Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, at right, and Curriculum Advisory Panel member Nhung Tran-Davies flank panel chair Angus McBeath during his rambling remarks yesterday (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

No one who watched Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s news conference on the United Conservative Party’s plans for Alberta’s K-12 curriculum yesterday could come away with the impression our province’s education system is in capable hands.

Putting aside the government’s intention to send students back to schools ill prepared for COVID-19 next month, Ms. LaGrange’s performance on the topic of her Ministerial Order requiring curriculum changes to “give students a foundation of literacy and numeracy and a knowledge of the rich and diverse history of Alberta and Canada” was faltering, uncertain, and occasionally incoherent.

Support Our Students Alberta Executive Director Carolyn Blasetti (Photo: Public Interest Alberta).

Pressed by three different reporters on the phone lines to back up her repeated claims bias was endemic in Alberta schools under the old curriculum, she was unable to produce even a single example.

The following is not the answer of someone who is making a credible case teachers have been intentionally turning our kids into little social justice warriors instead of the obedient workers Albertans supposedly want: “So, it, I guess, I can share some examples, um, you know. One in particular is a parent that, uh, um, showed, um, sent me a, uh, an actual assessment where their child had to, um, pick the correct answer, and the correct answer was contrary to, uh, actually, the truth of what is out there in terms of, of our, uh, mm, uh, mm, environmental, um, studies that are out there.”

Who knows what actually happened, or if the situation even occurred? Evidence? None. Credibility? Zero.

As for the constant references to “discovery learning” by the minister and other UCP talking heads, they’re gaslighting. The words never occur in the pre-2015 Alberta curriculum or the K-4 curriculum developed when the NDP were in power and targeted by the UCP in the 2019 election campaign.

But who expected a comedy classic?

Consider the rambling, shambolic and at times bizarre discourse by Angus McBeath, chair of the 12-member Curriculum Advisory Panel chosen a year ago by the UCP to come up with this claptrap after the party successfully campaigned on the claim NDP efforts to update the curriculum were intended to poison young minds with ideology.

Mr. McBeath boasts he is “a lifelong teacher.” Judging from his performance yesterday, he must have been one who often left his students more confused than enlightened.

Mr. McBeath at the moment he was warming up to his point about how Alberta’s goal should be to produce the world’s most honest used car salesmen (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

“Oh, I can hear people say,” he said at one point, adopting a sing-song voice, “‘well, I went to university and became a history teacher. I teach history. I don’t teach anything to do with literacy or numeracy.’ Not quite true in the future!” (smirk) “All teachers will be teachers of literacy and numeracy.”

Needless to say, no history teacher would say that.

As for the claim “this focus on numeracy and literacy, that’s new, that has not been the case in the past,” that may have been a key talking point yesterday, but it is false.

Alberta teachers have always emphasized literacy and numeracy, of course. They’re good at it, too. According to international standardized testing, Alberta students are among the best in Canada and the world in reading, math and science.

As for the NDP’s 2016 curriculum review, it was inherited from the previous Conservative government and was intended to link expectations in every subject to, yes, literacy and numeracy.

The UCP’s obsession with history was very much on display yesterday. Mr. McBeath — historical note, he was superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools the last time there was a teachers’ strike and was acting superintendent during the Klein cuts in 1994 — had this to say about the social studies curriculum:

“They should be learning Alberta history, they should be learning Canadian history ’cause we are part a Canada, and we should be learning world history. Sequentially …” — he paused to pound the podium — “not ‘Let’s drop in on Friday and we’ll study a little bit about Vietnam cookin’ (sniff) and next Monday we’ll be in England, and on Thursday, we’re gonna be in Saddle Lake. Reserve. Out by St. Paul.”

I’m not making this up. I encourage readers to watch the video for themselves and check my transcription.

He continued: “We want students to have a sensible approach to learning history. You can’t do that unless you develop a sequential curriculum that allows students to understand one thing after another. If you don’t know Magna Carta, you can hardly teach students their legal rights. Because Magna Carta was one of the kingpins in determining for our country habeas corpus. Which is a really important legal concept.”

Well, God forbid anyone should make history interesting! Or coherent.

Then there was Mr. McBeath’s discourse on the need to instil virtue in students: “We want to focus on the character of students,” he said. “So we want to teach students a certain reverence for honesty. Integrity. Perseverance. Sticktoitishness. Better learn how to say that word! Resilience. Respectfulness. …”

This led up to what’s become the money quote of yesterday’s fiasco — which quickly turned into a viral meme on social media spreading beyond Alberta’s borders.

