Conceptions of curriculum in our programmes of inquiry

The last few months I have been learning about different conceptions of curriculum. Our conception of curriculum

Expresses a viewpoint about curriculum’s development and design; the role of the learner, teacher, and curriculum specialist in planning curriculum; the curriculum’s goals; and the important issues that must be examined. By understanding our curriculum approach and that of our school or school district, it is possible to conclude whether our professional view conflicts with the formal organisational view. (Ornstein, 2013, p.2)

There are four main conceptions of curriculum that have withstood the test of time: learner-centred, society-centred, process-centred, and subject-centred. The chart below outlines the key features of each conception.

Conceptions of Curriculum

Which conceptions do you think are reflected in the PYP?


I think the PYP encompasses aspects of all four conceptions. I have ranked the conceptions based on how much I think this perspective dominates the PYP (as it currently exists) and the component of the programme that support my reasoning:

  1. Social reconstructionist:
    • The IB’s mission “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Clearly the IB sees education as a way to create social change.
    • Transdisciplinary themes which encourage the exploration of significant issues that transcend local perspectives.
    • Action as an essential element.
    • Learner profile
    • Inquiry methodology
  2. Learner-centred: 
    • PSPE scope and sequence which aims to help educate the whole child
    • Assessment policies which include student involvement, such as through student-led conferences and portfolios
    • The role of the teacher as defined in Making the PYP Happen
    • Attitudes as an essential element
    • Learner profile
    • Inquiry methodology
  3. Process-centred:
    • Approaches to learning give weight to students learning how to learn, to developing the skills to become life-long learners
    • Inquiry methodology
    • Science and social studies skills from the IBPYP scope and sequence documents (optional)
  4. Subject-centred:
    • Key and related concepts
    • Language scope and sequence (optional)
    • Math scope and sequence (optional)

Do you agree? I think it’s important to remember that it is not that the PYP does not value subject knowledge, quite the reverse, but that they see subject knowledge as the means to learning, not the ends. Subject matter understanding is necessary for students to be able to understand and develop solutions to significant social problems, such as environmental degradation, terrorism, and the migrant crisis. However, the focus of the content would shift as the social issues of the time shift.

Why do we need to know the PYP’s conceptions of curriculum?

I think it’s important to know the conception because a mismatch between the PYP’s perspective and the professional perspective of a teacher may bring that teacher into conflict with the programme.

I also think it matters because as teachers and curriculum coordinators, we need to ensure that we are interpreting the conception correctly in our written, taught, and assessed curriculum. We need to reflect the conceptions in our Programme of Inquiry.

My school is about to engage in its first major review of the POI since we developed it three years ago. Before beginning the review, I was curious to determine how many of our units reflect the different conceptions. I colour coded our units to make it easier for me to see which conceptions we have employed. Many of the units include elements of more than one conception, but I decided to highlight based on the dominant conception.

I was somewhat relieved to discover that 19 of our 44 units are society-centred. Interestingly 12 of the 44 are subject-centred, which is higher than I thought it would be. 7 are learner-centred and 6 are process-centred. What will this mean for us as we begin our review? I think we need to examine whether some of our subject-centred units can be redesigned to be more learner or society-centred. We are definitely honouring the IBPYP’s dedication to a society-centred curriculum but there is room for improvement.

What does your school’s Programme of Inquiry say about your conception of curriculum?

Hayes, D. (2003). Making learning an effect of schooling: aligning curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, 24(2), 225-245

Hill, A. M. (1994). Perspectives on philosophical shifts in vocational education: From realism to pragmatism and reconstructionism. Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, 10(2), 37-45.

International Baccalaureate (2007). Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education (2nd ed.). Cardiff, Wales: International Baccalaureate Organisation.

McMillan, J. H. (2014). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective standards-based instruction (6th ed., pp. 1-20, 57-64, 74-88). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ornstein, A. C. (1990/1991). Philosophy as a basis for curriculum decisions. The High School Journal, 74, 102-109.

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Read Chapter 6, pp. 149-173.

Shepard, L. A. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4-14. doi:10.3102/0013189X029007004

Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 52-54, 55-61, 81-85,103-106). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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