Concepts and Design Principles in Organising a Curriculum Review

My YouTube version of this Blog Post

Back in 2013, when I was Curriculum Director at Marymount International School Paris, I presented at the ELSA (English Language Schools Association) on the theme of “Concepts and Design Principles in Organizing a Curriculum Review.” I posted my PowerPoint slides on Slideshare with nearly 50,000 engagements. Given that Slideshare is about to shut down, I have opted to share my presentation on the International Education Today website.

I’m always happy to engage in discussion and debate with those who view my content, so please get in touch if you have any questions or comments. Perhaps the easiest way to do so is by using the “comments” box at the bottom of the page, but you can also contact me by email or through Twitter.

It’s worth spending some time reflecting on how you would define “curriculum” though as there are different schools of thought. The debate usually focuses on “The total experience that students have in a school v The Content/Courses that we offer.” I prefer the former definition, which inevitably influences the tone of this article.

The first factor that influences the choice of curriculum model will always be the necessity to meet the statutory requirements of the host country. In the case of “international schools,” they are usually exempt from meeting local statutory requirements. Still, in the case of “international education schools,” it is essential that local guidelines are followed. Beyond the statutory requirements schools in the international sector will usually frame their curriculum model around the English National Curriculum (often linked to Cambridge International programmes,) American Standards-Based models or the International Baccalaureate. Other popular models include the International Primary Curriculum, Montessori, Steiner, or bespoke bilingual models.

The most popular curriculum models used in international schools

Simon Sinek’s seminal book “Start With Why” was written with a focus on the business world, but his ideas are eminently transferable to the world of education. His “Golden Circle” is a fantastic model that can be adapted to curriculum design and development, in that it emphasises that “what” we expect students to learn about, and “how” we are to teach, must be led by a consideration of the “why.”

Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”

At the heart of a school’s curriculum should be the “Guiding Statements.” These statements are the “why” dimension of any school or group of schools. Guiding Statements should be regularly reviewed and revised to reflect the changing landscape of the world of education. Ideally, all stakeholders should play a role in the process of reviewing a school’s “guiding statements.” This process should include the school’s governing body, the school leadership, teachers and staff, representatives of the parent and student bodies and members of the alumni. 

The Council of International Schools (CIS) place great emphasis on the central importance of “Guiding Statements.” CIS stress that international schools should be “Mission-Driven and Vision Led.” For a school to be accredited by CIS, it is imperative that the “guiding statements” influence all aspects of school life. A school’s “Guiding Statements” are a living document that must be at the heart of a school’s culture and climate, and must drive and lead all aspects of the curriculum. “Guiding Statements” are the “why” of an international school.

The curriculum model adopted by an international school should reflect the mission and vision of the institution. In British Overseas Schools and American Overseas Schools, it is common for the school’s mission to be centred around the cultural norms of the country from which they derive their identity. Thus, one would expect such schools to adopt the English National Curriculum (it is rare for a British School to adopt the Scottish or Welsh equivalents) or an American Standards-Based as their respective curriculum model. That said it is not uncommon for such schools to use the IBDP instead of A-Levels as their pre-university courses. International Schools, without affiliation to any third party nation, have more freedom in adopting a curriculum model which they might frame their broader curriculum around. Many such schools uncritically adopt Cambridge International or IB programmes as their frameworks, whereas others may draw upon one of these models whilst developing their bespoke model to reflect their “guiding statements” and sense of identity. This is, of course if they have the autonomy to do so, as often the statutory requirements of the host country can influence curriculum design and development.

A popular planning model used by international schools is Backward Design, which was developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe as part of their work on Understanding by Design. In a nutshell, backward design advocates developing curriculum with assessment being the starting point. Thus, a team of curriculum planners will write assessments as the first stage in designing a curriculum model. Starting with the end in mind is an eminently sensible method of developing curriculum, and of course one that any teacher of examination courses will recognise. The idea that teachers can teach a unit of study and then subsequently write an assessment is perverse in the mind of the author.

The question as to whether “assessment should drive curriculum matters or should curriculum be the driving force” may sound tricky. Still, it is right to say that the curriculum should always drive assessment, as the curriculum is more than the programme of study. The curriculum is the total educational experience that students have, and thus assessments are only one aspect of a much bigger picture. In the context of designing a programme of study, one can make the argument that assessment should drive unit planning, as otherwise, the cart is before the horse.

Wiggins and McTighe place great emphasis on “Transfer” in their work on Understanding by Design. The concept of “Transfer” is based around the idea that knowledge, concepts and skills are transferable between subject domains. Curriculum Mapping tools like ATLAS (from Rubicon) are designed around making “transfer” more straightforward for curriculum planners. Such tools allow the designers to draw upon Standards from across subject domains to develop curriculum models to be delivered in a cross-curricular manner. It is fair to say that the PYP, MYP and IBDP have built the concept of “transfer” into their curriculum models. Curriculum designers using the English National Curriculum, for example, have to work much harder in many respects to build opportunities for “transfer” into their work, as ENC subjects exist in silos. Creative planning can overcome the difficulties in Primary and Middle School. Still, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so at IGCSE and A Level where subject specialism is of central importance.

