Canada’s Northwest Territories weighs options for curriculum renewal

The territory is deciding which jurisdiction it should model its school curriculum off of, and so far, B.C. appears to be a strong contender. (CBC)
B.C. curriculum appears to be top contender, but territory is still considering all options

As early as the 2022-2023 school year, students across the N.W.T. will be taught with a renewed curriculum, but the government is still trying to decide which province is the best contender to model off of.

Research has been well underway to determine which direction will be best suited for the values and priorities of education in the territory, with British Columbia being the likely top contender.

During a public meeting held on Tuesday, top government officials with the department of Education, Culture and Employment  along with MLAs discussed, what the territory’s next steps should be in its plan to renew the territory’s curriculum. They hope to have a decision ready by the end of this August and begin implementation in 2022.

“Our N.W.T. K-12 curriculum is out of date and in need of renewal,” said Shannon Barnett-Aikman, the assistant deputy minister of Education and Culture

N.W.T.-made curriculum ruled out

Right now, the N.W.T.’s curriculum consists of a few approaches, known as the “create, adapt, adopt” model.

Some courses have been designed and created in the N.W.T., while other portions of the curriculum are taken from different provinces and updated to include N.W.T.-specific content.

There are also portions of the curriculum which have been entirely based on other jurisdictions.

For example, the high school curriculum is adopted entirely from Alberta for Grades 10,11 and 12.

Jessica Brace, the director of curriculum development with Education, Culture and Employment, confirmed they’d be maintaining this approach and ruled out the possibility of a curriculum designed completely by the N.W.T.

Brace said that creating a curriculum from scratch is a huge undertaking and is currently not feasible for the North, given high associated costs and lack of capacity.

Regardless, the curriculum needs to be reflective of cultures, languages and identities of students in the N.W.T., Brace added.

“It’s not just being taught to them, but with them. It needs to be relevant to the students lives,” she said.

B.C. curriculum ‘consistently’ strongest option

The government has four priorities as it searches for a new curriculum.

The first theme is competency-based curriculum, which places less emphasis on memorization, and more so on critical thinking. Inclusive schooling is also guiding the decision process, to ensure that everyone has a place in the education system.

The curriculum must also be grounded in Indigenous perspectives and worldviews.

The last theme is large-scale student assessment tools, such as standardized testing. Currently, N.W.T. uses the Alberta Achievement Tests and departmental exams.

On all fronts, the British Columbia curriculum ranked first and is “consistently the strongest,” said Brace.

R.J. Simpson, minister of Education, Culture and Employment, says the province has been “very receptive” in terms of willingness to partner. Yukon currently models their curriculum off of B.C., which has recently updated its curriculum.

Alberta curriculum still an option

Research into which jurisdictions matched the interests and priorities of the N.W.T. was conducted prior to the announcement of changes to Alberta’s K-12 curriculum.

The province is coming under fire for proposed changes to its K-6 curriculum that critics are calling Eurocentric, dismissive of Indigenous worldviews and not based on research about how to teach young children.

More research needs to be done to reflect how those changes may impact its alignment with the N.W.T. The assessment will likely cost an additional $15,000.

Brace noted that prior to Jason Kenney’s UCP government, the territory usually played a role in how changes to the curriculum were developed, but that’s changed.

“The new draft is not something the N.W.T. had involvement in the creation of,” Brace said.

Though the B.C. curriculum is “closely aligned” with what the department is looking for in a curriculum, they are still considering all options, including Alberta.

In response, MLA Kevin O’Reilly said “it would be hard to envision or even imagine that Alberta’s going to come out any better given the ideological bent of that government.”

Northern distance learning

Another important factor to consider when looking at other jurisdictions is what sort of distance learning options they have available, especially considering the N.W.T.’s issues with internet connectivity.

Currently, 19 smaller communities in the N.W.T. utilize distance learning. It’s an important option that helps accommodate student schedules and provide courses that may not otherwise be available to students due to the resources available in smaller communities.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty asked Minister R.J. Simpson on where schools across the N.W.T. are at in terms of providing online learning.

Simpson said they are looking at how resources factor into what could be feasible in the North and whether they are more internet-based, which may disadvantage some communities.

Although the department of infrastructure is responsible for access to the internet, Simpson said they have a proposal coming out shortly that will outline increased internet access to schools.

“It should provide some significant increases when that rolls out,” he said.

The deputy minister Rita Mueller added that the Alberta distance learning program, which is used in larger centres in the N.W.T., is ending after this school year, “so we’re exploring other avenues.”

Lafferty said that “it’s very crucial that we have our communities connected,” and pushed the department to work closely to ensure this becomes a reality for all communities, regardless of how small or remote they are.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Dene national chief says Canada’s Northwest Territories should create own school curriculum, CBC News

Finland: New climate studies program coming to schools in Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Nunavut children’s books translated for circulation in Greenland’s schools, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Norwegian-funded school in Northwest Russia inspires cooperation, The Independent Barents Observer

SwedenCan cross-border cooperation help decolonize Sami-language education?, Eye on the Arctic

United States: ‘Every year it’s harder’: Hiring teachers gets increasingly difficult in rural Alaska, Alaska Dispatch News

Hannah Paulson, CBC

Hannah Paulson is a reporter from the Northwest Territories. She grew up in Gameti, Yellowknife, and Liidlii Kue.

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