Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Conquering the content - The IB approach

This week is my grade level parent information evening. When preparing my presentation, I usually provide the parents with an insight into the surface actions of my classroom - the day to day teaching that they see when they come in (or get told about by their children). Last year I was caught off guard by some parents who wanted to know more about the philosophical underpinnings of the curriculum that we frame our teaching around. This year I plan on having a more coherent explanation on hand for curious parents and have been brushing up on some related readings. I've referenced the following paragraphs with the sources that I used.

Students are currently learning in an environment that is commonly referred to as the ‘digital revolution’. Increased technologies and global interdependence requires greater intellectual and academic standards that have been previously required (Erickson, L., 2008). In order to accomplish this, curriculum design must consider alternative approaches. Traditional curriculum design focuses on content coverage and often fails to emphasis higher-level, lasting ideas that are universal by nature and application (Erickson, L., 2008). It is these conceptual ideas that bring focus and depth to a study and hold the solution to the increased academic and intellectual standards that are required in today’s age. Curricula with a focus on content instead of concepts fail to engage students at a high cognitive level. A concept-led curriculum encourages students to connect the factual knowledge that they have gained to other ‘big ideas’ of significance (Erickson, L., 2008). When this happens students discover personal meaning and can see relevance in their learning. They have a greater motivation to learn because they are engaged on a more personal level.

A concept is defined as being timeless, universal and abstract (Erickson, L., 2008). It is these aspects that allow them to be applied at various times and in various contexts throughout a student’s education. This links directly with a transdisciplinary approach to learning. By studying subjects in isolation, students pick up isolated facts and ideas. While it is important to become knowledgeable in separate academic subjects, in order to a more authentic understanding students must be given opportunities to connect their knowledge across disciplines (Boyer, E. 1995). Furthermore, brain research has revealed that learning at its optimum is an ‘integrative function’ of synthesizing, organizing and processing parts of information into a whole (Caine, R. & Caine, G., 1990).

The PYP framework is organized around six transdisciplinary themes. These were developed from Boyer’s work on The Core Commonalities, which are universal experiences that are shared by all people (Boyer, E. 1995). Boyer states that all traditional subjects have a place within the Core Commonalities and, by linking learning across these disciplines, students can make personal connections to their learning and achieve greater understandings (Boyer, E. 1995). The learning in a PYP classroom is structured in this way and complimented by being delivered in a guided, concept-led approach. This allows for greater analysis, evaluation and investigation as the students consider the transferrable possibilities of the inquiry.

Boyer, Ernest. L. (1995) The Basic School: A community for Learning. San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass Inc.

Erickson, H. Lynn (1998) Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum Instruction and Concept-Based Learning - Third Edition. Corwin Press.

Caine, R. & Caine, G. (1990) Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 66 - 70. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Big Picture

The New South Wales Government has recently decided to postpone the introduction of the Australian National Curriculum by a year. They claim that the reason for taking this action is so that they can arrange to offer appropriate professional development to all staff. The NSW says it will cost around $80 million over four years to implement the curriculum and provide professional development to teachers. The Federal Government has failed to provide funding for this development and so the decision has been made to postpone the implementation.

Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Education, has expressed disappointment at the delay and believes that 'there is no justifiable reason for the 11th hour backdown'. He doesn't believe that this is viable excuse and suggested that the NSW Government was shirking it's responsibilities in implementing the curriculum.

Last Friday a group of leaders at my school participated in an exercise that helped us to define the most dominant aspects of our individual leadership styles. There were four options:

  • North - are innovators and like to take action and get things going;
  • South - like to ensure that everyone's voice has been heard before making a decision;
  • East - aim to see the big picture before putting a plan into action;
  • West - like tick all the boxes and know every detail about the effects of the action before proceeding.
It was noted that leaders generally exhibit aspects of all four options but the task asked us to choose which one was most dominant. This helps us and others to understand how we work and what barriers we may face when working with different styles.

