Skip to main content

Here's an idea: If you've got a good thing going, wreck it.

That is what's happening in Alberta, where a highly successful education system is being demolished (the education ministry prefers "transformed") by a faddish, fuzzy notion called "21st Century Learning." This new style will prepare students for a world of dizzying change, in which "understanding" is much more important than "facts," which, after all, can be accessed on any mobile device, along with the multiplication tables.

"Driving students through an automated system that focuses on traditional learning is no longer sufficient," an Alberta government video warns. From now on, teachers and students will learn side by side, collaboratively. The focus will be more on questions than on answers.

We already have a preview of where all this is heading. In the 2008-09 school year, the province introduced "discovery math," which encourages kids to find new and creative ways of solving math problems (some of them quite cumbersome) and throws standard methods out the window. Alberta's math scores, once among the highest in the world, promptly plunged. In 2012, 15.1 per cent of Alberta's students failed to meet the minimum standards on PISA's international math test – more than double the failure rate (7.4 per cent) in 2003. The percentage of top-scoring students declined to 16.9 per cent from 26.8.

The rest of Canada, which also embraced discovery math, followed Alberta down the tubes. The lone exception is Quebec, whose teachers have clung to some of the old-fashioned ways; the province now leads the nation in math performance.

Yet this dismal record has not deterred Alberta, which has promised to rewrite the entire curriculum by 2016. As Edmonton Journal education columnist David Staples writes, "If you have a child in school after 2016, they will get a fundamentally different education than you got."

Just a decade ago, Alberta's education system was the envy of the world. Americans and Europeans all came to find what they could learn from it. Schools were free to teach students in whatever way they liked, so long as the kids scored well on standardized tests. And they did – consistently outperforming all the other provinces in science and reading as well as in math. Parents strongly supported the province's culture of accountability.

But instead of adopting Alberta's methods, other provinces chose to take their cues from trendy imported edu-fads. Never mind what worked – education became a battlefield of clashing ideologies.

In one corner was the dreary old factory-industrial model, featuring literacy, numeracy, higher standards, student testing and the stifling of curious young minds in the service of the neo-liberal corporatist agenda. In the other corner was the shiny new high-tech model, featuring creativity, discovery, collaboration, inquiry and lots of new media.

Guess which won? Despite the (hard-fought) introduction of standardized testing, the education romantics carried the day.

The ideas of 21st Century Learning have been enthusiastically embraced by British Columbia and major school boards in Ontario. Of course, there may be a few potholes down the road – such as the growing populist revolt against discovery math, which has inspired protests and petitions across the country.

Meanwhile, a piece of advice for parents, teachers and bewildered kids: Whenever you hear politicians and edu-crats utter the word "transformation," watch out.