Theory, Research and Conceptions of Curriculum for High Ability Learners: Key Findings, Issues and Debates
Liang See Tan and Keith Chiu Kian Tan
The intense global competition for talents and the development of the knowledge economy as well as advancements in learning sciences and instructional methods have brought about tremendous changes and possibilities in using and designing innovative curriculum and pedagogies in classrooms. Thus, ensuring school curriculum meets the needs of learners living in an increasingly complex, fast-changing and interactive world is a major concern for educators in almost all countries. In Singapore, curriculum initiatives such as the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN) and Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) attempt to strengthen teacher capacity to customise curriculum and instruction to engage the learners. Two major changes took place involving the high ability learners. In 2004, the Ministry of Education (MOE) implemented the Integrated Programme (IP) at the secondary level to enable schools with high ability learners to focus less on preparation for high-stakes examination and instead spend the time on opportunities that broaden their learning experience. Three years later, the MOE announced the extension of the Gifted Education Programme (GEP)-like curriculum to the next 4 % at the primary level (refer Neihart & Tan, 2016 for review). These initiatives require teachers to widen the scope of curriculum for high ability learners and provide classroom experiences that build deeper conceptual understanding and broader skills. Thus, a curriculum innovation such as the IP is arguably “a programme that is intentionally designed to engage learners in activities or events that will have educational benefits for them” (Eisner, 2001, p. 31) beyond the requirements of the high-stakes examination. Even as changes are taking place in differentiating curriculum to meet the needs of learners, with the increasing speed of change and the information explosion around the world, teaching with an emphasis on thinking (Alexander, 2001; Paul & Elder, 2003) and for building conceptual understanding has been heralded as an effective approach within many curriculum frameworks (Erickson, 2002; Tomlinson et al., 2002; VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006). There is therefore value in analysing and documenting the efforts in creating concept-based curriculum and pedagogies for high ability learners (HALs), both in the Singapore context and around the world. This is particularly important in the context of the continued use of standards-based and high-stakes examinations in educational systems in Asia and in other parts of the world.
This chapter aims to highlight the key findings, issues and debates in the field of curriculum and instruction for high ability learners, specifically in four key areas. Firstly, we explain the relations among the key elements that dictate curriculum development: (1) the intellectual characteristics of the high ability learners; (2) the curriculum principles, theories and models for high ability students; and (3) the intended student outcomes. Secondly, we explore the idea that concepts are fundamental to learning, how and why teaching for conceptual understanding results in deeper learning and how teaching for conceptual understanding is different from teaching concepts. Thirdly, we look at the complexities of understanding what a concept is across different disciplines. Finally, we focus on the tensions and challenges involved in designing and implementing concept-based curriculum. This first chapter also sets out useful definitions of the key terms such as “high ability” learner and “concept-based” curriculum that are used throughout this book.