It seems Mr. Garrett has more of a 'North' leadership style in that he is obviously keen to get the curriculum into action. Unfortunately, he has failed to recognise one of the most important parts of what I referred to previously as 'The How' in curriculum development. Professional development of staff is a key part of effectively implementing a curriculum and adequate provisions must be made to allow for this. If this is not provided a curriculum runs the risk of falling short in the provision of quality education for its students. If this is to be the 'highest quality curriculum in the country', as Mr. Garrett claims, it is important to ensure that it is appropriately implemented.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Question Time

I have, on occasion, presented with my students with a set of facts so utterly ridiculous that they are beyond belief. Invariably they accept everything that I tell them - despite how silly it sounds. I use these instances as ways of introducing the importance of critical thinking and questioning skills.

Developing critical thinking skills in order to question the sources of our information is a key part of our learning in the 21st century. Compared to 50, 20 or even 10 years ago, information is available from many more and varied sources. When I was in primary school (not too long ago!) my peers and I would gather information primarily from encyclopedias or other subject specific books. An author must complete a lengthy and specific process in order to become published and this process verifies the information they are presenting in their work. Today, there are means available that allow people to publish any information they like without having to go through the same processes (take this blog, for example).

This is a fantastic way for sharing ideas but it highlights the importance for us to be able to decipher which information is important or not important, true or false, biased or non-biased. I believe that a school and classroom environment should be created that encourages, not shuns, this sort of behaviour. Students need to feel safe in order to develop the confidence to question the relevance and sources of their information. When this happens, they are not only able to delve deeper into their own inquiries, they are also further developing the skills required to be lifelong learners. They are learning how to learn.

Last year at my school we have had several guest speakers come to talk to parents, students and teachers. There were a variety of interesting topics I have had mixed feelings about some of them. I was glad to hear that some of the High School students challenged one of the speakers when he took questions from the audience. They realised that the presenter was providing them with information that was not balanced and was very selective with it's references - using only evidence that supported his case and ignoring that which challenged it. Some students were able to listen to what was being presented to them, relate it to their own beliefs and challenge in an appropriate manner. To be able to apply these skills in different contexts is vital in today's information rich age and it is great to hear that some of our students have the confidence to do this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Old Fashioned?

An Australian research project has shown that teaching children ''old-fashioned'' behaviour at the same time they learn to read can dramatically improve literacy, particularly among students who have been struggling.

The report states that integrating positive attitudes and behaviours for learning, such as confidence, persistence, working in teams and getting along with others, helps to prepare students for the challenges they will inevitably face - even learning something they think is boring. If teachers can develop students' positive attitudes and behaviours for learning, they become better learners and this makes teaching them much easier.

I find this report somewhat bewildering. I don't believe that it is correct to label these attitudes/behaviours/dispositions as old-fashioned. What makes them old-fashioned? When I think of something as old-fashioned I imagine something that was used or valued in a previous time or generation, such as using a typewriter. Is the author trying to state that they are not considered important or taught in this day and age at all?

The social-emotional development of a child is something that the PYP places great importance on. The Learner Profile and Attitudes aspects of the framework combine to place a huge emphasis on the development of the whole child. I certainly agree that they are important to foster within our students but to make a value judgement on teaching and say that these are not being addressed undermines the fantastic work that some teachers do every day.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Real Thing

I recently read two articles from Australian newspapers that I found interesting.

The first was discussing the inclusion of 'consumer and financial literacy' in the new Australian National Curriculum. The push for this comes from the Financial Literacy Foundation - a 'taskforce' set up in 2004 to determine the state of the nation's ability to negotiate the world of commerce. The group discovered inadequacies in financial management and a national strategy was hastily established to address them.

Board member Elaine Henry states: 'Young people are not sufficiently trained in key building blocks of commerce' and that 'too few people understand their rights and obligations and are not comfortable with basic economic principles'. Fundamental issues surrounding money management have been taught in schools on and off over the years but there has been no solid commitment to it. This is being addressed and ''consumer and financial literacy'' will become a significant component of the national curriculum.

