Taking stock

I began this course with a variety of questions, all of which I am now able to answer to some degree.

What conception(s) of curriculum does the International Baccalaureate follow for the Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme, and Diploma Programme?

All three programmes follow a social constructionist conception, as defined by the IB’s mission, but I think the additional conceptions they hold are slightly different, partly due to their goals. For example, the PYP is also highly learner-centred, whereas the MYP and DP are much more subject-centred as the intention is to prepare students to pass high-stakes exams and gain entrance into university. Having said that, both programmes require students to engage in CAS (creativity, activity, and service) as a requirement for graduation. It is a recognition that education is more than just exam results.

Can/do school systems use more than one conception when developing their school’s curriculums?

The readings say yes and that is certainly true in practice. I continue to struggle with this question though. Given the contradictory perspectives on how students learn, the role of the teacher, the role of the student, and the goal of each conception, using more than one seems to indicate an unwillingness or inability to commit to one philosophy. There is an inherent conflict that could lead to contradictory teaching and learning experiences.

For example, my school’s scope and sequence for language and math were originally written in phases of development and not tied to specific grade levels. The idea was that we were then able to teach each student at his/her phase of development – it allowed us to have students within the same year level working in different phases. In theory this honours the learner-centred and social reconstructionist perspectives. In practical terms though it requires highly skilled teachers who can identify where each child is and move them forward on their own independent path. While this type of scope and sequence was successful in other schools we worked at, the parents and teachers of my current school found this structure difficult to understand and implement and wanted a list of year level expectations. We had to tie different phases to approximate grade levels and create benchmarks for each phase to ensure we were “catching” students who were not meeting expectations. So our learner-centred curriculum was transformed into a technological perspective with a focus on efficiency and accountability. Instead of an equity model, we are now working for an equality model, which I don’t think really serves the best interests of anyone.

At the same time, I also appreciate how different learners need different things of the education system. Some students will need many opportunities to explore the same subject content before they can apply it in a new context, other students may need more time developing ways to explain or represent their learning, while others need more time and opportunity to develop softer skills, such as working in groups.

So perhaps what I’ve concluded is that it is important to determine which is your driving conception – the one that will provide the basic framework for your curriculum and the other conceptions can be included in differing amounts to meet the needs of students.

Which conception(s) is used by: Queen’s University PME programme, the Ontario Ministry of Education, Kia Ora and Te Whariki (New Zealand), and the British National Curriculum?

I think the PME programme is also a blend. It is definitely learner-centred as each of us are given choice within our courses in how we connect our learning with our professional contexts and some choice in how we wish to show our learning. Many courses have a component of independent inquiry as well. However, it is also subject-driven as we have very limited choice over which courses we can take and many of the readings and resources are prescribed. I also sense the Faculty of Education holds a social reconstructionist perspective as all of the courses I have taken so far contain a bias towards the modern perspectives. Much of the content has to do with changing our system and identifying how we could improve our practice. Personally, I feel this is the most legitimate perspective for a school of education to hold. Government policy is notoriously slow and difficult to change so it is in the best interests of students that schools, teaching institutions and teaching colleges keep abreast of research developments and find ways to put this information into the hands of teachers.

In all honesty, I did not end up looking back over the other curriculums in much depth to determine which conceptions they are driven by.

Will understanding the conception of the curriculum allow me to improve our curriculum design, and how we engage in planning, teaching and assessment?

Yes, perhaps. This course has certainly helped me see my bias for a particular conception and how that is influencing how we have designed our school curriculum. I have a much greater appreciation for how the PYP has designed the written, taught, and assessed curriculum and the relationships between them. The backward design model was used to ensure our assessment – which drives our planning – which drives our teaching – will help children acquire the conceptual understanding we have identified. Additionally, I have a better understanding for the philosophical perspectives on assessment and why we rely more heavily on observations, performance based and process focused assessment methods than we do on selected responses. These methods also allow us to evaluate the “softer side” of the learning – such as the attitudes and skills students are learning and applying.

