Our Schools/Our Selves: Spring 2002

Tales From the Crypt or Writing the Ontario Canadian and World Studies
March 1, 2002

spring 2002The nightmare began innocuously enough. Despite my best instincts and the negative opinion I, along with most teachers, had of the Harris government I accepted the role of co-project manager to write the Ontario, Canadian and World Studies Curriculum. In keeping with the Tories philosophy of privatizing everything possible the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training (OMET) in January 1998 put out a request for proposals (RFP) to write new curricula in all subjects. Quickly rumours spread that this could mean groups other then teachers; such as, publishing companies and even Americans would write Ontario's curricula. Dr. Alan King, the director of the Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG) of Queen's University, believing that this important work should be done by Canadian teachers, asked Dick Mansfield and I to head up the project.

We all agreed it was absolutely critical to have the support of the Ontario History and Social Studies Teachers Association (OHSSTA), the Ontario Association of Geography Educators (OAGE) and the Ontario History and Geography Consultants Association (OH/GCA). We arranged a joint meeting of the executives of these organizations. We asked not only for their support and guidance but also their direct input in selecting members for the writing team. They were very cooperative and I believe we put together a creditable team that met the RFP requirements.

The nightmare was beginning. The number of courses we were asked to write kept changing; the short time to write it (8 months); and the required 80% congruency with the French document, written by a team about whom we knew nothing, were some of our expressed frustrations. The executive members, however, were confident we could write the curriculum but they queried our ability to deal with politics of the Harris Tories and their bureaucrats at OMET. I thought my experience as a city councillor, chairman of a city planning board, executive member of a hospital board, two-time candidacy in a provincial election and provincial council member for a political party would be adequate preparation. It wasn't! Nothing could have prepared me for this bad dream.

We began with an in-service at the Mowat Block.. The frustration began immediately. I asked. Can you please define the term strand and how it is to be used? Answer- look how they are used in the elementary document. Next question- why are you using the term expectation rather than outcome? Answer in short - objectives are obsolete and outcomes are now unpopular. I continued. What is the difference between an academic and applied course? Answer- they are both of equal "rigour" but one is more academic and prepares students for university type learning. I would subsequently make at least a dozen phone calls from Kingston to OMET as we struggled to clarify these terms and other issues. I never did get a satisfactory answer to any of my questions. It appeared that OMET "wanted to stream grade 9 and 10 students but not necessarily stream them" with my apologies to Mackenzie King. At various stages I was told that the courses were not intended to stream students but that the 2 courses were to be of equal " rigour". This word was repeated ad nauseum by OMET as if it clarified everything. At another time it was explained that in an academic course the students would do more academic learning in preparation for university and in the applied course students would do more hands-on things. In other words apply their learning. When we questioned whether all good teaching should require students to apply their learning we were met with silence. Another tricky bit was the OMET directive that both the academic and applied courses in Canadian and World Studies would equally prepare students for the university designated courses in grade 11. Well do you think that can really happen?

Yes Minister you are confused!

In the old 1986 OSIS History and Contemporary Studies Curriculum the compulsory Canadian History courses required that 15 percent of the time be devoted to a unit on Government and Law. Were we supposed to include Government and Law in the new course? No clear answers were forthcoming. Around the end of June the Minister of Education, Dave Johnson, made a statement, widely reported in the press, that there would be more compulsory Canadian history in the new secondary school curriculum. I phoned my contact at OMET to ask how this could be true. As project manager and having studied the documents very carefully I just couldn't see it. I am not sure exactly what happened or who talked to the Minister but shortly after a half credit in Civics was announced. This ensured that indeed the Minister was right and we would indeed have more Canadian history - 15 percent more. For us, however, it meant we now had another half credit course in Civics to write that was not part of our proposal or our budget. OMET did finally relent and gave us enough money to hire another writer to do this job. In the end the students have benefitted with more Canadian history and a very valuable Civics course.

Where to start the course?

Where would you begin a course entitled Canadian History in Twentieth Century? A no-brainer, 1900, right? Well not if you are from OMET and have little background in history. We were told to begin after the first world war-1920. World War 1 was already part of the grade eight history curriculum- OMET first mistake. In July we had our first public feedback meeting. The press immediately made an issue of secondary school students not studying World War I. OMET quickly changed its mind and we were directed to begin the course at the turn of the century. Fine. But what about the overlap with the grade eight course? Students will have already studied the War. Response from OMET: Humm, well it is at the end of the grade eight course and teachers will have to rush through it. Students won't really learn it. It won't hurt them to do it again. We rewrote the course beginning in 1900. The last straw came in November. An OMET. bureaucrat called in "an expert" to again review the grade 10 history course. This "expert" decide to take the course chronologically back to 1867. He added another 10 specific expectations to a course that we knew was already very challenging. When I confronted him with the huge overlap with the grade eight course his response was that elementary teachers were not very effective at teaching history anyway. Fortunately I won this round and OMET agreed to delete all of these additional expectations and 1900 was again the starting point for the course.

