Viewpoints: Every Student Deserves a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum

by EditorK

Michael Zwaagstra

Michael Zwaagstra

Commentary

While Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s support for conscription during World War II angered English Canadians, it ultimately strengthened the federation since it reassured French Canadians that the federal government took their concerns seriously.

Now, use your critical thinking skills to analyze this statement.

Hopefully, you didn’t spend more than two seconds on this one. That’s because the statement is completely and utterly false. First, Wilfrid Laurier died in 1919, so he clearly wasn’t prime minister during World War II, which took place from 1939–1945. Not only that, but Laurier was actually a strong opponent of conscription during World War I.

In addition, English Canadians supported conscription during both wars while French Canadians overwhelmingly opposed it. Far from strengthening the federation, conscription deeply divided Canadians and fuelled significant resentment in Quebec, where the great majority of French Canadians live.

Notice that we did not use any generic critical thinking strategies to come to this conclusion. There was no need to find the main idea, look up key words online, or discuss the statement with classmates. These strategies were unnecessary because we already knew that the statement had factual errors.

This exercise illustrates the power of content knowledge. Anyone armed with some basic facts about Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, World War II, and conscription has a huge advantage over someone who lacks this knowledge and needs to look things up on the internet.

Obviously, critical thinking is only possible when you know something about the topic at hand. Otherwise, it is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.

This is why we should be pleased that the Alberta government is implementing a new curriculum that puts a much stronger emphasis on knowledge acquisition. It’s particularly striking that Alberta’s K-6 social studies students will learn more about key historical events in a sequenced way that builds up their content knowledge.

This is a stark contrast with the current “spiral” approach to curriculum design which covers the same broad themes again and again from slightly different angles. Instead of a blank template where teachers must fill in their own content, Alberta’s new curriculum is far more focused on ensuring that all students acquire a common knowledge base.

This is necessary because common knowledge makes critical thinking possible. If you want to get advice from a friend regarding a problem, the first thing you need to do is fill them in on the situation—that is, the facts. Critical thinking skills are useless in the absence of knowledge.

There is a second, and perhaps even more important, reason why a knowledge-rich curriculum is the correct approach. There is plenty of research showing a strong causal relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. In other words, if we want students to become good readers, we need to help them acquire a rich knowledge base.

For example, in a 2011 study published in the “International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education,” researchers had 142 Grade 3 students read expository texts about four science-related topics (tree frogs, soil, jelly beans, and toothpaste). Contrary to what they expected, the researchers found that text complexity made little difference when the subject matter was familiar to the third-grade students. In other words, these students could read and understand complex text when they had the appropriate background knowledge.

Background knowledge about a topic has a much stronger relationship with reading comprehension than text complexity. This is far from the only research study that reached this conclusion.

Critics of Alberta’s new curriculum argue that it is “developmentally inappropriate” to expose young students to complex historical topics. On the contrary, it is developmentally inappropriate to waste students’ valuable time practising generic critical thinking skills that are useless without content knowledge.

As for the argument that the new Alberta curriculum will make students do little more than memorize a bunch of random facts, it’s important to realize that the new curriculum does not tell teachers how to teach. A curriculum guide prescribes content, or “what” needs to be learned. Professional teachers will still be in charge of pedagogy, the “how” of learning. Let’s not mix these things up.

Finally, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds come to school with a knowledge deficit since they typically don’t receive the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. Fortunately, schools can partially compensate for this gap by ensuring that all students receive content-rich instruction from an early age. This shows that content-rich instruction is key to empowering students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Consider the benefits. A knowledge-rich curriculum will improve critical thinking skills, enhance reading comprehension, and empower students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are all very good reasons to make knowledge acquisition a primary curriculum focus in Alberta—and in every other province for that matter.

A knowledge-rich curriculum is something every student deserves.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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