One of the biggest popular culture cliches around is the horror movie villain that won’t die. The other characters are unaware that the zombie, or the guy in the mask, isn’t really dead, so they let down their guard, opening themselves up for another attack and for gallons of fake blood to be sprayed across the screen.
I know how those hapless victims felt when on the day before Halloween (coincidence? I think not!) Education Minister Liz Sandals announced that the Health Curriculum was being re-reviewed and would be re-released in September 2015. What? Noooooooo!!!
Ontario’s curriculum review process is extensive, thorough and sometimes torturous. In the real world, ideas change by the minute but teachers are using a curriculum that is, in some cases, over ten years old. The Language curriculum encourages teachers to teach students how to use CD-Roms. “Mr. Campbell, why are you putting that silver coaster in the computer?”.
The curriculum review process moves so slowly because a great deal of consultation takes place. Curriculum experts are involved in almost all stages of the development process and there is extensive public consultation before the curriculum is revised and after, when the new curriculum is in draft form.
Developing good curriculum requires a balance of both experts and public. Steve Jobs famously said “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. So experts in the field provide a clear vision of what’s needed and what’s possible. However this has to be balanced with public support. The process provides opportunity for both.
This is the process that started in 2007 when it was time to revise the outdated Health and Physical Education Curriculum (it hadn’t been updated since 1998). The Health curriculum went through extensive input and review by experts and public consultations with 700 students, 70 different organizations and groups and more than 2,000 individuals had their say.
However, almost as soon as the new curriculum was released in 2010, it was withdrawn due largely to protests by religious groups. Since then, Ontario teachers have continued to teach health using the 1998 curriculum. The curriculum is older than most of the students.
Ontario teachers welcome a new, up to date Health curriculum. But the long road leading to here has been very confusing. Unfortunately, it has only provoked many questions and not provided many answers:
How much public consultation is enough? There was extensive public consultation on the 2007 Health curriculum, but when a small but vocal section of the public complained it was withdrawn. Why? Is curriculum now decided by plebiscite? Do we have to have consensus before we can teach?
Recently Alberta parents were successful in changing that province’s math curriculum. Where does this stop? Will teachers soon be required to submit their lesson plans to Parent Review Boards for approval?
Are we designing curriculum to appeal to the lowest common denominator? Perhaps the goal of our curriculum writers going forward should be to ensure that they produce a curriculum that doesn’t offend anyone.
Do we value the opinions of professional educators? The 2007 Ontario health curriculum wasn’t written by someone on a note pad as they were taking the TTC to the Mowatt Block. It was written over years, with careful consultation with experts in the field of Health education. Apparently, none of that mattered though, because a few parents didn’t agree with it.
Will parents accept the new Health curriculum? The curriculum is being updated (remember it was written in 2007) but it is still likely to have many things in it that some parents don’t agree with. And even though parents can have their children “opt out” of sections of Health Education, that probably won’t be enough. The same groups that scuttled the Health curriculum last time are already starting to marshal their forces.
At the heart of this is a struggle for control of the education system. Who will decide what gets taught and how? Parent groups are increasingly involved in policy decisions and the voices of professional educators are becoming more and more irrelevant.
The danger of listening to parents too much, is that it stifles new thinking and innovation in education. As Henry Ford famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Sometimes you have to listen to the experts.
In 1998 then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne defended the Health curriculum in the legislature, only to be over ruled by Premier Dalton McGuinty the next day. Let’s hope this time around Wynne uses her power as Premier and drives a stake through the heart of this curriculum debate once and for all.