The Harris political agenda.

Early in the writing process rumors swirled that we were to downplay Aboriginal issues, women's history, and the labor movement. Our history writers asked me if they should comply with this perceived directive. My response was that I had never been given a memo stating this; therefore, it was simply a rumour. Also I didn't think we should put ourselves in the position of self censoring in anticipation of what the Minister or Premier would accept. In September, the shoe dropped, we received feedback from OMET that we could not use the word "contribution" in connection with Aboriginal people, the Women's movement and labor unions. They also wanted some expectations that spoke to the importance of business. They specifically wanted this expectation - " describe the founding of the Canadian Manufacturing Association and assess its "contribution" to the Canadian economy." I explained that the CMA was founded in the 19th- century and this should be taught in the grade eight course. I was informed we didn't have a choice, it was going in. I contacted our OMET liaison person and she conceded that she had received a memo months ago explaining how Aboriginal, women's and Labour history were to be addressed, but she had not passed it along because she knew that it would not be well received by our team. At this point I threatened to go to the media with this issue. After what I am sure was some hectic scrambling and a few days delay it was decided we could use the word "contribution" to describe the women's movement and Aboriginal peoples. The word "contribution", however, was deleted from our expectations referring to labor unions during the final OMET edit. We never did see the last draft before it went to the printers.

I was also quite shocked in March of 1999 to see three new expectations that we had not submitted. I found out that one of the OMET supervisors, by her own admission, simply and arbitrarily decided to add them.

The French confusion.

We knew from the RFP that there was going to be a French version of the Canadian and World Studies curriculum and that we had to have a specified level of congruency. What was not made clear until we had completed the first draft of the grade 9 and 10 courses was how this was to happen. Then suddenly both teams, the English and the French, who had worked totally independently were told that we had to have 100 percent congruency with the compulsory courses. The teams, as required, began a series of very difficult meetings to try to bring these very different courses to congruency. Both teams were amenable and cooperative although communicating was not easy. In the end and after a lot of time and frustration we managed. But all of us wondered why OMET hadn't given us clearer directions and a better work plan back in May. Did they not anticipate any of this? Why not one combined French and English team from the beginning?

History - a hot potato!

When we began our task in May of 1998 the OMET big wigs said that they wanted the curriculum development process to be open and transparent. There would be public feedback sessions so that stakeholders could react and provide input to the development of the 30 plus courses for which we, the Canadian and World Studies team, were responsible. What became very apparent was that everybody, including the Premier's office, was looking at the compulsory grade 10, Canadian History courses. And they all had their own agendas. But hadn't the Minister stated that the new curriculum was to be "written by teachers, for teachers"? The big shock came in early November. A colleague, who I respected, told me that he had reviewed the grade 10 history courses at the request of the Dominion Institute. The Dominion Institute I found out had been approached by an OMET supervisor. My first reaction was why the Dominion Institute and not OHASSTA or OHCA? That would have been understandable and reasonable - history teachers and consultants reviewing and hopefully approving our work. Exactly who does the Dominion Institute represent? We all know they were very successful at grabbing headlines with surveys that pronounce that Canadians do not know their own history. But why the Dominion Institute? Their director, Rudyard Griffith, had been present at one of the feedback sessions and had made some excellent suggestions which I believe we acted on. Unfortunately my colleague decided to add another 10 expectations. This simply did not make any sense in the overall organization of the course. The worst of it was he decided to push the course back to 1867! Some of these new expectations were even historically inaccurate. Fortunately I was able to explain this to the OMET supervisors and all of these inappropriate expectations were deleted. When I asked the OMET official why she would short circuit their own feedback process she was obstinately unapologetic.

The final insult.

Just before Christmas we were asked to spend a few days at the Mowat Block putting the finishing touches on the grade 9 courses. The final insult occurred when our liaison, beaming with delight, showed me a letter from the Dominion Institute indicating that they approved the course. I know why the OMET was happy - the Dominion Institute would not attack the course in the media. My reaction was why had OMET sought out only the endorsement of the Dominion Institute and not OHASSTA and OHCA? Surely the support of history teachers themselves was most important - I guess not!

1998 was without a doubt my most frustrating year in 35 years of teaching. In the end I believe the courses we produced, despite all of the frustration and heartache, are workable. I believe they create exciting new opportunities and challenges for teachers of history. In terms of how the Harris government treats teachers and for what they have done to schools in Ontario they have a lot for which to answer. It will take years for the education system to recover and it will only happen when teachers are supported and given due respect for the challenging work they do.

John Fielding was project manager for the curriculum writing team of the Ontario Government's Canadian and Word Studies in 1998. He teaches in the Faculty of Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.