Philosophy First: Contrasting approaches to the Curriculum

I’m a pragmatic idealist.

As an idealist I chose the international pathway and a career in IB schools because I believe in education, global-mindedness and the philosophy of the IB. I want my kids to grow up this way, I want education to have meaning for my students. I want them to nurture their compassionate nature as a result of their learning. I want them to enjoy their lives, certainly, but to bear in mind that they have a responsibility to the wider community.

As a pragmatist I appreciate that ideals cannot be actionable without a practical foundation; that simple solutions are generally the most elegant and that evidence and achievability need to be the foundation of decision-making. This is especially true in education, which too often is used as a power tool, a method of pushing ideals without a solid foundation.  Theory needs to be put to work, evaluated and reconsidered where necessary; the scientific method applies to [science] teaching!

As a result of these two sides of my own educational philosophy, I spend probably too long thinking about what I teach, why and how I teach it. How do I meet my idealistic goals whilst also preparing students well for the years ahead? Is what I teach of real value and how do I know? What theories should I be drawing on and how can I put these into practice (and evaluate them) in my own classes?

Contrasting approaches to the curriculum

In reading today about ‘contrasting approaches to the curriculum‘, we see that as the English National Curriculum* moved from local control to a centralised model, the curriculum itself lacked a clear philosophical rationale. Since then, post-hoc justifications and tinkerings, as well as swinging political opinions and ambitions, have left it as a bit of a idealistic and pragmatic mongrel. Its purpose is muddily defined. News just this week suggests a major sea-change in teaching and learning in the UK. @teachingofsci has analysed the proposed changes well on his blog post. The mongrel may be being put down, but is a newer, better pedigree being nurtured?

On the other hand, the IB programmes are built first on mission and philosophy. The purposes are clearer, and over the years these purposes have been translated into the action of the curricula we know today. How well this has been achieved will always be a staffroom debate, but through the process of continuous review and refinement, stakeholders are given input into the important issues of curriculum and assessment. Although some evidence of post-hoc adjustment exists, such as the late adoption of the Learner Profile by the Diploma Programme, designs and changes do seem to be fundamentally geared towards meeting the mission.

However, it may not be fair to compare the systems in this way. International schools, their leaders and parents have a choice in which curriculum they become a stakeholder: they choose the curriculum and philosophy which suits them. They choose by applying to be IB World Schools and they choose by handing over their money to the school to educate their children. This is far less possible in a system with nationalised education – the stakeholders’ curriculum is chosen for them, often down to the lesson plan and assessment tool.

I’ve made my choice, now I want to make it work.


Interpreting ‘curriculum’ through the continuum

At the moment, we see some very different interpretations of curriculum through the IB’s continuum of programmes: PYP to MYP to DP. Through the Next Chapter it looks as though some of these differing interpretations are to be rectified.

At the Diploma level, curriculum can be, and often is, interpreted as syllabus. The Diploma has to contend with the serious issues of backwash in content in content as a result of demand from universities, as well as the need to be recognised as being valid and reliable in its assessment to these ends. This results in some very content-driven subject guides. With tight time restrictions, teachers may default to using these as a their planning documents, essentially skipping the first chapters on philosophy, aims and objectives of the IB to get to the ‘stuff’ they have to teach. This can led to a mechanistic, test-prep approach to teaching and learning as well as a resistance to seeing the bigger picture (and unit planning). I am intrigued to see how the Next Chapter puts into action the approaches to teaching and learning in the Diploma, as we see concept-based curriculum ideals moving upwards form PYP to MYP and into DP. Will content need to be sacrificed to achieve these goals and how will the universities (and entrenched teachers) react?

At the youngest end, the PYP, the curriculum is more fluid, concept-based and student-centred. This has been largely achieved through the careful application of theory in the practice of elementary education, as well as lot of curriculum documentation. It helps that there is little in the way of content requirement, which facilitates the placement of the student at the centre of the programme. Typically, the Learner Profile is something which is a more authentic part of a student’s working day in the PYP section of a school, compared to the DP.