Designing a Creative Curriculum

Creative Curriculum Models are appropriate for Primary and Middle School phases and include a focus on topic-based curriculum; theme-based curriculum; committee-led curriculum. These ideas are built into PYP and MYP curriculum models. These types of curriculum models are intended to promote creativity, engagement and focus on skills rather than content.

The Big Picture of the Curriculum at Marymount International School Paris

When working as Curriculum Director at Marymount International School Paris, I worked with colleagues to develop a “big picture” of our curriculum. In this model of curriculum, the subject areas fall within the category of “How do we organise learning?” This was a deliberate strategy to highlight the fact that learning subjects in classrooms are only one aspect of a genuinely holistic approach to learning, and that all learning should be focused upon meeting the “guiding statements” of the school. “Guiding Statements” were framed as the “Goals and Criteria,” and the mission and vision of the school were common to the other schools in the Marymount Network of Schools.

A Holistic Elementary School Curriculum

In the context of Marymount, the Religious and Spiritual dimension was at the heart of the curriculum. This philosophical approach to the curriculum stresses that the mission and values of the school must be at the centre of all aspects of learning. Of course, this will always be specific to the nature and purpose of a school, or group of schools, and what is at the heart of the identity of one school may be of peripheral importance in another. Parents usually choose a school for their children based upon the mission and vision of a school, and as such a school has a duty to live out these values. If “guiding statements” are no more than a framed set of words in a school foyer, then the school is failing to meet its mission.

Scope and Sequence is an essential component of curriculum planning. The “scope” refers to the areas of development addressed by the curriculum. The “sequence” includes plans and materials for learning experiences to support and extend children’s learning at various levels of development. An organized developmental scope and sequence outlines what the curriculum focuses on and how the plans and materials support learners at different stages of development.

An organised developmental scope and sequence:

  • Helps education staff support children’s development of skills, behaviour, and knowledge,
  • Includes examples of materials, teaching practices, and learning experiences that support the student at different levels of development
  • Allows flexibility to respond to the needs of individual learners, including dual language learners and children with disabilities and other special needs
  • Provides information to teachers that help them plan and communicate with families and other education partners

Professor John Hattie identifies “Collective Teacher Efficacy” as a critical component in impacting on student learning. It is thus vital that teachers meet regularly within departments, across departments, at grade level, and across grade level to discuss curriculum matters, and subsequently, review and develop curriculum to ensure salient scope and sequence. A highly effective school will build such planning time into teacher’s schedules as collaborative planning is at the heart of curriculum development. In such meetings, teachers should ensure that they are not distracted by issues such as logistics, behaviour or events. These issues can be discussed in a separate forum and should not distract teachers from their core responsibility of ensuring that learning is meaningful and impactful. 

I’m not the biggest fan of the term “21st Century Learning”, but it’s components are essential aspects of curriculum development. Making use of the tools of the modern era can make the curriculum more accessible and engaging for learners. Since creating the presentation for the ELSA Conference in 2013, I would subsequently add eco-literacies to the list. A curriculum for the modern age must focus on the topic that is overwhelmingly the most important issue facing the contemporary world. In the early years, children should have ample opportunities to play and experience the world around them. They will only learn to care about their environment if they learn to love it first. Schools should develop environmental education programmes in an age-appropriate manner. One can only be globally literate if one understands the greatest crisis facing humanity.

In the modern era, countless technological and digital tools enhance learning and students should be allowed to use such devices in their classrooms and beyond. Today’s tools will not be the tools of tomorrow, so in promoting digital literacy, a school should concentrate on generic and transferable skills rather than teaching children how to use a particular device.

Social media is an important learning tool. It is part of modern life whether we like it or not. The world is now a smaller place, and social media interconnects humanity. Rather than fight against the inevitable, it is eminently sensible for schools to utilize these tools to enhance the learning experience.

Besides respecting statutory requirements, an international school has to embrace and promote the host country. An international school fails in its mission if it an enclave of a foreign system without recognising and celebrating the host country. It is not enough to celebrate the host country through events, and there is more to promoting the host nation than the “five f’s” of flags, festivals, foods, fashion and (famous) faces. Teams of teachers should devise Programmes of Study in such a way that embeds a study of the host country in the curriculum. I have written about this topic in my article The Importance of the Host Country for an International School.

Similarly, an international school has a similar duty to promote the mother tongue of its students. This paper from UNESCO addresses this crucial issue “The importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality.” Embracing the mother tongue extends beyond promoting the language(s) of the host country and should allow all students to develop their home language. Mother Tongue education is far from an easy task and often involves working with outside agencies as it may be beyond the scope of the staff employed by the school. 

According to the International Baccalaureate, “An internationally-minded person is open-minded about the common humanity of all people and accepts and respects other cultures and beliefs. The internationally-minded person takes action through discussion and collaboration to help build a better and peaceful world.” The IB has published an interesting blog post that suggests 10 Way to Promote International Mindedness with advice on how to embed this philosophy into the curriculum. Non-IB Schools may wish to adapt these ideas to their setting. 

