How vs What – Curriculum design


I have been synthesising my thoughts and experiences as a curriculum leader lately. As curriculum leaders we spend a lot of time engaging people in the “what” of curriculum… committees, working groups, innovation teams, evaluations, accreditations to name a few. In my time, I have seen so many hours expended in getting people to understand the “what” at the expense of the “how.”

Don’t get me wrong we do talk about the how, but not enough for me. Schools seem to always be in this constant flux of defining and comprehending curriculum instead of designing, applying and interpreting it, especially in PYP!  Although to juxtapose my own thoughts I still cherish those synergistic conversations and discussions I have had over the years with esteemed colleagues, on the ‘what’ of curriculum. But there’s wisdom for you!

To find the balance here are a few ideas that might resonate with you…

Simplify the language – having spent a year once on fusing AERO standards with PYP scope and sequence documents, it led me to conclude that written curriculum is just too SYNONYM-MANIC!  Please just cut the crap, our curriculums are cluttered with synonyms and word-smithing; there just seems to be so much repetition in international schools curriculums. Often the legacy of teacher turnover.

Time and value – Don’t put authentic collaboration on the back burner, define it and give it the time it deserves (yes I know I said less defining before, but this is different). Prioritising times for teachers to step aside from the “what” and share more practice about “how” they interpret the curriculum is valuable. Strategies like Teachers Teaching Teachers (T3) is an easy start to building a collaborative reflective culture.

Let people lead to their strengths – good curriculum writers need trust and creative latitude. Succinct written curriculum does not always need democracy, so be selective about composing your teams and defining their roles.

Let sexy data be your friend – data is not just about numbers, it’s about information and all the diverse ways that it can be unearthed. Teachers reflecting on their practice, students reflecting on their learned curriculum are all interpretations that can lead us forward and in addition, support understanding of our “what” curriculum further.



6 Reasons to use visible thinking after research

I have recently been asked to step back into the classroom for 4 weeks to guide a group of 5th graders through the PYP exhibition, and I’m loving it! We have four (and that’s just my class) inquiries running alongside each other, looking at advancements in medical, educational and transport technology, and the influence of robots on well being. All through the transdisciplinary theme of where we are in place and time. When I joined the class the kids were laden with fact upon facts, they were all over the classroom. So one of the first things I did was to check for their understanding of the guiding questions using the GENERATE / SORT / CONNECT / ELABORATE thinking routine. Here are 6 reasons why I did that:

  • Evaluate the spectrum of understanding – can they piece facts together to get to the heart of the question? Can they identify concepts?
  • Evaluate spectrum of critical thinking (analysis / synthesis) – can they identify relationships, patterns, expand and extend upon their ideas?
  • Create opportunities to elaborate – this thinking routine is designed for it!
  • Create opportunities to collaborate – activate learners as resources for one another, promote learning appreciation.
  • Slows down the learning – Time and space to think deeply and process; thinking is valued.
  • Creates context for further reflection – learners can benefit by reflecting on what they don’t understand yet, or what puzzles them.

Used in the context of “sorting out” what this routine showed me was; the difference between knowledge and understanding; the difference between higher level thinking and repeating the same fact in different ways; the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and finally. What I need to do next!

Thought of the day… “What I learned vs What I heard”

In the quest for deep thinking and understanding there is a time, place and space for the different modalities of learning. A classic example, being able to recognise the features of a paragraph and being able to write a paragraph. Each have their time and place, however. In my experience I have seen a fair percentage of educators misinterpret knowledge for understanding. And it makes me think, learning reinforces the importance of recall over understanding.

I therefore feel fortunate to work with a concept driven curriculum that through inquiry creates possibilities for deep thinking and understanding to emerge. Through the gradual release of responsibility a synergy can be formed between teacher and student. Used wisely, in a community of learning environment, the conceptual approach to teaching and learning can certainly reduce the work of the teacher; by how much depends on the individual. But, whatever percentage is achieved, the equal and opposite reaction will be freed up time to learn from the people you teach. Work < Learn!

Going further with systems thinking – students apply their conceptual knowledge

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Several weeks ago, I blogged about introducing systems thinking by using children’s literature with my grade 2 students. I was really enthused by their receptiveness to the process and how quick they learned, it almost seemed intuitive to some of them. Last week my teaching partner and I came back to the process and used it as one of the summative assessment tasks for our UOI on healthy living.