Finally, the MYP was developed as the bridge between the programmes. Perhaps the most criticised of the programmes, the MYP looks to be the programme which will most benefit from the coming changes, with a total overhaul in process (new guides for all subjects will be published in 2014). It has a careful balancing act to achieve, though. At the one end, students coming in should be self-directed and used to taking charge of their own inquiry and being assessed in different ways. At the other, these same students need to be ‘prepared’ for the Diploma and beyond. As a result, assessment becomes more streamlined and prescriptive, less open-ended. Tasks which had originally been left up to schools and teachers – such as writing interim MYP objectives and student learning expectations for areas of interaction – will be taken care of by the IB with published MYP 1, 3 and 5 assessment criteria and a wider set of Global Contexts.

Freedom vs restrictions through the MYP
Freedom vs restrictions through the MYP: where does your class sit on this spectrum?

It looks as though the IB programmes, and the MYP in particular, have evolved to the point where there is a greater balance between the idealistic aims of the organisation and the pragmatic reality of education and its external pressures. I am really looking forward to the Next Chapter, though I can see it becoming a challenge in my role as MYP Coordinator!


Testing the transition

As a a teacher, I am most invested in MYP 4-5 science classes. The sciences in the Diploma programme are heavily prescriptive in content and assessment, so we owe it to our students to prepare them appropriately for the demands they face when they enter. However, content in the MYP is not (and will not be) prescribed – only broad concepts and specific assessment criteria and modes. I prefer a more whole concept-based, modeling approach to learning sciences.

So what then of our syllabus

In the Physics portion of my Grade 10 (pre-IB?) class, we teach Motion, Forces, Energy, Electricity and Atomic Science before moving into the Environmental Sciences part of the course. It is scheduled, though we have some fluidity in precise content. Assessment is set, though there is as much differentiation as possible in research questions. There is a lot of questioning, problem-solving, group-work and minimal lecture, yet not a great deal of opportunity for entirely student-led inquiry as there might be in the earlier years of MYP or PYP.

I should now evaluate the course, focusing on the following issues: 

  • Is the content of the syllabus useful, valid and engaging?
  • Are we preparing students effectively with the skills they need, rather than pre-teaching content?
  • Does teaching and learning facilitate genuine inquiry?
  • Are our units coherent and concept-based?
  • Do students see the bigger picture or are they focused only on the stuff?
  • What practices need to be adapted to meet the ideals but maintain the pragmatism?
What other questions can you think of?



IB Documents: Towards a Continuum of Education; From Principles to Practice (PYP, MYP, DP); Subject guides: MYP Sciences, IBDP Biology, Physics; Next Chapter proposals.

And MA International Education (Curriculum Studies) resources from the University of Bath

*Note to ‘international’ schools – there is no such thing as a ‘British’ national curriculum.




5 responses to “Philosophy First: Contrasting approaches to the Curriculum”

  1. “Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Defining Learning | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

    […] Pragmatic thinking is, to me, an important approach to educational discussions. It does not, as Elkjaer recognises, mean that a pragmatists is focused only on results and solution-finding, even at the expense of ideals. It instead means that “pragmatism concerns the understanding of the meanings of phenomena in terms of their consequences,” and is why I would describe myself as a pragmatic idealist. […]

  2. Teaching Content in a Google World | i-Biology | Reflections Avatar

    […] believe in school education for a better world, not just as a stepping-stone to university – but I’m a pragmatist at the same time. I have a job to do, and that’s to educate and to do so as well as I can. I want my students […]

  3. Wayfinding: Ripples & Reflections | Wayfinding & Learning Avatar

    […] “Philosophy First”: Contrasting Approaches to the Curriculum (from 2012, before Next-Chapter) (on being a pragmatic idealist and considering backwash vs content freedom) […]

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