The second article talks about student drop out rates of maths because it is being taught in ways that are 'out of touch' with the real world. Professor Peter Sullivan - of Monash University - claims that the repeated practice of similar examples that can often be seen in schools is both boring and restrictive, and that as mathematics becomes content heavy (typically around grade 8 and 9) many students become disengaged.

Prof. Sullivan advocates for "a different approach to teaching; something that is going to engage the students instead of just being process-driven.'' He goes on to say that, "Mathematics is part of the world and we need to use it in flexible ways, so that students in school get a chance to solve problems, make decisions and use mathematics to come to understand the world.''

In my opinion, these two articles go hand in hand. Mathematics is a major part of the 'real world' and should be taught in ways that promote its use in this way. Students need skills and knowledge to show understanding, and there are building blocks of mathematical knowledge and certain skills that must be mastered before they can be applied to contextual problems. Just as it can be easy for teachers to fall into the trap of over-focussing on skills and not providing enough opportunities for real-life application, it can be just as easy to ask students to demonstrate their understanding without allowing them the appropriate time for skill development. A balance needs to be attained.

Consumer and financial literacy could be easily integrated with real world scenarios and problems (eg. saving, credit, percentages, insurance, banking, shopping and interest). This shouldn't only be limited to mathematics though. Advertising, contracts and policies (to name a few) could all be examined in classes such as English and the economics branch of Social studies. The opportunities for real world integration are many and varied and teachers should look for appropriate times to include these in their teaching wherever and whenever possible.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Curriculum - Part VI

The final part of THE HOW is concerned with how the Leadership creates and maintains culture within a school and also how the school is managed to ensure that the curriculum is being implemented.

In order to become a learning-focused school, there are several factors that need to become embedded in the culture of a school and support curriculum coherence. In order for culture to develop, effective leadership is required. This involves initiating the core competencies highlighted in my previous post (moral purpose; understanding change; relationship and knowledge building; coherence making).

The factors that support a culture of authentic achievement include:
  • Shared norms and values
  • Focus on student learning
  • Reflective dialogue
  • Deprivatisation of practice
  • Collaboration
The goal for the leadership team is to make these factors implicit everyday for the school.

The Management involves creating and maintaining effective structures and processes for the allocation of people (P), time (T) and resources (R) to achieve the school's mission through the implementation. These structures and processes can include systems such as:
  • Job descriptions (P)
  • Meeting agendas and schedules (T)
  • Team structure and hierarchy (P)
  • Purchasing systems (R)
  • Professional development opportunities/systems (P)
  • Budget allocation (R)
  • Strategic planning (T)
  • Coaching and mentoring (P)
  • Physical space - eg. facilities and materials (R)
  • Hiring policies (P)
  • Timetable structure (T)
  • Appraisal system (P)
Leadership can never be effective without good management

During the creation of a culture, leaders need to consider the factors that may affect curriculum implementation. These can occur at a school level and include things such as:
  • The personality, relationships, knowledge and skills of leaders.
  • Whether or not the school community believes students will or won't be disadvantage by curriculum changes.
  • The flexibility of the curriculum design.
They can also occur at a teacher level and include things such as:
  • Teacher beliefs and values.
  • Subject knowledge (essential teacher readings are a good way to develop this).
  • Disposition towards reflection
  • Pedagogical content knowledge (how do students learn?).
  • Willingness to share and collaborate with colleagues.
  • Level of influence with other faculty members.
When all of the elements addressed in my posts combine, a coherent curriculum can be achieved. A coherent curriculum is the key to the alignement of vision, mission, learning targets, pedagogy and assessment. I would like to thank Gordon Eldridge and Sasha Marshall of the PTC for leading a thoroughly informative workshop on curriculum leadership, from which I synthesised much of this information.