BC's New Curriculum

“Big Ideas,” STEM, and corporate-funded programs at the ready

Briony Penn

Photo by Ester Strijbos

The Big Ideas on ecology for the new K-9 school curriculum arriving in BC’s classrooms this September are “disjointed, piecemeal and hard to interpret,” according to Dr. Gloria Snively, Professor Emeritus of Science and Environmental Education at University of Victoria.

Snively has just finished a major collaboration with leading Indigenous science educator Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams, Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, and is ever hopeful that the Ministry of Education will braid ecological and indigenous understanding of science in the new science curriculum. She and an ad-hoc committee of teachers and curriculum specialists worry that the current ecological content of the curriculum, while improved since their initial concerns with the first draft in 2014, still misses the mark. The first attempt was so heavily laden with concepts of non-renewable energy and geology that Big Oil seemed a more appropriate label than Big Ideas.

“Big Ideas” is the new name for teaching concepts. Teachers explore these ideas with more “white space” (new name for flexibility) than the long list of learning objectives prepared during a different political era. Veteran award-winning teacher Lenny Ross of Victoria, who has been leading the watchdog group, was OK with renewing the curriculum to create opportunities for critical thinking using these Big Ideas “until you looked at what those Big Ideas were – or more alarmingly what they weren’t.” In the 2014 draft, instead of fourth graders watching bumblebees and learning with wonder about pollination, they were to explore “devices that transform energy,” “the rock cycle” and “how properties of materials are related to the particles they consist of.” “Hardly Big Idea topics that 9 year olds get passionate about,” argued Ross.

Others who waded into the analysis included curriculum expert and retired Victoria principal Daphne McNaughton: “I was appalled. When I studied the proposed ideas for content, I noticed no mention of words such as nature, habitat, biodiversity, watershed, stewardship, conservation, environmental protection, restoration, sustainability, pollution, climate change, degradation, and resource depletion; nothing on impacts of human patterns of consumption or waste.”

“If students aren’t even taught the basic vocabulary of the natural world and their relationship to it, how can they participate as citizens in issues that are dominating our news and lives – whether it is climate change, ocean health, water quality, or pollinators?”
—Dr. Rick Kool

Dr. Rick Kool, founder of the Masters in Environmental Education and Communication Program at Royal Roads University (who was not consulted but who worked on provincial environmental curriculum in both the 1990s and 2000s) was baffled: “With all the scientific evidence that says young children’s grades, health and aptitudes thrive with more connections to nature, and rising demands from parents for nature kindergartens and outdoor schools, this kind of curriculum appears in direct contrast to what parents are looking for and what children need.” He argued at the time “if students aren’t even taught the basic vocabulary of the natural world and their relationship to it, how can they participate as citizens in issues that are dominating our news and lives – whether it is climate change, ocean health, water quality, or pollinators.”

Ross and others met with the Ministry of Education back in 2014, and brought a petition of over 8,000 names, which was presented by then education critic Rob Fleming to the legislature. The lobbying pressures appeared to work and led to the addition of Ross, Kerry Mortin and Patrick Robertson to the Science Curriculum team to enhance the draft. They were given the mandate to improve environmental education in every grade level and, according to Ross, were relatively successful in adding ecological and place-based elements after two years and many, many meetings.

 

Final edit drops improvements

The process then took a turn for the worse in the spring. A final subcommittee of ministry staff, with selected teachers, did their own final edit. Many of the proposed additions were dropped and Ross sent out a bristling critique, drawing attention to environmental education elements that had gone missing again – like the weather. Then came another change – politically. With Minister Fleming now heading up the Ministry of Education, would ecology be reinstated properly in the classrooms?

According to his staff, Fleming’s mandate includes “prioritizing the implementation of BC’s curriculum as is and ensuring that teachers have the tools they need in the classroom to be successful.” What exactly does a curriculum made by one government and implemented by a different one look like? From the outside, it appears to be a metaphor for both the disconnect between the two political positions on the environment and the growing pains of transitioning a government that hasn’t been asked to prioritize ecology for 17 years. As Snively states, “Nowhere is the disconnect more dramatic than in the matter of environmental education.”

 

Biodiversity and ecology missing

For the record, learning about nature – other than human biology – remains condensed, truncated and relegated to 5-8 year olds. Grade 4 students are mandated to learn how energy can be transformed and that matter has mass and can change and, if lucky, teachers might fill in some white space with bees and pollination after they have explored the required content of magneto reception, infrared/UV sensing and echolocation. Between Grades 4 and 9, our children will not be exposed to Big Ideas like biodiversity, ecology, BC’s diverse and beautiful ecosystems, resource depletion, pollution, wildlife or weather. Climate change makes it on as a Big Idea but only in Grade 7. Knowledge of “recent impacts of humans” only makes it on a Content List, which are secondary topics. Interconnectedness finally appears as a Big Idea in Grade 9. Concepts like stewardship and sustainability don’t appear as Big Ideas at all but they do appear in Grades 5 and 7 on the secondary Content List, but with a proviso.

