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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

Who he?

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. We’re 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 behaviour."

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 BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division. On November 30, 2007, Candide-like he is retiring to his garden.

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