Shift in Pedagogical Habits For many teachers, curriculum reform can be disconcerting as it may require them to unravel their tried-and-tested practices.
The challenges in shifting to a concept-based curriculum include the following:
- • How to identify enduring understandings
- • How to frame enduring understandings in terms of abstract and transferable ideas
- • How to harness appropriate strategies to uncover the understandings
Teachers may tend to view factual knowledge and subject-based process skills as the ends in themselves in lesson planning and delivery. So, a typical concern is that teaching for the Big Ideas may compromise content coverage and skill acquisition. Teachers also need to think more deeply about their pedagogy so as to organise their instruction in ways that uncover the intended conceptual understandings. Without this alignment between the intended outcomes and instruction, a technically taut unit plan may remain true in theory but not in practice.
However, many teachers have also come to appreciate the value of a concept- based curriculum in enabling students to make meaning out of the voluminous body of facts and data. For instance, the then Science Head of Department, says:
Science is about making sense of what is happening around us. It is important to have a systematic approach to making observations and gathering data. By using a system of classification, we piece information together to develop concepts. These concepts interact and overlap to form bigger concepts. For example, under the topic on Optics, through observations of light, concepts like Reflection and Refraction are uncovered so that we make sense of the phenomenon of light in the real world.
Clearly, such an approach to teaching the discipline requires a paradigm change. The Mathematics Head recalled how the mathematics teachers had to rethink the teaching of the discipline in terms of how they uncover the key concepts that can be applied to the real world and harness appropriate strategies to achieve these outcomes. For instance, they have to plan how to get their students to uncover the assumptions that underlie mathematics formula instead of merely using them to solve the problem. The Head of Mathematics Department defines this shift in thinking as ‘sense making’, for both teachers and students.
Monitoring We cannot assume that a school-wide approach to a concept-based curriculum automatically sustains standards in unit planning and implementation. An evolving and dynamic school context can put pressure on prevailing beliefs about curriculum design. When significant curriculum players leave the school, they also take away with them their practical knowledge and expertise so priceless to organisational culture. Thus, amidst the typical flux and flow of school, curriculum leaders have to consistently communicate the organisational intentions and aspirations for teaching and learning. We may put review processes in place, but they matter for little if we do not monitor whether the data is relevant or harnessed for improvements and whether we enforce the norms and reward good practices. There is no running away from basic supervision and evaluation processes like unit plan submissions, file checks, lesson observations and work review sessions where both curriculum leaders and teachers are held accountable for curriculum integrity. Such monitoring requires a significant investment of resources and resoluteness. But it is necessary because tardiness in doing so can lead to professional sluggishness.
Curriculum Integration and Interdisciplinarity An intended outcome of the concept-based curriculum is curriculum integration which can take place in three different forms:
- • Multidisciplinary: Teachers organise the different disciplines around a conceptual understanding.
- • Interdisciplinary: Teachers organise the curriculum or unit of study around a conceptual understanding to emphasise interdisciplinary skills and big ideas.
- • Transdisciplinary: Teachers organise the curriculum or unit of study around student questions and problem identification (Drake & Burns, 2004).
In RGS, some teachers have adopted a multidisciplinary approach to explore a theme or concept. For instance, a team of social studies and English language teachers designed a performance task on Advocacy for Year 3 students. This approach keeps the disciplines as distinct entities.
We have not truly optimised the potential for interdisciplinary learning. As mentioned earlier, Professor VanTassel-Baska noted little evidence of curriculum integration in her review of our documents. For instance, although the macroconcept of ‘system’ is widely used across the disciplines, there is scant evidence of interdisciplinary learning around this concept. In the same way, although the concept of ‘energy’ is integral to the Sciences, its potential for transference across the Sciences is not evident. Our review processes reveal that even in research studies, which offer the most natural platform for such learning, the potential for integration is still a work in progress. Challenges to interdisciplinary learning include curriculum structures where subjects are taught in silos, with their own scope and sequence. Nevertheless, its potential merits scrutiny. One platform that the school can optimise is the performance task which is currently integral to its assessment framework. As the performance task requires students to apply their conceptual understanding to a real-world context, it gives much scope for interdisciplinary perspectives to problem-solving.