Noticeably, ideas of ecology, sustainability and stewardship are largely prefaced by “First Peoples [sic] concepts of …” Snively comments, “While I applaud the Ministry for listing content related to First Peoples, it makes no sense to exclude Western Science concepts like interconnections, sustainability, and environmental ethics.” Her book with Williams specifically emphasizes the rich, educational value of shared understandings of western and indigenous science: that all things are connected and unified, that the earth’s systems work in circles and cycles, that there is wholeness and ethical considerations. “We acknowledge that both ways of knowing are legitimate forms of knowledge. So does the BC science curriculum ‘braid’ the two ways of knowing together? Quite frankly, I think they have created a gap too large to leap. Teachers are left with the hard work to interpret the big ideas and concepts, find materials and supplement lessons.”

Kate Lunau of Macleans magazine calls STEM “a lens through which to see the whole world.” That lens is a corporate 20th century engineering lens: all problems can be solved by technology and engineering; no problem can’t be mitigated.

The original critique of Ross and others was that the BC curriculum resembled STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). STEM – the trademark of which is the acronym next to a picture of the Hibernia oil platform   (Hibernia is owned by ExxonMobil and other oil companies) – was coined in the mid-1980s to respond to corporate demands for a workforce skilled in engineering and technology for oil and gas and biotech. US educators have critiqued STEM and its delivery for an overemphasis on markets and competition at the expense of environmental and social concerns. The gospel spread to Canada in the early ’90s, then flourished under Harper’s watch. In 2015, Harper quadrupled federal contributions to STEM programming to $12.5 million over 5 years – a paradoxical move for a leader who was internationally condemned for muzzling his own scientists, especially if they disagreed with his oil and gas agenda. It all depends, it seems, on what kind of science.

Kate Lunau, STEM booster and assistant editor of the conservative-leaning Macleans magazine calls STEM “a lens through which to see the whole world.” That lens is a corporate 20th century engineering lens: all problems can be solved by technology and engineering; no problem can’t be mitigated. Fareed Zakarias, columnist with the Washington Post, posits “America’s obsession with STEM is dangerous.” Using examples of America’s innovation coming largely from their tradition of creative liberal arts education (Steve Jobs being the poster child of this), he calls STEM “a fundamental misreading of the facts [that] puts America on a dangerously narrow path to the future.”

 

Corporations provide resources

As an educator for 27 years, Ross points out even if one was to pursue this particular “lens on the world” there are few age-appropriate resources for this type of content available to elementary teachers. “Complex physics, engineering, and geology are best investigated in high schools, not in elementary classrooms. Where will teachers turn with no money for resources?” It is no surprise that the corporate world has stepped into that vacuum. Delivered by the non-profit Let’s Talk Science (LTS), STEM programs receive over $2,000,000 annually for outreach programs in Canada by their 3,500+ volunteers through 45 university institutions. LTS provides an impressive array of programs and resources from online Science Kits to “Tomatosphere” (using HeinzSeeds), which explores the effects of space on the growth of food. It doesn’t hurt the bottom line that Monsanto, Dow, Chevron, Shell, Amgen, (world’s largest biotech firm), CH2M (global engineering company), 3M and other multinationals match federal contributions. President and founder of LTS is Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, a physiologist, who has spearheaded the program since 1991.

“Complex physics, engineering, and geology are best investigated in high schools, not in elementary classrooms. Where will teachers turn with no money for resources?” It is no surprise that the corporate world has stepped into that vacuum.

In 2014, Schmidt held an open house in BC for MLAs to drop in and check out their report, Spotlight on Science Learning: The High Cost of Dropping Science and Math. She was introduced by Jim Favaro, Corporate Relations and Government Accounts for Amgen, who sponsored the report. It is a collation of interviews by such notable conservatives as Preston Manning, Kevin Lynch, David Mitchell (head of the conservative think tank Public Policy Forum), and various other corporate CEOs faithful to the conservative agenda. The number one agenda in their report is: “To engage students in STEM from a very young age – and make it fun and meaningful.” As Preston Manning states in the report: “STEM engagement is required at two levels: Convince the provinces to make this a higher priority, even a requirement. Then convince the student that this is a good thing to do.” When Schmidt was asked about how they could keep their materials arms length from their corporate backers, her response was, “There is no industry participation. They have no say and no review in our teaching materials. The volunteers in our outreach, most of whom aren’t from industry, come from all walks of life. We pride ourselves on our pedagogy.”

 

“No results found”

But is there evidence that STEM is pedagogically sound? The battle for our children’s minds is apparent when you start going through the resources available for teachers. For example, in the LTS Education Outreach, when you type in Activities you have a choice of 8 subjects – Ecology is not listed. Under the closest subject, Environmental Science, the first two activities are How to Clean Up an Oil Spill and How Water Moves up a Plant through capillary action. Schmidt points to the extensive resources in their IdeaPark and how volunteers workshop their own specialties in conjunction with local organizations to learn about local ecosystems. But when you type into IdeaPark “interconnection,” “conservation,” “consumption,” or “pollution” there are “No results found.” “Nature” produces a very few activities, notably “Hibernation” and “I Wonder How a Bird Makes a Nest,” both focussing on properties of building materials.