“We want every young person who graduates through Alberta schools, we want them to be the kind of person you’d want to be selling you a used car. Because you can trust them.”

Where did they get this guy? Central casting? The UCP has often been mocked as “the Used Car Party,” thanks to the identities of some of their most generous donors. But I’m not sure the province’s used-car dealers would approve of that idea, quite!

Said Carolyn Blasetti, executive director Support Our Students Alberta: We are disappointed with the language Angus McBeath used around Alberta’s youth. Referencing their work ethic, talking about how young employees may be apt to steal from employers, are often late, and equating our world-class education system to used car sales is disheartening and out of touch with today’s youth. It was uninspiring if not offensive language that is often what turns children off of education.”

To me, though, the most troubling part of the news conference was the repeated emphasis on how, in Mr. McBeath’s words, “We don’t want students to say, ‘Schooling appears to be about everybody else but me.’”

This may be intended to sound inclusive. But if you listen carefully, it sure sounds like a dog whistle to those parts of the UCP base that aren’t interested in inclusiveness at all, but which complain constantly about the neglect of their old-stock sentiments.

What do you want to bet this is where the UCP’s strange obsession with history education comes from too?

Who can doubt their real problem isn’t that history is sometimes taught out of order, but that the interpretation of history that supports their worldview isn’t the only version permitted?

Well, if this is what we can expect from the UCP on school curriculum, I guess we can expect talented young teachers to start following Alberta’s doctors to B.C.

Note: Mea culpa, I predicted yesterday the UCP’s curriculum plans wouldn’t really be all that different than what the NDP would have come up with. I certainly missed that pitch. Lesson learned: It’s always a mistake not to expect the absolute worst from this government.

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  1. I don’t think the UCP is trying to convince or win over teachers here, in fact probably the opposite. I think they are desperately trying to float a new populist balloon after most of their previously promising ones have deflated on them.

    I think initially, the targets of populist anger were supposed to be Trudeau, Liberals and the east, but circumstances have made that unwise. For now all that is keeping Alberta afloat are cheques from Ottawa so it might be best to refrain from biting that hand, at least for now. Also, stiring up too much anti Canada anger might cause the more right wing crowd to vote for a separatist party instead of the Conservative one. Its hard to complain about all the money flowing east when the flow has just recently reversed, so it might be inconvenient to talk about referendums on equalization now too.

    I thing even the UCP has realized doctors do not make good scapegoats. In fact one of the realities of these difficult times is it is so hard now to find good scapegoats anymore to apease the more right wing crowd.

    I suppose teachers and the education system will have to do for now. Lets call todays lesson how to find a good scapegoat to apeal to the populist crowd when times are tough, so as to avoid the government getting blamed for things being so bad.

    1. They have to come up with something ‘different’ and trumpeted as ‘improved’ if only to justify their tax-payers provided compensation. Measurable mendacity!?

    2. It will work until it doesn’t; might be time for the ucp crowd to remember who cares for Alberta parents precious children; scapegoating teachers doesn’t work if you’re a parent. It will work even less if there’s a covid outbreak in the province because this government is too cheap to prepare for world class safety standards………

      It remains shameful that public officials talk about education using language that suggests they didn’t get one.

  2. –he paused to pound the podium–“not Let’s not drop in on Friday and we’ll study a little about Vietnam cookin’ (sniff) and next Monday we’ll be in England, and on Thursday we’re gonna be in Saddle Lake. Reserve. Out by St. Paul.”
    The scholarly historian and school superintendent does indeed have a way with words. I taught with a history teacher who was equally eloquent in day to day interaction with students. That lucky pedagogue ended up, wait for it, a school superintendent.

    1. I read the analysis to which you lilnked, and it bears out the underlying problem that has always plagued “social studies”. I used to listen to a CJSW radio program on which the DJ would read excerpts from his Social 20 text, which dated from the eighties. It was as absurd as the stuff that was taught in the fifties, particularly in relation to the once-again power, China (quaint and kooky folks with their silly Boxer Rebellion, Opium Wars fought to get a handle on the crazed Chinaman’s lust for psycholgical oblivion, etc.) but no more absurd than what passes for the current curriculum. There has never been a reconcilliation of the fact that Canada is a colonist settler state that is now a comprador for both nationalistic and globalist plutocrats from the Anglo-American banking empire. Anti-racism doesn’t really have a coherent place in a curriculum that can’t address the role of the Canadian state in the ongoing subjugation of people across the globe in the name of “liberal” economics. The Yokel-Grifters will give us a nice, tidy reactionary package of nonsense, with which thinking people can dispense by about age seventeen, but at least it won’t be the current schizoid rubbish that leaves any kids paying attention in a state of total confusion.

