Challenges and Issues
So what have I learned from the research findings and practical experiences when working with practitioners in schools?
In the UK, the Cambridge Review of Primary Education (Alexander, 2010) reported that curriculum breadth is incompatible with the pursuit of standards in ‘the basics’—numeracy and literacy. Government policies for the past decade have stressed more time be spent on literacy and numeracy, which has led to an increasing emphasis on standardised assessment and teacher accountability for student outcomes rather than focussing on curriculum design. This narrowing of the curriculum works against school-based curriculum making and concept-based curriculum integration attempts.
A major challenge for integrative concept-based curriculum is teachers’ comfort level with the efficacy of assessment practices. Veronica Boix-Mansilla and Gardner (2008) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education refer to assessment as the ‘Achilles heel’ of interdisciplinary education, resonating with the teachers’ experiences with the Reality Bites unit. Questions asked by the teaching team included ‘How does one actually assess across the subject areas?’ and ‘How does the performance of learning across disciplines transfer to a report grade?’ In the primary school, assessment is generally less of an issue as teachers are more conversant with working across the disciplines and designing tasks that assess several learning areas, viewing this as strategic practice. But without an endpoint assessment destination in mind, ‘any old road will get you there’ as Wiggins and McTighe argue (2005, p. 14). Defining the assessment first means that learning experiences can then be planned accordingly.
A backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) approach required by the IB’s PYP and MYP planners, where planning of the assessment is undertaken prior to planning the learning experiences, is a sound starting point. But there is no silver bullet—a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment for curriculum integration. It is indeed challenging to create a summative assessment task that is respectful of the disciplines and embraces the concept of interdisciplinary learning (Godinho & Abbott, 2011) which will reveal whether or not learning outcomes/goals were achieved, in addition to undertaking formative, ongoing student assessments. Regardless of good planning, the endpoint assessment can be short-changed given time issues both at primary and secondary levels, such as activities taking longer than anticipated and unforeseen circumstances.
The challenge for teachers is to ensure that appropriate assessment is thoughtfully planned and implemented. But more importantly, the reporting of assessment should not be at the expense of achieving cross-curricular potential, a risk that Yates et al. (2011) have identified. The experience of Queensland’s New Basics project is a reminder that assessment must not become too complex. Here the Rich Tasks that formed the assessment of students’ learning dominated and de-emphasised the focus on highly innovative curriculum and pedagogical approaches (Weir, 2005) that supported a concept-based integrated curriculum.