It’s almost 30 degrees outside and the New York sun is still blisteringly hot, despite the summer holidays coming to an end.
It’s the start of a new academic year and the senior leadership team sits around the table to rewrite the school’s mission statement.
Having tried to digest both a mound of doughnuts and the morning’s training on how to use a defibrillator, we now have the task of trying to capture and define what is unique about the curriculum we offer.
Is it the rigour of the English national curriculum (ENC) and the creativity of the International Baccalaureate (IB)? Or does that imply that the first lacks creativity and the latter lacks rigour?
And so began the reflection on why it was decided to merge the two. It’s certainly only in recognising the strengths of both that we have been able to create a programme that we believe achieves our academic aims.
Finding a balance
Whether you’re a fan of the ENC or not, its prescriptive nature does ensure skill progression. The objectives for each year group allow knowledge to be built upon, avoiding repetition or gaps in content.
A child in Year 1, for example, will learn the scientific names for the parts of a plant. In Year 2, they will progress to testing the conditions in which a seed will germinate.
This all seems very logical, so what’s missing?
Well, when science is taught only on Monday at 1pm and history on a Thursday at 2pm, connections between ideas and concepts can be tenuous, opportunities to inquire can be lost and a depth of learning is not always achieved.
As a result, good cross-curricular teaching is not always facilitated and can often be much harder to achieve.
While the IB does provide a scope and sequence to be taught at each age, it is a framework that needs to be enhanced with content from another curriculum. Its foundation, in the primary years programme (PYP), is six trans-disciplinary themes (or ”units“), an example of which is titled Who We Are.
Teachers decide on three lines of inquiry. In Year 2, for this unit, children look at ”who we are“ with regard to the human species, following a line of inquiry stating that ”animals, including humans, have basic needs”.
In Year 6, however, this could look very different, with children investigating the UN convention on the rights of the child.
Children study, discuss and research their ideas through many different subject lenses.
An inquiry-based approach
Merging two curriculums sounds like a bit of a headache, but if you take the objectives from the ENC and plot them against the IB themes, you create opportunity for an inquiry-based approach while ensuring a progression of skills.
In the Year 2 example above, where children inquire about living things, they will learn science objectives from the ENC while exploring the geographical locations of different species or studying historical factors concerning extinction.
Simply having the themes and lines of inquiry can support teachers to think about the ENC in a very different way.
So, how is this different to regular cross-curricular teaching?
Well, the IB creates a whole-school framework. The children become very familiar with the six themes, which repeat each year in the PYP.
Everyone in the school uses the same language and each classroom displays the current unit, lines of inquiry and the learning journey of how thinking has progressed. The approach is embedded, systems are in place and progress is evident.
Mapping an international curriculum
Producing a curriculum map relevant to our school setting was the first challenge. As an international school in New York, we needed to expand our content.
For example, instead of learning about the Victorian era in history, we also study the American Civil War. The content changes but the skills remain.
Mapping each year group’s unit and the objectives that fit within it is time-consuming, but it is an important process.
So, after reflecting on what we do and why we do it, the mission statement that best reflects our programme states that ”our aim is to provide an exceptional education combining creativity, depth of study and academic rigour with an inquiry-based approach to learning through the International Baccalaureate and the English National Curriculum“.
And the response now that we are a few weeks in? One child commented that they love doing science because they had “never done it before”.
They had, of course, but by being more explicit with learning objectives from the ENC, the children now see the breadth of study for themselves and the love of learning is really apparent.
Jennifer Fortet is head of lower school at The British International School of New York