  3. Yes, the truth is out there, Adriana, but this press conference was not it. It would have been the type of thing Scully and Mulder investigated on the X-Files, though. Just the right amount of creepiness. And crepeyness if you look closely.

    Speaking of dinosaurs, Adriana’s good friend Stockwell Day was right! They do walk the earth with humans to this very day. This press conference proved it.

    However, everyone knows that history is super boring, which is why Adriana’s nearly fell asleep several times as the talking droned on, finally resorting to digging her fingernails into her palms, or whatever she was doing with her hands. Personally, I was trying to claw my own eyes out in an effort to un-see this. No luck. SOS! The ship is sinking!

  4. At the google doc below, an expert and detailed take-down of Kenney Conservatives BS and gaslighting.

    author: Carla L. Peck, PhD
    Professor, Department of Elementary Education
    Faculty of Education
    University of Alberta

    Commentary by Reflections on the Ministerial Order on Student Learning released by Minister Adriana LaGrange on August 6, 2020

    She’s on Twitter:
    Carla Peck, PhD

    Avid traveller. History nerd. Politics junkie. Not necessarily in that order. I research history, citizenship, identity & belonging at the UAlberta. Bluenoser.
    Edmonton, Albertacarlapeck.wordpress.comJoined December 2012

  5. You didn’t miss the pitch at all. The media conference was simply an attempt to take minds off the sad and dangerous plans about reopening schools in days of covid. Rewriting curriculum is a difficult, expensive and time consuming process. This government is not known for wanting to spend money on public matters nor for their attention span. I expect they will adopt all the planned changes, except change the word “Indigenous” to “Indian”, add the words “theory of” when ever the word “evolution” occurs, and cancel all sex education.

  6. It appears that Kenney has found his next MLA to promote.

    McBeath hit all the right markers for the UCP’s hyper-moralist crowd. Teach values before all else, but what those values are is entirely up for grabs. I suspect that McBeath is big on a religious education, but many of the biggest crooks I’ve met in my life are very, very religious. That’s because you can do whatever you want, so long as you say your sorry every Sunday in church.

    The UCP’s comedy act seems to have no end, nor fodder for material. Get a big box of popcorn, because it’s just getting started.

  7. Follow up to ABS. Dinosaurs and their panels play a role delivering messages. McBeath has joined the dino club alongside Blue Ribbon MacKinnon and Fair Play Manning

    1. We’ll just have to call this period in Alberta history “The Land Before Time”. We’ve already come to the place in the plot where we encounter aliens.

  8. My God! I’ve lived too long! I’m history!…

    —uh—um—d’uh—I guess…

    (One thing I didn’t learn at school—starting with baseball cards—was not to gamble. And I’m sure’s hell not gonna take DJC up on that bet: the odds —remembered that from numeracy school— are he’ll win!)

  9. McBeath’s fetish for sequential teaching of history strikes me as the sign of a man who went through life frustrated with better qualified, more successful, more inspiring teachers in his field. Better to be the man who thinks history should only be taught sequentially than the man who is jealous of his peers sort of thing. Now he’s had an opportunity to show them. We’ve known literally for centuries that children are not inspired by a recitation of dates. The whole thing had a crackpot quality to it. Maybe the UCP should put him on a panel with Jordan Peterson and Vivian Krause to sort out post-secondary education. Might be fun!

    1. McBeath’s performance is like a GMO lab experiment crossing Jordan Peterson with a 1960s AB Socred minister.

  10. Where exactly did they dig up this McBeath fellow? Kinda of reminded me of Grandpa Simpson, angry man yells at cloud. Apparently he likes to yell at those that are not properly masked as well. Seems pretty obvious the minister doesn’t understand what curriculum is and it’s function. Perhaps her personal bias is coming into play and she needs to consult a subject matter expert.

