“Not everything that counts can be counted.” Edvaluating the Curriculum

Einstein, from Wikipedia
Einstein, from Wikipedia

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Albert Einstein

Spiraling into control?

The process of curriculum design, like any product, should be cyclical. Some even describe it as a spiral staircase – cycling through aspects, but always moving upwards.

Double Helix Stairs, Wikimedia
Double Helix Stairs, Wikimedia

A fundamental part of the cycle is evaluation and review, from which further action can be taken. To what extent does our curriculum (or the element of it which is under the microscope of edvaluation*) meet our defined objectives?

Reflection and evaluation are all-pervasive in the MYP. Students reflect on their work, teachers on their teaching and unit plans, faculty and leadership on the programme in the review cycle. Reflection links up the inquiry cycle; the assessed curriculum key to the curriculum model; evaluation sits in between investigation and creation in the design cycle. Many levels of stakeholders are involved in IB ongoing programme evaluation cycles, and teachers are invited to take part in the curriculum review for their subjects in MYP and DP.

Evaluation should not, as I see it, be something which is punitive. When we consider the cyclical (or spiral) idea behind evaluation, we see that it is a formative assessment task, a datapoint to help improve our own planning and actions as a learning community.


A democratic evaluation process?

I admit I know little about the review cycles of the English National Curriculum, but I fear – especially after the #GOveLevels debacle last week – that stakeholders are sidelined rather than embraced; that curriculum is done to the teachers and does not consider their perspectives. It would seem that systematic review, should it take place, would be more in line with the bureaucratic or autocratic models outlines by Barry McDonald. Where in this set of decisions is the role of innovation valued?

One thing that really hit home when I was leading the Diploma Programme evaluation process at Bandung International School (5-year review), was that there is a lot of potential for stakeholder input. We went through the self-study at the start fo the process, identified areas for action and re-evaluated before submission of evidence. It was a powerful practice – and it shows that the IB takes its stakeholders seriously. We reported not just to the IBAP regional office, but to the school community. The self study gave opportunities to show a range of evidence for the clearly-defined standards and practices, including where innovation was taking place. Although the process was directed by the school leadership and me, it was much more a democratic approach, as defined by McDonald:

“Democratic evaluation is an information service to the whole community about the characteristics of an educational programme. Sponsorship of the evaluation study does not in itself confer a special claim upon this service. The democratic evaluator recognises value pluralism and seeks to represent a range of interests in his issue formulation. The basic value is an informed citizenry, and the evaluator acts as broker in exchanges of information between groups who want knowledge of each other. His techniques of data gathering and presentation must be accessible to non-specialist audiences. His main activity is the collection of definitions of, and reactions to, the programme.”

(MacDonald, 1974: pp.133-134, reproduced from Curriculum Studies course materials)

How could we interpret the the quote above in terms of the philisophy-driven total curriculum of the MYP (or other IB programmes)?

  • “service available to the whole community”
  • “recognises value pluralism”
  • “exchanges of information between groups who want knowledge of each other.”
  • “accessible to non-specialist audiences”

I see a process which brings the community together in a common understanding of the aims and objectives of the curriculum in the school’s context, which gives an idea of multiple perspectives in relation to the curriculum, which is understandable to all interested parties and which facilitates work between colleagues, departments and stakeholder groups.


Measuring the measurable (and unmeasurable)?

Is it possible to measure all elements of the curriculum? Should we even try? Are there elements which can be measured but whose data hold little or no real value? What about the emergent properties of the curriculum?

It would be all to easy to look at the syllabus and student attainment grades (test scores) and focus only on those as the metrics of our curriculum evaluation. It might even make sense to do so in a huge school, a school district or a system which reduces its learners to numbers on scoreboards and publishes league tables of schools and their results. But is that the most important element of an IB education? I sincerely hope not.

I like to think I’ll be spending my career (and my children’s education) in a system which values compassion over percentages; caring over systematic bureaucracy. 

The MYP, in its position in the continuum of IB programmes, is very much a framework for a total curriculum and looks to be even more so as the Next Chapter begins. With the philosophy-first approach to curriculum design, the IB have defined and produced supporting resources for far more expected outcomes than simple student exam results. It takes a lot of work to define and design this kind of holistic curriculum, and it is a real challenge to measure to what extent the school has achieved the objectives.

I’m sure we can all think of examples of IB schools which are ‘7 factories’, pumping out top-grade IBDP students but perhaps not fully investing in the philosophy of the programme. What have they gained from their IB education beyond a collection of discrete subject scores? What about schools that are less academic, yet when you step through their doors or speak to their students or teachers you can feel the Learner Profile, the dedication to the philosophy?

Which of those schools, using traditional metrics, would appear most successful? Do these numbers really mean the school is ‘good’ in the holistic sense?

How could the philosophy-driven school best communicate its attainment of the mission and goals without overloading its stakeholders with work, or worse creating ineffective metrics to give an impression of progress?

Once again I’ve generated more questions than answers.


Can I really evaluate my own curriculum?

The MYP framework has a range of aims and objectives, both as a whole and within each subject area. As I move toward the end of this unit and start to focus more clearly on the assignment, I think I will end up focusing on my MYP 5 Intro Physics class and evaluate its role within the wider curriculum. This is a class which is in an interesting position, and for me is a good opportunity to study. As part of the culminating year of the MYP, students are expected to be leaving the programme having met the objectives of the MYP. They should be able to reach the top levels of unadulterated assessment criteria. They should be well prepared for the IB Diploma in terms of skills and content. There is the added dimension of what really makes for effective teaching and learning in Physics: do my methods and planning allow for these to be effectively implemented?

Is my course more than a syllabus? 

If I were to break down the curriculum of this class, I would probably think about it in terms of syllabus, pedagogy and assessment. Although they should be informing each other, it is useful to tease them apart. I would try to devise metrics for each, making connections to the MYP standards and practices where possible. Bearing this in mind, I might think about about the following myriad roles of the course in terms of curriculum:

  • Does it allow my students to meet the overall MYP and MYP sciences aims and objectives?
  • Does it allow my students to develop the IB’s Learner Profile and our school’s Mission?
  • Does it clearly communicate and achieve the enduring understandings?
  • Are the unit questions appropriate and are they used as a conceptual foundation for the units?
  • Does it allow my students to achieve well in the assessment criteria?
  • Does it facilitate appropriate skill and content preparation for the IB Diploma?
  • Does it provide a meaningful experience for students who will not study physics beyond this year?
  • Does it facilitate student-driven inquiry?
  • Does it meet content-level standards? (Determined by whom?)
  • Does it facilitate effective current pedagogy in physics education?

That makes for a long list of objectives that this one class should aim to achieve. Some are more easily measurable than the majority, but if something’s too easy, it’s probably not worth doing. The next challenge is to apply or devise metrics or an evaluation tool for each. Can I measure the unmeasurable?

Better get working, then.


References and Resources:

Bath MA International Education: Curriculum Studies course materials

MacDonald, Barry. 1974. Evaluation and the control of education. Available on Scribd.


Image credit: Double Helix Stairs by Jef Poskanzer (originally posted to Flickr as double helix) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

*Cheesy, huh? I’m not much good at making up catchy edu-jargon. 







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