From Theory to Practice
An Eclectic Approach to Concept-Based Curriculum Frameworks
As mentioned earlier, the design of the Raffles Programme involved principles from three frameworks—the Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM) (VanTassel-Baska & Wood, 2010), the Understanding by Design framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), as well as the concept-based unit design (Erickson, 2007). These frameworks contain key components or “organisers” that help in selecting and organising content that is meaningful for the learners and which answer questions such as “How important are certain concepts and skills?” and “How can we organise learning experience at suitably abstract levels to accommodate the capacities of gifted learners?”. They focus on the understanding of concepts, principles and transferable ideas that arise from the study of topics and facts, and because they are complementary to one another, RI decided to combine the three frameworks in 2013. Elements from all three frameworks were therefore included in the design of the unit of instruction featured in this chapter.
Because of the learners’ readiness for more advanced content material, content acceleration is often applied for the content mastery dimension, which focuses on the acquisition of skills and concepts within a domain of inquiry. This dimension is one of several curriculum dimensions that help to cultivate deep understanding of a discipline from the Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM) framework (VanTassel- Baska & Wood, 2010). For the concept-based units designed by the geography team in the RP, the high-ability Year One learners were ready to be taught content meant for upper secondary learners. The units were also designed with an emphasis on the acquisition of skills that aid in the development of a high-quality product—worksheets and tasks were designed to assist learners in their own construction of knowledge instead of merely focusing on facts. The advanced content knowledge, the manipulation of information at complex levels and the organisation of learning experiences around major issues, themes and ideas provided opportunities for higher order thinking and processing (VanTassel-Baska & Wood, 2010). This concept-based focus helps to alleviate the problem of content overload that learners often struggle with. This is especially important in the case of curriculum for HALs as there is a perception that such learners need a large amount of complex factual information in a discipline. The truth is, without the support of a conceptual framework, even highly motivated learners would struggle to remember all of the facts. In fact, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) posit that the focus in learning should be on the understanding of “big ideas” and core processes within the content standards. This approach is supported not just by Erickson (1998) but also Reeves (2002), who calls for a focus on transferable concepts and processes to prioritise content.
Another framework that was used in the design of the units is called Understanding by Design (UbD). This model focuses on identifying what the learning goals or desired outcomes are before designing a curriculum unit, assessment and classroom instruction. The approach is used for all the subjects in the RP because it enables teachers to think more conceptually and hence teach more conceptually. More relevant to our discussion of concept-based curriculum, the UbD approach also places much emphasis on concept-based “enduring understandings”, which are similar to what Erickson (2007) calls “generalisations”. In addition to essential understandings, another key feature of such an approach is the use of performance tasks for assessment. A performance task is one that demonstrates what learners must know, understand and be able to do in the unit. According to Wiggins and McTighe (1999), it is important to include a culminating performance task in a concept-based curriculum because the idea is to set up success by teaching with the end in mind.
Another framework that has had a huge influence in the design of the unit of instruction in this chapter is Erickson’s concept-based unit design (Erickson, 2007). In order for learning to go beyond factual content and related processes and skills, principles and concepts have to be incorporated too so that the curriculum becomes a concept-based three-dimensional one. This approach also allows for the scaffolding of thinking, which results in understandings with greater depth.
In short, elements of the three frameworks were included in the RP chiefly because a concept-based curriculum can not only help learners overcome the fear of tackling huge amounts of factual information, but more importantly, it can also help them achieve holistic learning through enhancing their ability to relate to complex real-life world issues. It provides more space for learners to explore, experiment and discover as they work with the concepts (instead of only facts) and the task of forming generalisations that make sense to them. There is of course the added advantage of allowing teachers greater flexibility with less prescription in the teaching and learning of the subject (Firth & Winter, 2007).