    1. This is a new low in the history of Aberta’s curriculum. Globally, Alberta was highly regarded and other jurisdictions keenly followed what Berra did in curriculum. This Ministerial Order is a farce. It mixes outcomes with means. Students will not be served. The document harkens to a time past that never existed! I fear Alberta’s reputation as a leader in curriculum has been gravely damaged. Thankfully, this Ministerial Order is Kabuki Theatre, as not a word will actually see the light of day in k-12 curriculum across all subjects. Developing curriculum requires resources and time.The UCP w not expend either!
      This government is about theatre and Angus and the Minister delivered in spades!

  11. I put in the painful half hour to watch the video. For those who actually have a life and want to skip to the painful parts, Ms. LaGrange reads until the 8:28 mark, then Angus McBeath’s drivel goes until the 17 min mark, when Ms. LaGrange returns to take questions. A CTV reporter asks her to provide an example of bias, which she deflects, twice. A few minutes later a reporter from 660 reissues the bias challenge. The bit David quotes, where she avoids answering the question again is at the 25 minute mark.

    As I understand it, the event Ms. LaGrange was referencing was on a high school test. The question was challenging students’ ability to recognize bias in a news story, so it gave a mock story with the question ‘Which of the following is an example of bias?’ Thus the correct answer is a suspect statement. Our Education Minister, who a few minutes earlier was going on about wanting to produce honest students, has yet to acknowledge that there was nothing wrong with what was done.

  12. History has never been included in any Alberta school curriculum, and I would argue that his applied to post-secondary as well. The Social 30 curriculum that I looked at in 2013 was beyond bizarre, with te central premise that “liberalism” was essential the natural essence of humankind and all other geopolitical and socio-economic phenomenon represented greater or lesser manifestations of this indeterminate notion. Plus natives. Total incoherence. The kids are in no more danger from Covid than from the seasonal respiratory diseases we face every winter, and all evidence points to them being in less danger. The case fatality rate for age 20-29 did indeed go to zero this week. And the rate of fatalities with at least three comorbidities is now over 73%. Keep up the trembling!

    1. I can hardly wait for the Trump shout out after the “Jasons” release their next single! I mean Kanye must be on his way to Calgary after the the TC announcement of the Used Car Party’s 7 billion Alberta debt dollars promise to create infinite jobs for all the brave Americans who are likely to die as a result of our public health care!

    2. I love your ironic sense of humour! In particular the use of the term “ironic”. Ofcourse you are aware that the social studies curriculum is a k-12 curriculum covering economics, political systems, human geography to provide the rich contextual tapestry to understand economic , political sytems and history! Incidentally, courses in history are available to students as locally developed courses. Oh, on last thing: whose history is worthy of study?

    3. It will work until it doesn’t; might be time for the ucp crowd to remember who cares for Alberta parents precious children; scapegoating teachers doesn’t work if you’re a parent. It will work even less if there’s a covid outbreak in the province because this government is too cheap to prepare for world class safety standards………

      It remains shameful that public officials talk about education using language that suggests they didn’t get one.

  13. This is so bizarre!As a former social studies teacher and school administrator I just don’t know where to begin, so I won’t even try. Instead I think I will go for a walk and see if I can spot a used car salesman and assess their sticktoitishness!

  14. “So we want to teach students a certain reverence for honesty. Integrity. Perseverance. Sticktoitishness. Better learn how to say that word! Resilience. Respectfulness. …”

    How about having classes this month for the UCP MLA and in particular Kenney, Shandro and LaGrange. Honesty, integrity and respect must stick in their throat to say the word!

  15. I am baffled anyone is surprised by McBeath’s rambling smirking speech the sniffs at students and teachers alike. There are many people of his vintage in Educational Admin positions who do similar things. The only difference is they aren’t doing it at UCP Press Conference but instead doing it at School Boards and University Councils.

  16. Seems possible that McBeath was trying to say “Vietnam – Cochin”, considering that Vietnam (or at least part thereof) was historically called “Cochin-China” by Westerners. I’ve never heard anyone say “Cochin” quite like he did, but I still think my interpretation is more likely than a random reference to “Vietnam [NB: not “Vietnamese”] cooking” in the middle of that particular sentence. And yes, McBeath did come across a bit like a cranky retired teacher from central casting, but in context I thought that the bit about inclusiveness seemed perfectly sincere (if maybe a bit clumsy) and that even the line about selling used cars wasn’t THAT bad – it was McBeath’s idiosyncratic way of emphasising that students would graduate with a strong moral character, particularly with regard to honesty. I tend to think that schools should focus less on that sort of thing than on imparting skills and knowledge, but McBeath simply wasn’t “equating our world-class education system to used car sales” as Blasetti claimed.

