BC’s ‘New Curriculum’ Missing the Mark on Personalizing Learning

Personalized Learning (PL) is identified as a priority ‘Highlight’? of ‘BC’s New Curriculum‘, but the reality is that PL is nearly totally absent in the new curricula, basically stuffed in a drawer where it may well whither into oblivion for all grade levels. Why this is so reflects political retrenchment, pedagogical confusion and a missed opportunity, especially for BC K-12 students.

In 2015, to much fanfare at a forum featuring renowned international consultants, Personalized Learning (PL) was announced by then-BC Minister of Education Peter Fassbender as fundamental to a new curriculum orientation in K-12 education under the guise of the new ‘BC Ed Plan’. Various catchy, animated graphics emphasizing this point accompanied media-driven messages from the ministry, one boldly proclaiming, “STUDENTS must be at the CENTRE of their LEARNING,” another that through curriculum transformation, “students will experience learning more directly linked to their individual needs and interests.” 

Image created and promoted by previous government (2013), emphasizing personalized approach to learning

This curriculum revision arose, in part, from advocacy by BC students in 2011 for education more relevant to their needs and interests. At a ‘Student Voice‘ retreat and in a follow-up report, ‘Learning in the 21st Century‘, they asserted a desire for individualized learning plans and insisted “their education could be much more productive and efficient if it were tailored towards their interests and skill level.” 

Following the 2017 election, a change in government sparked changes in the government’s approach to curriculum revision. Along with the BC Ed Plan being re-branded as ‘BC’s Redesigned (and now ‘New’) Curriculum’, a ‘K-12 Innovation Partnership’ strategy to identify and support around 30 BC school programs innovating in PL and other practices that had been launched was mothballed. So were curriculum documents being developed for the BCEd Plan. 

Guidance for the new curriculum has been expedited in the past 18 months and it now has swapped out PL for a new curriculum model emphasizing the notions of ‘Core Competencies‘ and ‘Concept-Based Learning‘. Core Competencies is a framework to recognize and hone Communication, Thinking and Personal and Social goals, following a grade-level progression. Likewise, Concepts, AKA ‘Big Ideas‘, guide learning and are detailed for grade levels. ‘Curricular Competencies’ are organized around what students should be able to ‘Do’, per grade level and subject as guided by numerous ‘Content Learning Standards.’ Scan the learning standards and you will see much hollow guidance, repeated for successive years, such as students should “Make observations and predictions” and “Communicate ideas, explanations, and processes in a variety of ways”. 

Overall, the new Learning Standards look a lot like the old Learning Standards, and the new curriculum suffers from trying to be all-new-and-old at the same time for educators and administrators. And it suffers, gravely, from a lack of clear purpose for educators to climb on board, or not. There is also a lack of ‘entry points’ for educators to engage with the new curriculum, many of whom will likely feel confused trying to sort it all out, as I do. This will not contribute to educator ‘buy-in’ but to ‘fall-back’, as in falling back on what they used to do.

Whither Personalized Learning in the new curriculum? 

You’ll need GPS to find traces of personalized learning if you can. And you might be confused right at the outset in investigating new curriculum documents that feature iconography of machine gears and arrows and lots of blocky diagrams. I don’t know about you, but I think of machines and factories when I see this, not real people, and definitely not a new learning model in which “students will grow into a world that is very different from and more connected than that of generations before.”

Brochure promoting new BC Curriculum. Isn’t education striving to evolve beyond the ‘Factory Age’?

You won’t find references to real students anywhere in curriculum documentation either, certainly not in the banalities proffered under the guise of ‘The Educated Citizen‘, a contrivance (from the 1980s) inserted as a mythological product of the new curriculum. It baffles me why curriculum authors couldn’t have described the dispositions and competencies of real children and youth, today. 

Most of the new curriculum practices do not emphasize personalized practices at all but classroom group work (and, yes, student inquiry) as led by, wait for it, teachers. Overall, lip service is paid to students’ personal learning interests and passions but this isn’t prioritized in the numerous examples (“Illustrations”) proffered for each grade. 

Despite the retreat from authentically personalizing learning begun under the previous government, PL remains a rising tide in K-12 education and especially in the US. This increasing momentum is detailed by INACOL, a US-based organization seeking to spur widespread educational change, in its (2018) ‘National Landscape Scan of Personalized Learning‘ report:

“New learning models and instructional approaches to personalize learning have emerged and taken root in schools across the United States. What was once a handful of innovators in a few locales has grown into thousands of classrooms and schools throughout the country. … The excitement about personalized learning is real.”  

BC’s New Curriculum still has the potential to offer a profound and relevant education blueprint for relevant change. Where it makes its biggest gains is in orienting to learning processes and recognizing and including First Nations epistemology. But it will take work to shed the blather and bafflegab that now cloaks much of the new curriculum. Here are some suggestions for improving and personalizing it: 

– Ground the new curriculum in substantive theoretical foundations instead of boilerplate statements and generalized frameworks, as is now the case (the frameworks being “Differentiated Instruction” and “Universal Design for Learning”). Strong theoretical foundations – of which many certainly exist for personalizing learning – will strengthen overall understandings about intentions and directions, without which the new curriculum will flit and flutter in all directions as a ship goes without a rudder. 

– Link the theoretical orientations to a clear sense of purpose, and help educators see why and how these are related and practical.  Insert real people – BC children and youth and educators, too – into curriculum scenarios and show how they engage with, and benefit from new curriculum approaches. 

– Recognize that the learning lives of students – beyond school – that is, on weekends and vacations, and via the internet and dozens of enticing portals for learning – are increasingly influencing learning and are worthy of acknowledging and considering as valid conduits of learning. This notion is presently totally absent. 

 – Study the practices behind personalized learning that is girding substantive educational change in Wisconsin, Maine, California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and other jurisdictions; and adapt and implement some of these. 

– And, finally, lose the machine graphics in the ‘Curriculum Overview’; they are counter-productive unless you really are steering the new curriculum through the rear view mirror.  

(nb – I know that many schools and educators are orienting to more personalized practices – including my former stomping grounds , SelfDesign Learning Community, and they see the new curriculum as helping to do this. Unfortunately, their examples are neither shared nor profiled in curriculum documents. In a future blog, I will share where and how this is happening, and if you have something to share about this please contact me: michael @ michaelmaser.net)

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