The Ministry spokesperson, back in 2014, couldn’t speak to STEM but pointed to the eight curriculum development teams from all over BC, with representation from BC Teacher’s Federation, independent schools and aboriginal education specialists. The Ministry still defends the revised document. “One of the challenges with the shift to a concept-based curriculum is that there can sometimes be a perception of missing or not covering topics. Concepts within the new curriculum model can and do include multiple topics and provide the white space (flexibility) for a variety of topics to be explored in various levels of detail. The concept of weather, as an example, has not been removed and is explicitly covered in a variety of ways and in a variety of grades. The concept starts in Kindergarten at the simplest of levels and progresses each year to expand and add more complexity and dimensions.”

Ross doesn’t agree. For example, the hard-won reinstatement of more in-depth study of weather was taken out in the final edit. He believes such essential and complex concepts as weather and climate change need the deeper study that the lengthy public feedback and revision process afforded. Ministry response is, “As in every curricular area, the final editing processes result in change.”

 

Energy dominates

One thing that hasn’t changed is the high proportion of energy-related Big Ideas. Materials put out by such prestigious institutions as the Royal Canadian Geographic Society fill the gap. The RCGS’ reputation took a tumble in BC in 2014 when an open letter signed by more than 500 students and teachers of Vancouver’s Windermere Secondary critiqued their EnergyIQ program as “of serious concern to us as current high school students, specifically because of its inherent corporate bias and the ideals it will promote. Schools are public places, and therefore should be free of advertisements or promotions of companies, interest groups, and other for-profit institutions. Propaganda has no place in our schools.”

If teachers type “Grade 4 Big Ideas” into [Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s] EnergyIQ online activities they find “Shifting the Oil Sands” (As a class, decide where you think the oilsands would be most beneficial for Canada and why). Nowhere is there a “decide if….”

The concerns are fair – even just on the basis that the sole funder listed for the online resource is the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and lesson plans offer only industry resource materials. If teachers type “Grade 4 Big Ideas” into EnergyIQ online activities they find “Shifting the Oil Sands” (As a class, decide where you think the oilsands would be most beneficial for Canada and why). Nowhere is there a “decide if….” In “How is a Proposed Pipeline Approved or Rejected,” students “propose a new pipeline in Canada linking two different places. Remind them to consider that pipelines cannot go through deep water, mountains, frozen ground or environmentally sensitive areas e.g., wetlands).”

For the Grade four Content word “Echolocation” you get “Whales, Dolphins, Bats and Fossil Fuels?” In this activity students are encouraged to learn about echolocation in whales, then look at the human applications of echolocation. “New technology is emerging to discover a wide range of hard-to-find natural resources. The company Geosat Technology, for example, analyzes satellite and geo-data to find oil, gas, diamonds, uranium, other minerals and even water. Explore these emerging technologies and how they are being used to find the world’s remaining natural resources.” Meanwhile, the Inuit of Clyde River have argued successfully in the Federal Court that seismic testing for oil and gas has had impacts on bowhead whales and other marine mammals and they weren’t adequately consulted.

In 2014, after allegations of propaganda, RCGS CEO/President John Geiger responded that he saw “no evidence of industry bias. An effort has been made to provide facts about energy sources and consumption – not casting judgment. If people consume energy then we need to discuss issues associated with that and the sources.” Members online argue that RCGS is being “manipulated” by CAPP. One member wrote, “I have reviewed the Energy IQ materials and the issue of CG that was sponsored by CAPP, and it was an embarrassing disgrace the way it virtually ignored the issue of climate change.”

The new government has a window and a mandate to make some fundamental changes … which will reverberate down to how our children frame the way they think about the world and problems.

Despite the critiques over the last two years – even by Fellows (full disclosure: the writer is a Fellow) – RCGS insists “The overwhelming consensus of those who have interacted with the program, whether teachers, principals or students has been extremely positive. The program teaches about all types of energy and is fair, accurate, and balanced. We are not an advocacy group….” At the heart of the matter is the failure of a system to provide independent funding of pedagogically-sound resources for teachers and freedom from corporate funding in politics. The new government has a window and a mandate to make some fundamental changes to both, which will reverberate down to how our children frame the way they think about the world and problems.

Ross has issued a challenge to “insist that the Ministry of Education correct the wrong that was done during the final edit, and return the curriculum to the full product that was created in a careful, transparent, and public process.” The Ministry of Education says that “BC’s science curriculum will be discussed again in the next round of review and considerations (following the 2017/2018 school year).” The public will have a chance to get ecology back fully on the curriculum and give our children the best chance they can at an uncertain future on an ailing planet.


Briony Penn has been writing about environmental issues in BC for 40 years. She has also collaborated on numerous teachers’ resources.

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