an aside, I would suggest that the biggest support for interdisciplinarity comes from the 3 Core Competencies.

So what to do with Geography 11/12? First the Human Geography 11/12 has too much overlap with the "human geography" aspects of the proposed SS10. It is a rough (and in my mind inaccurate and outdated) survey of topics from post-secondary "human" geography programs put through the filter of the bits of geography that currently exist in Gr 10-12 curriculum. It reads a bit like the chapter headings from a 1980s Geog text, or a list of old Geog courses (Economic, Regional, etc.) prior to the extensive use of technology in gathering and interpreting geographic data, and prior to some wicked developments in Geographic thinking and post-colonial inquiry. There is too much emphasis on resources and not enough on "environment." Content items 3 and 4 should be combined (they are really the same thing). The imbalance can be corrected with more emphasis on place-conscious learning, making sense of human interaction with place, and the prompt to use of many types of texts and data in order to explore themes and thinking in geography (literary sources, photography, video, and especially maps).

The Physical Geography 12 course is primitive but not far from what would be expected -- it is all the "physical" bits from the old Geog 12, especially the geomorphology. I think what it is missing is a window for the inclusion of geology and ecology, two important "subtopics" (arguable of course) in a holistic study of physical geography. A geographer worthy of his or her dirty dirty fingernails will relish the opportunity to share a bit about rocks, plants, and soil. Some colleagues (who stare at clouds) will also want to see a stronger role for atmospheric science in the new course (beyond the existing mention of human interaction with the atmosphere). As mentioned, a discipline-specific set of competencies is needed, as will a decision of whether Physical Geography 12 will count a lab or science credit towards university admission.

In neither geography course is there mention of how technology has shaped geography (e.g. GIS, GPS, satellite imaging). This relates to the need for data literacy, for the need to make geographic data more important in the Geog courses. The Human Geog proposal misses this, although it is mentioned in the Physical Geog competencies -- it appears as if there was the beginning of an attempt with competency #2 to adapt benchmarks of historical thinking to the realm of geographic thinking.

Beyond tech, maps, and discipline-specific data, the other side of the missing coin is sense of what these courses are for. "20th Century World History 11/12" is, arguably, about how our world is still dominated by conflicts and cooperations based on ideas with incredible realizations in the last 100 years.  Why take Human Geography 11/12?  The content (and still-to-be written competencies) need to convey the profound questions about how we relate with place, about the deep impact of environment, about how we read landscapes, and about how we conduct ourselves as humans on the planet. The new curriculum does not prevent this from being the basis of the course, but it does not go very far to encourage it either.

So what do competencies look like in Human Geography (and perhaps Physical Geography)? They could be based on the "five themes of geography" (Location, Place, Human-Environment Interaction, Movement, and Region). They could be based on the "six elements of geography" (The World in Spatial Terms, Places and Regions, Physical Systems, Human Systems, Environment and Society, and The Uses of Geography) or some kind of synthesis of the two. See my blog post about these for references:

Following is a list of focus areas for the application of geographic inquiry. They are somewhere in between "Big Ideas" and "Competencies." If I get around to it, I'd love to work these into specific competencies, but here is where they were at when I blogged about it in 2012.

  • Structure of place - form & function of human and/or physical systems
  • Use of Evidence - selection & interpretation of phenomenon related to human and physical features of past and present landscapes
  • Causality and Change - function of space & time in the evolution of human and physical systems
  • Human-Environment Interaction - mutual impacts and dependencies, modes of adaptation
  • Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives - role of history, sociology, biology, economics, geology, etc. in the study of geography
  • Responsibility and Sustainability - resource ethics, interconnected issues, planning & management

3. Does the core curriculum require anything further to meet the needs of students graduating from BC schools? Please provide details.

Yes -- see comment above for #2 (SS10 needs an additional content item: development of Canadian Identity in the 20th Century at home and on the world stage). Students should not graduate without this basic grounding in Canada's history in the 20th century. As well, "development" and "standards of living" need to be retained in the new SS10 curriculum in order to fully realize the human geography component.