According to UNESCO, Global Citizenship Education aims to empower learners to assume active roles, in building more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure societies, being based on the three domains of learning – cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural.

  • Cognitive: knowledge and thinking skills necessary to better understand the world and its complexities.
  • Socio-emotional: values, attitudes and social skills that enable learners to develop affectively, psychosocially, and physically and to allow them to live together with others respectfully and peacefully.
  • Behavioural: conduct, performance, practical application and engagement.

Wonderful ideas for promoting international-mindedness and global citizenship can be found at the British Council’s website “Connecting Classrooms.” The website includes lesson plans and resources that can be embedded into a school’s curriculum.

Social and Emotional Learning is a vital component of a holistic curriculum. SEL. This article from Edutopia addresses “Why Social and Emotional Learning is Essential for Students” with a focus on the critical role that SEL plays in promoting student success.  

The language of instruction is a reflection of the educational priorities of the school and of how the school sees its position in the sector. Many international schools will deliver their academic programmes through the medium of English, and High School students will often sit examinations in English. This is the case in IB School, Cambridge Schools, and schools which use American Standards-Based Curriculum models. Whilst it is rare to find multilingual schools, there are significant numbers of schools in the international sector that delivery the curriculum in a bilingual fashion. This is especially the case in the primary and middle school phases. The bilingual model is more commonly the norm in countries where the mother tongue of the host country is a language that is widely spoken globally. Thus, many schools in the French or Spanish speaking world may teach in English and the mother tongue. Similarly, many bilingual schools in China and other parts of Asia will offer bilingual instruction. For a more in-depth study of the Language of Instruction, it is worth visiting the UNESCO Learning Portal.  

Scheduling is an important dimension when considering the delivery of the curriculum in an international school. The school timetable is an expression of school priorities. This is most obvious when one considers the scheduling of core subjects like English and Mathematics. These subjects are often allocated more curriculum time, which indicates the importance attached to them by the school. Conversely one can see how vital Physical Education or the Arts are to a school by the amount of curriculum time given to these subjects.

Grouping students is another indication of the priorities of the school. Are students grouped by ability, age or ability in the language of instruction? Are subjects taught within departments, faculties or as part of a thematic approach? The organisation of the curriculum may seem like a logistical matter, but this is rarely the case as scheduling reflects the values of the school.

The curriculum extends beyond what is taught by subject teachers in the classroom. Many schools will operate an “extended school” model where the curriculum is enriched by activities that take place before or after school, or during break and lunchtimes. The nature of “extra-curricular” activities indicates what the priorities are for the school. Are students allowed to play sports and games, or is the focus on providing extra time for academic programmes? Do students have additional time to work on art projects or practice a musical instrument, or do they attend different classes in English or Maths? Of course, it isn’t necessarily one thing or the other, and extra-curricular provision can be highly individualised or may differ according to the phase of education.

Resource allocation, like scheduling, is an indicator of the school’s educational priorities. Are the Arts well funded? Are laboratories well resourced? Does the school have adequate facilities for Physical Education? How school leaders manage the budget for resources is a clear indication of what they value most.

Homework is an extension of the learning that takes place outside of the classroom. The nature of assignment may differ depending upon whether the school is a day school or a boarding school. It is interesting that despite Hattie’s research findings that homework is a negligible impact on student learning in the primary sector, most international schools set their student’s substantial amounts of homework. Does this beg the question of whether schools set homework more due to parents expectations or the educational value of doing so? It is also worth noting that until High School students rarely can carry out effective research projects or the like, but teachers often set this type of work for homework. Hattie’s research suggests that the most effective homework in the middle school phase is that which focuses on reinforcing and reviewing work carried out in class.

Positive relationships between school and parents are of paramount importance for effective education. Parents and schools share a common purpose and should be united in their aims. In terms of curriculum, there is great value in keeping parents abreast of developments. Parents are far more likely to be supportive of their child’s school if they feel valued and are more than passive partners in educational endeavours. Schools should articulate their curricula principles and practices to parents by producing salient documentation written in clear and accessible language, particularly in the case where parents may not read in the language of instruction. Moreover, schools should offer regular parents information sessions structured in a manner that allows parents to ask questions about curriculum matters.

School leaders have to ensure the effective delivery of the curriculum. In monitoring teaching and learning, school leaders should focus more on supporting teachers to deliver the curriculum and less on accountability measures. This isn’t to say that teachers should not be held accountable for the quality of their teaching, but more to say that leaders should work with teachers to ensure the quality of education. Thus, lesson observations should be focused on providing teachers with meaningful feedback that might improve the quality of teaching and learning; book trawls should be used to check on the quality of curriculum provision; displays should exemplify the quality of learning; interviews with students should focus on mentoring and supporting students in their learning, rather than as a mechanism for checking up on teachers; performance management procedures should be framed in the context of coaching; curriculum maps should be viewed to assess the opportunities for transfer and to ensure the quality of scope and sequence, and planners should be viewed to ensure consistency within and across academic departments.

Please leave your thoughts in the comment box below. I am happy to discuss or debate all aspects of this article.