||Volume 20, Number
3, November/December 2007
By Pat Clarke
Last spring a reporter from The Vancouver Sun called to ask
if I knew what students in BC schools might be learning about Captain
George Vancouver. He was writing a series on Vancouver to mark the
250th anniversary of his birth in 1757. I replied that it was
difficult to say given the structure of the Integrated Resource
Packages. The IRP for Grade 4 Social Studies did have an element on
Aboriginal studies and contact with Europeans and it was possible
that some students would learn something about Captain Vancouver
there but that sort of detail was up to individual teachers.
Then I went on to speculate that given the current government
fomented hysteria over literacy and numeracy I doubted if very many
Grade 4 teachers were able to find much time to venture into a topic
not covered by a district or provincial testing program. The Grade 4
Social Studies program and, for that matter, the entire elementary
school level social studies program (along with art, music, and
science) has been pushed into a scholastic nether world where, in
spite of the best intentions of teachers, it is constantly trampled
by the imperatives of the testing program.
The state of the "non-tested" and increasingly marginal
IRPs such as social studies is really the dirty secret of the cost of
a myopic notion of "important" learning. So while we may
have a student population that are world-beaters at number work and
sentence structure and reading comprehension, their dexterity at
responding to a challenge like, "Can we describe Captain
Vancouver as a brave explorer or is another description
of his activities more appropriate"? is simply not known because
they rarely have a chance to do that sort of inquiry. They are too
busy boning up for the next numeracy test.
It is all quite alarming. Over 10 years ago, the last Social
Studies Learning Assessment, (remember those? They look positively
progressive nowadays) observed "there may be a substantial
number of students leaving the British Columbia school system with
only marginal abilities in such important contemporary citizenship
skills as detecting bias, distinguishing between fact and opinion,
and developing a reasoned argument. The social consequences of a
potentially gullible citizenry should be apparent."
If that was a concern in 1996, it is a full-blown catastrophe in 2007.
Of course it is hard to know. In 1996, we did have some evidence
because we actually surveyed the application and apprehension of
various curricula through census-type learning assessments. We were
able to tell whether or not students were understanding and applying
fairly advanced learning such as critical thinking. Now we have no
idea. Were too busy number crunching multiple-choice questions
and cooking up comprehension rubrics for so called literacy.
The FSAs, the district tests and the secondary examinations
program have very little, if any, capacity to do that sort of
assessment of higher level learning but they have become principal
determinants in assigning "achievement." Unfortunately,
they are really a kind of lowest common denominator as a means to
determine whether or not children are learning much in school. But
because of the attention given them by the Fraser Institute and their
media partners in stupidity, they have become the primary reference
points for much of what goes on in too many schools.
Much of the opposition to the standardized testing obsession
gripping the denizens of the Ministry of Miseducation in Victoria has
focussed on the broad issue of teacher autonomy, the impact of such
testing on student motivation, and the emotional effects of an
industrial, outputs-oriented approach to schooling on children. There
is another just as troubling story here however. The 1996 Social
Studies Learning Assessment put it this way, "The longer-term
consequence of this trend could well be an increasingly alienated
citizenry, less involved in community issues, less confident of
democratic traditions, and more inclined to socially dysfunctional
Oh well, at least here in the Greatest Place on Earth our
sociopaths will be literate and numerate.
Pat Clarke is an assistant director of the BCTFs
Professional and Social Issues Division. On November 30, 2007,
Candide-like he is retiring to his garden.