Concept-Based Curricula Development Sparks Teacher Agency: A Case Study

The Deleuzian insights about how teaching conceptually changes the teacher’s view of classroom learning extrapolate well to the real-world situation as in this case study of curriculum work taking place in a specialised school in Singapore (L. S. Tan & Ponnusamy, 2013). This case involves a school offering a 6-year programme for 13-18-year-old pupils - the first independent, pre-tertiary school that focuses on both arts and academic learning (MICA, 2004). The school’s leaders and teachers’ vision of a connected curriculum (Perkins, 1993) requires learning to be connected, so that lessons engage and stimulate deeper thought. The Singapore curriculum is commonly described as highly centralised (Ng, 2008), driven by high-stakes examinations (Hogan, 2014) and politically and pragmatically forged to meet nationbuilding needs (Kennedy, 2013). However, recent decentralisation efforts have spurred ground-up school-based initiatives to build capacity in schools and teachers for curriculum innovation (Koh, Ponnusamy, Tan, Lee, & Ramos, 2014; Tan & Ng, 2007). Hence, the curriculum in this case study school was spurred by the school’s and teachers’ aspirations to meet the specific developmental needs of aspiring students intending to develop their artistic and academic passions and trajectories. In specific units, teachers chose a concept-focused approach where they had to think deeply about the what, why and how of curriculum and how this heightened teacher agency is described next.

Firstly, teacher agency was visible when teachers had to design learning as conceptual and rhizomatic. The teachers in the units that were studied began to work in experimental modes, so that classroom learning was seen to lead to diverse ‘becomings’ for both learners and the teachers. Tan and Ponnusamy (2013) argue that in negotiating the accountability demands brought on by Singapore’s high-stakes examination system and ensuring learning was connected, teachers in their case study school created two kinds of curricula, the fixed and the fluid curriculum, and in this way resolved the pressures of constant experimentation. The teachers indicated that they had to focus on the fixed curricula, defined as that which contained the codified subject knowledge determined by the examining board. However, the school and its teachers also created a fluid curriculum defined as curricula that emphasised linkages and interactions between the learners’ specialised needs, current interests and the academic subject matter, so that learning activities were primarily focused on interpretation, meaning-making and the expression of originality. Thus, whilst the fixed curricula directed the what, how and when of classroom learning for students, teachers also created specialised units of learning to allow for the constant exploration of novel connections between the different disciplines. Hence, Tan and Ponnusamy (2013) describe teachers’ accounts of lessons that require connections of ideas across different disciplines. The fixed and fluid curricula were used by the teachers iteratively in different contexts to address varying needs and they anchored the larger school curriculum vision of connectedness. More importantly, the iterative use of the fixed and fluid curricula featured greater integration of diverse knowledge. This favoured meaning-making and reinterpretation of concepts and ideas by both students and teachers - a case of experimentation and diverse ‘becoming’. Hence, the development and implementation of the units called on agentic behaviours such as conducting lesson as ‘experiments’ with different permutations of concepts and thought processes, both within and across different disciplines.

The case study also found that in designing concept-based curriculum units, teachers needed to be able to work in interdisciplinary teams and envisage learning as happening beyond the traditional boundaries of subject matter that dictate classroom instruction. The teachers’ actions of creating curricula were therefore focused on producing abstract and interdisciplinary conceptualisations in the minds of the learners and counter the emergence of fragile forms of knowledge (Perkins, 1992). Teachers proceeded to look beyond a single curricular experience for students and to use concepts as a way to constantly frame and reframe learning. Using Actor- Network Theory (ANT) (Callon, 1986; Mol, 2010) as a framework to guide the analysis, the study found that a complex web of networks between human and nonhuman actors resulted in and affected teachers’ agentic behaviours. Actors in each network were found to actively convince other members so that there were common definitions of concepts at the heart of the designed curriculum unit. Hence, as the Deleuzian ideal of using the concept is seen as a way of understanding the world, teachers work on the concept-focused curriculum units and take the learners’ present and future understanding and ‘becomings’ into consideration. For the teachers, concept focus of the curricula allowed teachers to traverse their own limiting and demotivating beliefs about the nature and importance of their own subject knowledge (Meirink, Meijer, Verloop, & Bergen, 2009). Such a change provided opportunities to review teachers’ current and longer-term aspirations for learning, drawing on the practical and projective aspects of Priestley, Biesta and Robinson’s (2013) ecological model of teacher agency. Clearly, developing concept-based curricula catalysed deeper changes to the teachers’ actions and attitudes towards student learning and galvanised teacher agency.

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