    McBeath made it pretty clear, I thought, that the origins of the “discovery learning” bugaboo can be traced to the “discovery math” controversy from a couple of years back (his non-explanation of long division, complete with hand gestures, was another classic moment of the news conference). And while the K-9 math curriculum may not say anything about “discovery learning”, it really does (as I’ve just confirmed for myself) put a lot of emphasis on “using personal strategies” to solve arithmetical problems and on going beyond “rote use of algorithms”, at one point even stating that students “need to construct their own meaning of mathematics”. Encouraging students to study math in a conceptual and exploratory way is laudable, of course, but I gather that the people complaining about “discovery math” (shorthand for that general approach) felt that students just weren’t ending up with a reliable tool kit for solving basic problems. The 2013 ministerial order on student learning, which the new one is intended to replace, also had an explicit focus on “competencies” as opposed to “content” (along with, wouldn’t you know it, the ability to “employ literacy and numeracy” as a clearly stated learning outcome). With that background in mind, I can see the case for focussing a little less on the rarefied conceptual side of education and a little more on getting across key facts and skills, perhaps even including some sequentially taught history. I don’t actually think explaining the main historical steps by which the Magna Carta came to influence modern Canadian law would be a bad use of classroom time at all.

    In my opinion LaGrange’s clumsy attempts to fend off the questions about purported bias in the social studies curriculum were the most cringeworthy part of the news conference by far. She either didn’t understand, or didn’t care about, the difference between classroom materials used by teachers and the curriculum per se, which is disappointing in an education minister. Glancing through the actual social studies curriculum, it contains enough references to identity, diversity, sustainability and “global consciousness” that I would have thought LaGrange could muster some criticisms that would at least appeal to the UCP base.

    1. Corwin: Just to be clear, I think young people should both learn to think for themselves and have to memorize multiplication tables, both useful skills in life. I’m less persuaded of memorizing historical dates, as evidenced by my commentary. The Vietnam cookin’ comment was so weird, I’m almost tempted to give some credence to your Cochinchina interpretation. DJC

    2. I retired from my junior high math position in June of 2013, and before I retired I had already implemented our schools Discovery Math program, so Corwin is certainly correct about the timing of Discovery Math.

      A frustration I had about teaching ideas throughout my teaching career was the prevailing attitude of ‘if a little bit is good, a lot will be wonderful’, and I find it really unfortunate. Different concepts really lend themselves to different teaching strategies, and it is the same with Discovery Math. I did use it a little bit in my practice even before it became mandated, and it worked well for the topics I used. In addition to giving students the satisfaction of figuring it out on their own, they would remember it longer, but only on topics it was compatible with. Discovery is a round peg; it fits round holes very nicely, but attempting to ram it into a square one doesn’t work so well, and that was where student and parent frustration would come in. Parents never even found out about the times it worked. My fear is that the anti-Discovery backlash will prohibit the use of this technique in places where it works well.

      Trying to get students to discover everything was doomed from the start – the discovery process takes longer. As the list of things we want schools to accomplish gets longer, somethings have to be removed, and it is my understanding that schools no longer teach cursive writing. This also has implications for the teaching of basic calculations. While I adamantly support the teaching of multiplication tables and how to perform the basic calculations, and I too have felt disgust watching a student reaching for a calculator to find the answer to something they should be able to do mentally, up for debate has to be how much time schools should spend making sure everyone has the ability to do the work of a five dollar calculator. If 80% of a class has it mastered, how much more time should be spent on it?

      I just multiplied 843 by 27 using a pencil and paper; it took me 30 seconds, working carefully. I would really like to ask Ms. LaGrange, Mr. McBeath, and everyone else who learned to multiply using ‘proven techniques’ what the product of those two numbers are, to see how they respond. Would they spend 30 seconds doing the calculation, or would they spend the same amount of time looking for a machine to do the work for them?

  17. David – I never did learn the multiplication tables and have always been hopeless at any form of rote learning. I envy those who can learn this way. I did learn my own ways of performing math and it would have been very useful to have had teachers who could have worked with me rather than insisting that rote learning was the only way to go. I’m sure there are many students who could have done well if their idiosyncratic learning styles had been honoured.

    I wish I had the opportunity to learn about Vietnamese cooking, it would have been a useful skill to have.

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