Now that I’m clearer about the IB’s conception and how it relates to their mission, I feel a responsibility to ensure we are teaching for social change. We are going to review our programme of inquiry at the end of this school year, as I indicated in my blog post. Now that I’ve reviewed which curriculum conception is driving the different units at the different year levels, we will explore whether it is necessary to create more balance at some grade levels. For example, most year levels have two or three units that are focused on social issues, with the exception of Year 3 which only has one like this. It has three content-driven units, so perhaps one of them could be reorganised.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each conception?

Academic realism should produce an educated populace who can engage purposefully in the democratic process and ensure the values of the society are preserved and advanced. However, the “traditional” delivery of this conception has left many students disengaged and underserved. Additionally this perspective is vulnerable to issues of race and culture. In Canada it is Caucasian Western values and content that are considered of value, which does not meet the multicultural complexity of modern society. Additionally, government systems have heaped high-stakes testing onto this system, making students feel like education is ‘done to them’ as opposed to an opportunity to expand their thinking about their world.

Process-centred and technological-centred curriculums make a lot of sense in the age of information. The amount of knowledge available to us is unprecedented. We can literally learn about anything we want. How do we decide what is worth knowing and what is not, particularly given the pace at which knowledge becomes outdated and replaced? Surely focusing on skills is more beneficial. Then all students can grow up to be lifelong learners and know how to learn about whatever issues confront them in the professional and personal lives. This is the fallacy described by Eisner and Vallance (1974, 14), although given where technology was then compared to where it is now, I am not as convinced that this is a fallacy and I can appreciate that they were unable to predict the impact the microcomputer would have on society. Yet how do we assess the success of this type of curriculum? Can we really say content is not important? Are there not essential scientific concepts all people need to learn to make sense of their lives? How do we pass on the values of our society in a skills based curriculum?

I think the traditional perspectives have been railroaded by governments who want to standardise and increase accountability in a misguided effort to ensure all of our students succeed, particularly those who are disadvantaged. However, thirty years on we have seen little to no change in the outcomes for these students. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, which leads one to ask why we are still on this path.

The modern perspectives have their advantages and disadvantages too. The learner-centred perspective, in theory, sounds fantastic. Why would we not want each child to tap into his or her passions. According to Dan Pink this would remove motivational issues, as all people strive for autonomy, mastery and purpose. However, while learner-centred education has gotten a lot of attention this last decade very little of it has been put into practice, with the exception perhaps of early years education. Why is this? I think there are a number of practical issues that need to be dealt with, such as the “bells and cells” issue. As a society we still think children of a certain age need to be gathered in one physical space and led by an adult. So what do we do about those children who want to spend their day outside engaged with nature? I don’t think these issues are insurmountable, but I do think they will take a long time to be resolved because they will require us to reconsider how we organise students, teachers, and learning spaces. Additionally, it would take a significant shift for society to accept the idea that not all students need to learn the same thing, even though we know that students that are taught the same content do not process it identically; each of them develops their own conception based on previous experiences and their mental models. I think it also goes back to our historical experience of the academic realist model. Many teachers, myself included, who fundamentally believe in the child-centred perspective are still nervous that being more flexible with subject content will result in a lost generation. Can we afford to be wrong?

Finally, the social reconstructionist perspective has a noble purpose and in our current world it makes sense to have students learning about and working on the problems that are going to define their adulthood – social injustice, environmental degradation, religious intolerance, ideological conflict, unequal access to opportunity. The problem is that for every one of these issues, there are at least ten perspectives that will fight to have their views adopted. How do we successfully develop a curriculum based on these issues? I cannot see such a curriculum having any hope of making it through a house of government.

Are the various conceptions attached to certain theories of learning (behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist, social constructivist, etc…)

Yes, all of them have roots in different philosophies, which underlie the learning theories.

Can there be one “ideal” curriculum?

Of all the questions, this is the one I feel least equipped to answer. As I illustrated above, the advantages and disadvantages are not insignificant. I think the best we can do is make decisions based on the best available research of our time, rigorous reflection, and with the intention to always do the best we can for each of our students. I know this is difficult to scale and maybe that is the point. Maybe the “ideal” curriculum is one which is negotiated daily by the students and teachers in the class to meet the needs of those individuals in their context.

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