Alberta’s Curriculum Plagiarism Problem

Last week, the Canadian province of Alberta debuted its new draft K-6 curriculum for schools.

The draft became an almost immediate target for controversy including concerns about the age-appropriateness of some of the lessons, concerns about the skills students would or would not be learning and even concerns about alleged politicization of the curriculum. Canada’s New Democratic Party even promised to scrap the curriculum entirely if they are elected in 2023.

However, amidst all the criticism of the content of the curriculum, a separate issue arose: Plagiarism.

University of Calgary professor and academic integrity expert Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton published a review of the curriculum, highlighting three examples of plagiarism that were pointed out to her by concerned educators.

According to Eaton, a section on “adventurous play” was lifted from the North Vancouver Recreation Center, a section about the religious affiliation of Albertans was lifted and modified from Wikipedia and a third section about ethnic diversity was taken word-for-word from a 1976 article published by Howard Palmer in the International Journal.

She goes on to say that, while she only examined three passages, “Alberta teachers have e-mailed me dozens and dozens of passages from the new curriculum that they believe have been plagiarized from a variety of sources.”

Furthermore, she says that the point of her analysis was not to be a thorough examination of the work, but to provide evidence that such an examination was necessary and that it was crucial for the curriculum to be edited and correctly cite and reference its sources.

The Alberta government has responded to the various criticisms by defending the curriculum, with Matt Wolf, the Executive Director of Issues Management for the Premier of Alberta, taking to Twitter to wonder if the Wikipedia example was plagiarism at all.

However, as Eaton herself said, the goal of her post wasn’t to “allege” plagiarism but to provide evidence of it. To that end, the evidence is clear and it’s up to the Alberta government what they do with it.

Layers of Problems

Setting aside the other criticisms and concerns about the curriculum, the plagiarism issues add layers of problems to it that need to be addressed.

The first problem is that it paints a very negative picture of the rigor and process under which the curriculum was drafted. Though the Alberta Education Minister, Adriana LaGrange, claims that the curriculum was created over a “very, very long detailed process that lasted well over 19 months,” that care is undermined by the presence of very clear plagiarism in the work.

Even if the curriculum was drafted with the best of intentions, plagiarism, especially word-for-word plagiarism, mars the work and paints it with a brush of carelessness and sloppiness. Correctly citing and referencing sources is crucial showing academic rigor and obvious plagiarism understandably calls into question that rigor.

Second, though the sources one plagiarizes from shouldn’t matter, it’s worth noting that the curriculum took from both Wikipedia and a 45-year-old article. A curriculum such as this should be based on the best and most current information, not questionable sources and dated articles.

This, in turn, further calls into question the rigor and effort put into the curriculum. Not only did it fail to cite its sources, but at least some of those sources are either dated or generally not considered worthy of being used in an academic setting (at least not in this way).

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room: How can we teach students to not plagiarize when the curriculum they are learning from contains plagiarism?

There is no easy answer to that questions. Schools teach children not just by what is said in the classroom, but their actions and a curriculum with plagiarism inside it sends a very strong message that plagiarism is either unimportant or acceptable.

I doubt that’s the message the Alberta government wants to send to its youngest students…

Bottom Line

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton’s analysis was, in a word, excellent. Though I personally wish she had shared more examples, she more than proved her point that plagiarism does exist in this curriculum and that a thorough analysis of the work is necessary.

What the Alberta government does with that evidence is up to them. Right now, the curriculum is simply a draft and it isn’t supposed to be implemented until fall 2022. That is more than enough time to perform an evaluation either do as Eaton recommends and add the needed citations or simply rewrite the curriculum to include sources from the outset.

However, what disturbs me isn’t just the plagiarism but the fact that the provincial government has been attempting to defend it. That tells me that they don’t see this as a serious issue and, most likely, aren’t going to make significant efforts to address it.

While I have no doubt they will make some changes to address some of the worst examples, the fact that the leapt to the defense of the curriculum rather than immediate investigate the issue speaks volumes about how seriously they take this issue.

As someone who has spent 15 years battling plagiarism, this is incredibly frustrating. Not only to see plagiarism taken so lightly, but to have it taken so lightly by government officials. I worry deeply about the message this will send not just to children, but to academics and creatives the world over.