One of the constant tensions of recent years in education is the debate between teaching ‘content’ and teaching ‘concepts’ to our young learners. Since the Industrial Revolution, many national systems have been organized into a series of content-based steps, with students regularly assessed on each of these steps and words like rigorous and thorough being the key descriptors. The assessments used are designed to test the facts that have been delivered to the students over a given number of lessons. The lowest age for this testing to begin is drifting lower all the time and I feel we need to step back and look at what young children need, what they thrive doing and what they enjoy.
The problem with this content based approach to education in the current age is that if you want to ‘know’ something, for example “what day did the Thirty Years War end”, you do what I just did and look it up on the internet; within a few seconds you have your answer, 24th October 1648. This raises the rather worrying question of what then is the purpose of schooling, in the traditional sense, if we are simply delivering facts and asking students to regurgitate them back to us within a standardised test.
However having information at your fingertips does not give us everything we need to know as successful members of society in the 21st Century. If instead we ask the question “Why did the Thirty Years war start” then we will find a number of answers that do not agree and we need skills to determine which is reliable. We need information literacy skills, we need empathy, we need research skills and we also need some facts.
The other thing we need is to understand the broader concepts of communities, relationships and perspective that underpin the facts of the matter. If we help our students to understand these concepts and to have the skills they need to develop their own understanding, then they will be able to not just answer a simple question about facts but they will be able to understand the wider questions of the world and to apply their understanding into future or unfamiliar contexts, for example ‘how might we prevent a war in……’
The Primary Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate is a programme which is based on the development of learning skills in an inquiry driven and transdisciplinary way through a focus on concepts. The program has six transdisciplinary themes
- Who we are
- Where we are in place and time
- How we express ourselves
- How the world works
- How we organise ourselves
- Sharing the planet
Students have six week long units inquiring into each of these themes in every year of the program. Through these units of inquiry students develop skills, attitudes and knowledge and take action to improve their own community or in the wider global context. The concepts that underpin all of these themes are
- Form (what is it like?)
- Function (how does it work?)
- Causation (why is it like it is?)
- Change (How is it changing)
- Connection (How is it connected to other things?)
- Perspective (What are the points of view?)
- Responsibility (What is our responsibility?)
- Reflection (How do we know?)
These concepts are explicitly identified in the units of inquiry and the students are aware of them directly aiding them in constructing the links which are required to develop a conceptual understanding of an area of the curriculum. This means they can use this understanding of a concept in multiple contexts and in different areas of the traditional curriculum, change in music and in mathematics as an example.
The challenge with a conceptually driven approach is that the content approach of teaching facts and testing them is very easy. It makes kids (and parents in particular!) happy as they feel in a safe place. They know exactly what they need to know and they go about doing it. They learn a set of 20 words each week and then are tested on them. They learn 50 more sums or one more multiplication table and then are tested on that. This gives an illusion of constant progress. It also means schools, districts and governments can report back easily on the progress of students. Everybody is happy!
However, I believe the skills and knowledge required by students now, those which will make them into happy, caring, globally minded and successful individuals, require a different approach to education. We need to encourage them to be problem solvers, good communicators, capable researchers and, above all, inquirers.
On a recent visit to the UK, I spoke to one of my nieces about her school and what she is doing; she is the same age as my own daughter. I was very surprised by the vocabulary and writing skills she possessed, they seemed in advance of my own daughter. This produces that all too familiar, and on occasion insuppressible, feeling of ‘I must push harder’ or ‘Why is she behind’. However on closer inspection, and talking more with my niece, I could see clearly that the words she used and the writing that she was doing did not particularly interest her and, when asked ‘why are you learning all these words in this list’, there was no reason. She did not feel connected to it.
I am not immune to these parental urges; as a practitioner and during the early years education of my own daughter I was often fretting about the progress in her vocabulary or letter formation or number skills. However, watching her now, so excited and driven by her own inquiries into various questions and the amazing development of vocabulary or writing that comes with such speed when a child wants to acquire these skills for themselves and apply them based in a conceptual understanding of the world is a wonderful thing.
I am convinced that if we want to produce successful, healthy and, above all, happy members of a society (which will have a structure and requirements we can only imagine) we must prepare them as best we can and this is through a conceptually framed and inquiry-led approach to curriculum.
Jacob Martin – Director of Teaching and Learning, International School of Zug and Luzern
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