Whose Culture? Whose Curriculum?

Culture before curriculum

Denis Lawton, in Class, Culture and the Curriculum (1975), defines culture as everything that has been created by humans in society, including tools, technology, language, literature, attitudes and values: the whole way of life. He suggests that school curriculum “…is essentially a selection from the culture of a society.

Certain aspects of our way of life, certain kinds of knowledge, certain attitudes and values are regarded so important that their transmission to the next generation is not left to chance in society but is entrusted to specially-trained professionals (teachers) in elaborate and expensive institutions (schools).

Most developed countries have some semblance of a national curriculum: a set of state-defined standards for attitudes, skills, content that they insist on their children learning before they leave school. These national curricula may go so far as to stipulate precise content, perpetuating the idea that syllabus and curriculum are synonymous. Typically the aim of this is create a viable and useful workforce and maintain their cultural values. In the national context their curriculum makes sense, at least to those in charge.

What happens when we transplant a curriculum into an international setting? 

Many international schools sell the products of internationally-recognised qualifications: iGCSE, SAT, AP or even straight translations of a country or state’s standards. Some trade on their element of being ‘British’ or ‘American’ oases of educational values in the middle of their overseas host cities. Of course these serve a population of expats who wish to return home for higher education, but often they are marketing a Hogwarts-style ideal to wealthy local clientelle. The curriculum ignores the culture.

In the past I have been an EFL teacher, working with students on IELTS and ToEFL test preparation. I see students here prepare for SAT and AP tests in their own time, with the aim of applying to US universities. I have issues with any education which is geared only to test preparation for testing’s sake, but having read more about culture and the curriculum I see that these qualifications are limited also by an ignorance of the student’s culture.

The culture they promote is that of the destination. I found in my ToEFL test classes years ago that the questions tested more than language – they were testing a student’s familiarity with US culture and history. Was this fair? Were they sacrificing genuine validity for easy mass-marking reliability? I quickly grew to prefer the IELTS preparation as being more process-based and holistic as a language qualification, with less of an overt destination culture-specific bias.


Visualising the Curriculum

As we know, there are many types of curriculum and diverse elements within: formal vs informal, overt vs hidden and so on. In one of the tasks for this section of the unit, I am asked to think about a simple diagrammatic representation of curriculum, which places two circles (Academic and Pastoral) above a line which divides the ‘explicit, formal, overt‘ curriculum (above) from the ‘implicit, informal, hidden‘ curriculum below. A well-balanced holistic curriculum would, I think, aim to put all of the important knowledge, values and attitudes above the line; to at least make them a visible and tangible aspect of a school ethos even if they cannot be explicitly ‘taught’. It would not have a separation between academic and pastoral realms of teaching, as we aim to educate the whole person.

Would it instead look like the MYP octagon?

MYP Curriculum Framework
MYP Curriculum Framework, from http://www.ibo.org/myp/curriculum/

The diagram places the learner (not the ‘student’) at the centre, around whom education is built. Closest to the learner is the Learner Profile – the defined attributes (attitudes and values) which are deemed the desired outcome of IB education in terms of the learner’s development. Surrounding these are the Areas of Interaction (Global Contexts, soon), which are an attempt to place learning in a universal context: Health and Social Education, Communities & Service and so on. Through the Learner Profile and the Areas of Interaction we are bringing the academic and the pastoral together.

The content – in the form of eight connected subject areas – is placed around the outside. These are the vehicles for delivery of the types of knowledge, attitudes and skills. Content does not come first, instead it is informed by the context for learning. As the MYP moves into the Next Chapter, key concepts within each subject area will be defined as universal understandings in that discipline. However, it is unlikely that the MYP would try to define a set syllabus of content.


MYP: Curriculum as a selection of whose culture?

If we see the MYP framework, the IB’s Mission and the missions, core values and ethos of our own schools as ways of defining the types of knowledge, attitudes and skills we want to develop in our students, then from whose culture is this curriculum really taking a selection?

I think it is important here to reinforce the idea that the MYP is a framework, not a syllabus. Lawton emphasises that curriculum designers should first analyse the culture before deciding what it is important to teach, but that whatever the culture, there are universal systems which exist within that culture: socio-political, economic, communication, rationality, technology, morality, belief and aesthetic. To what extent does a national curriculum reflect these systems in the form of syllabus – explicit cultural content which must be taught?

As a framework, then, the MYP seeks to promote the culture of internationalism (or perhaps as appropriately cosmopolitanism). By not becoming a syllabus, it allows itself to be used as the framework upon which more local culture-specific content may be hung. Ideally its students can develop a greater appreciation for the learning journey in a global context yet still become ‘useful’ citizens in the eyes of their country’s educational policymakers.

Of course now we raise more questions about the MYP, culture and curriculum.

  • The Learner Profile is a set of defined traits to be used in all IB World schools. To what extent are these appropriate in each of the stakeholder cultures? Do cultures exist where local beliefs or systems run counter some or all of the Learner Profile attributes? For example, are ‘principled’ ‘inquirers’ really appreciated in a system which traditionally uses curriculum as a tool of power?
  • To what extent are the explicit and implicit elements of the MYP a reflection of western culture more than other nations? How is this likely to become more or less enhanced as the MYP moves into the Next Chapter, with more explicit guidance to teachers and and increased reliability of assessment?
  • To what extent is the ‘product’ of IB education a reflection of globalisation in the economic sense as well as (or counter to) internationalism as a set of peace-related values? For more information on this, see Dr. James Cambridge’s presentation on SlideServe.
  • What is the true role of subject-specific standards if they are adopted as a guide to the content which should be taught in a class? Who determines what ‘high-school level’ content really is? Is this driven by university entry requirement backwash and preparation for high-stakes examinations in the IB Diploma? Whose culture do these standards reflect? By selecting standards are we (explicitly or implicitly) imposing our own cultural biases on a school that might be a far throw from our own formative experiences? Is it appropriate then to adapt adopted standards to suit the MYP, the ethos and mission of the school, the local and international context?

As you can see, all this reading is generating more and more questions!



Lawton, Denis: Class, Culture and the Curriculum (1975)

Bath MA International Education resources: Curriculum Studies


EDIT: I saw this image posted by Camo and Crooked on Twitter and thought it related well to this post and to the comment made by Micah below. We need to be really careful when we design our curriculum that we are aware of our cultural limitations and that what we as curriculum designers intend to communicate is clearly and correctly understood by all the stakeholders.

Gross! by Camo & Crooked in BurgerKing, Germany
Gross! by Camo & Crooked in BurgerKing, Germany







6 responses to “Whose Culture? Whose Curriculum?”

  1. Micah S Avatar

    The local teachers at my school that I’ve talked to about this insist that it is easier for teachers who have good English to grasp the IB/MYP philosophy because some of the concepts are difficult to translate into Chinese. I’m not sure how true this is, but that is their feeling. So like you, I wonder how much of MYP is culturally specific to its pan-Euro origins…

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Thats a good point, Micah, and I’m sure part of the reason why good quality translations of IB documents take so long to produce. I know that a lot of Japanese schools now are looking at MYP ideas and so bilingual teachers who have a solid grasp of the programmes will be in demand as workshop leaders and consultants. I imagine it’s the same in many places.

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