Teachers’ Beliefs and Perceptions of Concept-Based Curriculum Design
Given the multiple approaches to curriculum integration, the snapshot examples of concept-based integrative curriculum are taken from Australian primary and secondary schools where there has been continuity of their programmes over time and where teachers have a deep understanding of the associated pedagogies and guiding principles.
Primary teachers, usually being generalists, rather than subject-specific teachers, are less inclined to be trapped within the subject/disciplinary boundaries. However, Kath Murdoch (2007), who has published educational resources and provided professional development for teachers around concept-based integrative curriculum for the past two decades, notes that the intention is more often to ‘cover’ curriculum rather than ‘uncover’ deep learning. Perhaps, this can be attributed to primary teachers not having a sufficiently deep understanding of the breadth of disciplinary concepts or time constraints when there are so many learning areas or subjects to address.
For some schools, electronic unit planners and/or templates have assisted teaching teams to engage with a concept-based curriculum. Inter@ct Schools, an online planning resource (Dressing & Green, 2012), provides teachers with a template that supports the development and implementation of a spiral curriculum around eight macroconcepts (identity, sustainability, social justice, creativity, community, change, necessity and curiosity) and produces prepared units of work that teachers can modify and refine for their own needs. Similarly, IB schools use a template to guide teachers in planning around the key concept/s that will focus the students’ learning experiences.
While teachers may claim online tools and IB templates assist their planning, curriculum content only becomes realised through teachers’ deep understanding of what students are required to learn and how productively students are engaged through the pedagogies they enact. This also applies to the use of published integrated units (e.g. Wilson & Wing Jan, 2003) or unit samples provided on websites (e.g. ACARA, 2013; Australian Academy of Science, 2016).
The importance of a pedagogic curriculum perspective (Grundy, 1998) is cogently illustrated in a retrospective study of a teacher’s approach to curriculum integration (Godinho & Imms, 2011). Drawing on this multidisciplinary example enacted over 45 years ago reveals that attempts to make learning connected and cohesive are not a recent phenomenon but have sustained their currency with progressive teachers.
In 1965, Margaret Richmond converted her classroom, situated in a government school and located at the coastal town of Devonport, Tasmania, into a ship sailing around the world. Each child was given a daily shipboard task, and the SS Discovery ‘visited’ countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, with the children building models, creating artworks, reading stories and role-playing historical events relevant to each port visited.
Although concepts and big ideas were not documented explicitly, indicative of a multidisciplinary curriculum, and therefore this could be perceived as a weakness of Margaret’s approach, a genuine attempt was made to make learning more connected and relevant to these children’s lives through crossing subject/disciplinary divides by using the conceptual lens of place and space, change, customs and rituals.
The rare opportunity to interview five former students revealed that the rigour of the learning and the engagement level in this class provided strong foundations for their primary years. Analysis of work samples according to current ACARA Achievement Standards for English in Year 3 showed that English literacy practices were enriched, not diluted by her rich pedagogies. Writing samples showed that while studying geography, humanities and the arts, the Year 2 students were acquiring knowledge about the English language, developing an appreciation of literature and building a repertoire of English usage which inspired them to write fluently, creatively and confidently. This experience differs from recent observations of integrated studies in primary classes, where curriculum integration is generally relegated to the afternoon classes with no attempt to explore concepts as part of the numeracy and literacy blocks when relevant to do so; thus, learning remains fragmented rather than holistic.
When pressed to theorise her approach to teaching, Margaret Richmond insisted ‘What is most important is the relationship you have with each child. I was always devising ways to interact with each individual child’. This primary connection with the children accords with Fig. 1 that places the students at the centre of the curriculum planning dynamic Margaret expressed gratitude that in this period, there were not the curriculum constraints and mandatory high-stakes testing, giving her the freedom to develop school-based curriculum that was relevant and meaningful and met the children’s learning needs. These comments resonate with those of Dr Pasi Sahlberg, Director General, Ministry of Education, Finland, who attributes his country’s sustained success in the OECD’s PISA ranking, in part, to empowering teachers to engage in school-based curriculum making and having, what he terms trust-based responsibility before test-based accountability (Sahlberg, 2012).
Importantly, the case study reveals a focus on what students are actively and cognitively doing when using conceptual learning: productively gathering and analysing information, reviewing new information against existing knowledge, seeking connections and relations between ideas, noticing patterns and throughout this process refining, deepening or modifying existing concepts and building new ones.
The rationale and approach taken by Ringwood Heights Primary School in Victoria affirm the effectiveness of a school-based curriculum that is integrated and concept based. With a reputation as a lighthouse school for its curriculum integration programmes, the deputy principal and special education teacher introduced an integrated unit with several groups of low-achieving literacy students, using a web resource, The Venom Patrol (The University of Melbourne, 2011). The resource, developed around venomous animals and the prevention and treatment of their bites and stings, resonated with the students who were able to draw on their personal experiences with venomous animals to deepen their understanding of the concepts’ cause and effect. This generated engagement not only with the science content knowledge but with the development of multiliteracy skills required for processing information and transforming their new knowledge into presentation format to show their peers (Molyneux & Godinho, 2012). The range of multimodal literacy activities included:
- • Screen-based text reading of the venom rating chart to identify a dangerous or deadly animal.
- • Identifying the main idea and then adding details to create a descriptive profile of the animal.
- • Participating in the quiz ‘Amazing Facts about Venomous Animals’ that required students to read the venom rating data chart, use the resource’s glossary and hyperlink between screen sites to locate information.
- • Producing PowerPoint presentations about The Venom Patrol for others to access. In some instances, students incorporated filmed interviews and comments about their own experiences with venomous animals (Fig. 2).
What was evidenced was ‘the holistic nature of multimodal literacy’ (Walsh, 2011, p. 29) afforded by a powerful digital media resource. This enabled students to investigate, research, record and create emphasising the integral relationship between science and literacy. Like Margaret Richmond, the staff at Ringwood Heights Primary School also saw the potential of rich content and concepts that were relevant and connected with their students’ lives as the impetus for developing essential literacy skills. It was the conceptual lens of cause and effect that facilitated the curriculum connections and assisted in deepening the students’ understanding of venomous animals. Moreover, these concepts fostered interdisciplinary skills such as curiosity, collaboration, communication and the justification of new information, time management, responsibility, sense of purpose, persistence and reflection, ownership and self- and peer assessment all of which are transferable when researching other topics. Such interdisciplinary skills build more effective and efficient learners
Fig. 2 The Venom Patrol home page
in crowded curricula at the primary level or subject teaching at secondary level which is atomised.