After a short introduction, we gave the students an opportunity to apply the skill of systems thinking and focus on areas of the UOI knowledge they felt they had learned most about.  We wanted to see how they connected with a key understanding we had identified in our planning – that of seeing the body as an interacting system. I was particularly interested in their response to the challenge of making their thinking visible, so took it upon myself to work with groups of 5 or 6 students at a time and provide support where needed through poignant questioning, challenging their ideas and envoking discussion. Observing the process, I was impressed with how much they had remembered about thinking systemically, it had been several weeks since our last experience with using the process, yet very little instructional guidance had to be given to the students. Another thing that I observed was how flexible this tool is in allowing students to express their thinking, once they had become familiar with the process, there was less time spent on the procedural knowledge of how to do it, which I think freed up the mental space needed to express their understanding. As an extension I asked if any students wanted to transfer their “round and round thinking” to a prezi, here is one student’s example.

Junk food prezi

I can’t help wondering how far you could take the concept of systems thinking and apply it to curriculum mapping models… I imagine the potential of a learner’s development when a school curriculum articulates and promotes systems thinking skills as a core value of their educational pedagogy, particularly if they are teaching for international mindedness. It seems obvious to me that conceptual thinking skills, which are pervasive and yet flexible enough to have positive application in a multitude of content areas and settings, should be a fundamental principal of 21st century education. Hope I am not in a minority forever on this one!

Conceptual learning in a thinking classroom – teaching for transfer

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I was recently fortunate enough to co-lead a workshop on conceptual driven curriculum in the PYP. During the workshop participants constructed meaning about the nature of concepts, why they are the driving force behind the pedagogy of inquiry and why concepts are so fundamental in teaching children about international mindedness.  Like all workshops, I came away with many new ideas about how to improve my own practice and questions about how we balance the need for meaningful, quality learning over the quantity of content demands.

One question I asked myself is; what is the right balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry? As PYP teachers we are co-constructers in curriculum design, our practice is guided by the value of “choose, act, reflect.”  In reflecting, I think the balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry is very contextual and dependent upon a number of factors (eg. developmental age, ESL, complexity of the subject, motivation of the pupils, socio/emotional issues…) and yet to what extent do we factor these variables into our planning? I believe neglecting the unique contextual characteristics of the learners in our schools runs the potential of subjugating conceptual teaching to content teaching – simply put, if you are trying to teach too many conceptual understandings at one time you can run the risk of purely teaching factual content. So how can we tell when less is more?

As practitioners we need tools to help us reflect, we need ideals, benchmarks and anchor points from which to draw reference if we are collaboratively to build our understanding of this most important facet of learning. For me one essential way of evaluating how effective our conceptual teachings are is to look at how learners transfer their understanding across subject boundaries and how their learning becomes part of everyday, real life interactions in thinking, problem solving and action. However, transfer can sometimes be elusive and does not necessarily happen at the end of a unit of work, it is not always readily assessed through the formal procedures and the tools we design to record them. Students do not automatically connect, apply, or extrapolate what they know to other learning contexts. So what foundations can we put in place to ensure we are dong the best we can to nurture conceptual understanding and seek its transfer to new contexts? Here is my attempt to map out a few strategies that work for me:

  1. Make transfer the big goal of conceptual teaching and learning – always have ideas in mind about how students can transfer their conceptual understandings and skills to new contexts.
  2. Concepts over content – think big picture not activities. The exploration of concepts during collaborative teacher planning sessions will lead to a multitude of activities that can be applied in the classroom – the activities will always take care of themselves!
  3. Less is more – working with fewer conceptual understandings means that you can use and extend the knowledge and skills students present in a meaningful, formative way – be mindful.
  4. Prior knowledge – Take the time to nurture student’s interest and avenues into the concepts you are teaching.
  5. Authentic assessment – map out the formative and summative assessment opportunities that are likely to arise through the teaching and learning experiences. Through these opportunities, challenge student’s misconceptions, stereotypes and tendencies toward rigid thinking.
  6. Levels of transfer – transfer can happen on a “near” level where contexts can be very similar, or transfer can happen on a “far” level where the context is more abstract and removed from the original learning, some learners are natural abstract thinkers, others are not.
  7. Think discriminatively – be measured about when opportunities arise for students to apply transfer, be mindful about when you can make it happen authentically, create opportunities for success and not failure.
  8. Value thinking, nurture it and make it visible – train and engage students in a variety of daily thinking routines, use Socratic questioning in discussions to connect new ideas with existing knowledge. Metacognition, metacognition, metacognition!!
  9. Nurture the potential of transfer in younger students – (EY- G1) value and reflect upon the meaning of children’s connections in collaboration with others. Make children’s connections visible and a part of discussion for other learners.
  10. Homework – getting students to apply what they are learning in class and explore the meaning of concepts to their own lives can provide rich and diverse opportunities for transfer. Infinitely more valuable than completing worksheets!

For more ideas on the transfer of learning see “ten tools for teaching transfer” or look up some of the writings of David Perkins.