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British Columbia is preparing to explore brave new frontiers in the world of education. Soon, K-12 curriculum will barely be recognizable from what existed before it.

It's all being done under the auspices of the government's 21st Century Learning initiative, which places more emphasis on fostering innovation and critical thinking skills and less on rote memory.

A suggested K-9 course outline recently released by the government revealed just how unprecedented the change will be, affecting virtually every subject taught in the lower and middle grades. But it's also left many people concerned and confused.

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In the future, there will be fewer topics covered and more time allowed for discussion of "broad concepts." It will be a world in which there are often no agreed-upon answers and where factual knowledge is played down in favour of conversations around "big ideas." Courses will be personalized to suit a student's learning preferences and progress.

Parents and teachers have been invited to offer feedback on the planned changes, which are outlined in documents found on the Education Ministry's website. But cutting through the edu-babble to understand what it all means takes extraordinary perseverance.

"Fewer learning standards offer more opportunities for students to use their understandings in differing contexts and focus on competencies," says the overview of the draft curriculum. "The curricular competencies in the renewed curriculum can be seen in a 'continuous view,' which acknowledges the developmental nature of learning and provides guidance for approaching learning as continuous progress."

And from this parents are expected to divine what's happening with their child's education?

Everything, it seems, is on the table, including reporting. An advisory group behind the proposed changes recommends "a shift in language use – from "reporting" to "communicating student learning." There is support for making letter grades optional or not requiring them from them in K-9. There is also backing for adopting a similar policy for Grades 10-12.

There is some discussion that "graduation should be based on a demonstration of competencies rather than on course completion or credits."

The government has not made any decisions on the reporting front, and I can't imagine it will ever go for not having grades, at least in the senior years. How would students qualify for university without them? If the government even considered the idea, there would be a stampede to private institutions like never before.

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Needless to say, not everyone shares B.C.'s more laissez-faire approach toward learning. Last year, for instance, British Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech titled In Praise Of Tests. Tests may have become a dirty word in Canada because of the student stress they can cause, but not in Britain.

Mr. Gove believes difficult, competitive exams for which students prepare by memorizing large swaths of material will promote motivation and guarantee standards. "If we know tests are rigorous and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning," he said.

He believes happiness comes through earned success. He also holds what is increasingly heresy in Canada: that a proportion of students must fail. If exams are designed so everyone passes, then what's the point of having them at all?

He is a big booster of Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist from the United States whose work has shown that students learn best through memory and routine. He also dismisses the concept of learning styles, the notion that some people learn more easily through certain forms – auditory, visual, for instance – than others.

The idea of learning styles is at the root of the personalized learning revolution being witnessed in B.C.

And yet Dr. Willingham says there is no credible evidence that learning styles exist – the concept is a fraud. He doesn't disagree that students have preferences about how they learn, but learning-style theorists haven't proven that changing the mode of presentation to math learning styles helps people learn.

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Regardless, B.C. seems to have made its decision on where it's going with education. Not surprisingly, many teachers seem to be in favour. There will almost certainly be less marking and fewer topics to teach. There will also likely be fewer students stressing out about grades.

What we don't know is whether this new approach will better prepare students for the world that awaits them. But that's a gamble the government seems prepared to take.

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