Home Education Curriculum for High Ability Learners: Issues, Trends and Practices
Reclaiming the Curriculum
Liang See Tan, Letchmi Devi Ponnusamy, and Chwee Geok Quek
In a climate of increasingly complex social and political issues, mired with competing perspectives and ideologies, and the overabundance of information, there is a growing realisation that curriculum that sees learners as mere receptacles of knowledge traditions will not equip them sufficiently to live and work in the future (Eisner, 2000). Brown (2005) argues that schools need to prepare learners to be conversant with knowledge and knowing - for learners to take an epistemic frame to learning. Adopting an epistemic frame to learning engages the learners to think conceptually. Hence, there is a need to promote high-quality education, with curriculum and pedagogies that prepare today’s learners to live in and constantly adapt knowledge in an increasingly complex and changing future. There is now a mind shift amongst educators that curriculum needs to foster deeper thinking, flexibility and synthesising of thoughts and ideas.
In many parts of the world, the clarion call to maintain and improve educational standards has resulted in a drive to greater standardisation of curriculum and assessment in schools (Hargreaves, 2003). However, instead of enriching the intellectual opportunity for all learners, such standardisation has focused on merely covering the curriculum, through the transmission of facts and skills and on assessment processes with narrow conceptions of achievement and success (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Critical to the success of a system that seeks to engage high ability learners is the need for appropriate and challenging curriculum. Experts in curriculum development for high ability learners have pointed to the need for a qualitatively different curriculum for these learners, where more focus is placed on conceptual learning and teaching within the discipline (Avery & Little, 2003; Feldhusen, 1988;
L.S. Tan (*) • L.D. Ponnusamy
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L.S. Tan et al. (eds.), Curriculum for High Ability Learners, Education Innovation Series, DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-2697-3_1
Jacobs & Borland, 1981; Maker, 1982; Perkins, 1993; Tannenbaum, 1983; VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006; Ward, 1961). In her seminal work carried out more than 40 years ago, Hilda Taba (1962) pointed out the need to focus more on conceptual understandings rather than merely teaching facts. This view has now been echoed in the international literature on concept-based curriculum (Avery & Little, 2003; Erickson, 2002, 2007; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) and, more recently, through the greater focus on conceptual understanding as a standard in curriculum documents (Milligan & Wood, 2010).
Conceptual learning deals with abstractions that require learners to function at higher levels of thinking in order to deepen understanding of ideas as well as to facilitate the reasoning processes. Learners are encouraged to use higher order thinking skills such as inductive, analogical and deductive reasoning to acquire increasingly sophisticated conceptual frameworks. Given the demand on intellectual capacity, concept-based curriculum requires teachers to provide opportunities for students to work with challenging, complex ideas and to apply these ideas to novel situations. Educational experiences that focus on conceptual learning are known to link the learner with the content and to other disciplines, thereby motivating high ability learners to make meaning of disconnected ideas so that there is deeper learning (Schack, 1989).
Even as concept-based curriculum is being recognised as engaging for the high ability learner, educational systems such as Singapore’s, which have historically used centrally developed curricula, have now become aware that a one-size-fits-all curriculum does not meet the needs of high ability learners (MOE, 2006). Curriculum experts today refer to the need to include the diverse learning contexts in the development process and advocate multiple inputs by stakeholders (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 2004; Skilbeck, 1984). Braslavsky (2005) postulates a network model of interaction which includes conversations and interactions, amongst curriculum writers, discipline experts and school teachers, and advocates for bottom-up and top-down approaches to curriculum development. In Singapore, the wider call to ensure schools nurture the abilities of every child on the back of greater global competition and the growth of knowledge-driven industries has seen schools looking to meet the curricular and pedagogical needs of high ability learners in the classroom (Gopinathan, 2007). There has been a paradigm shift away from an efficiency-driven educational system to an ability-driven one that places emphasis on quality teaching and learning experiences (Tan, 2005). This focal shift has resulted in a system-wide makeover where the authorities are ‘reconsidering the past definitions of giftedness’ (p. 1) and reconfiguring ‘past provisions made for gifted children in Singapore to incorporate a larger pool of (the country’s) brightest and best’ (MOE, 2006). The educational landscape has been reconfigured into one that nurtures talents through ‘multiple pathways’ that ‘seek to match the strengths and aptitudes of each student to help them achievement their potential’ to achieve ‘peaks of excellence’ (Heng, 2012). Since 2007, several initiatives, such as the extension of the provision of a differentiated curriculum from the top 1 % to the top 5 % of the national primary school cohort, the introduction of 18 Integrated Programme (IP) schools at the secondary level and the establishment of the specialised schools in the areas of math, science, sports and arts have been put in place. Specifically, the Integrated Programme Schools have been afforded greater autonomy in curriculummaking processes through the creation and development of curriculum and programmes (MOE, 2002), an initiative that allows a seamless transition from the secondary to the high school level through the removal of the high-stakes General Cambridge (Ordinary Level) Examinations. This was intended to broaden the scope of curriculum so that teachers have more room to explore, experiment and develop curriculum that fosters deeper understanding and develops broader skills for high ability learners. Education Ministers have also emphasised that high ability learners need to be nurtured in ways which should benefit the economy and the individual whilst developing a sense of national rootedness and identity (Shanmugaratnam, 2004; Teo, 2000). Consequently, school leaders and teachers have heeded such calls to meet the educational needs of high ability learners through developing school- based curriculum. Such curriculum for high ability learners has also shifted away from focusing on generalised behavioural outcomes and high-stakes examination- based measures, to embrace a more child-centred one that focuses on rich learning experiences that emphasise greater intellectual engagement and conceptual thinking for the high ability learner.
With such autonomy, Singaporean schools are employing eclectic approaches in their selection of curriculum for high ability learners, with some adopting existing curriculum models for high ability learners, whilst others adapting them slightly to meet their own needs. VanTassel-Baska (1986) cautions against a recipe-like approach to the adoption of high-ability curriculum, stating that there is a need to consider the value of the adopted curriculum to the school’s overall educational context. The development of appropriate curriculum for high ability learners is indeed a long-term process that requires large-scale investments in resources, closer collaboration and evaluation amongst teams of teachers as curriculum writers. Such development requires multiple conversations between school leaders, teachers and curriculum experts.
Concept-based curriculum development is an initiative that schools have undertaken to address Singapore’s far-sighted policy initiative of ensuring curriculum development for high ability learners. Viewed as a crucial platform for promoting intellectual challenge to such learners, concept-based curriculum can provide an appropriate degree of engagement and sustained learning for such learners (Feng, VanTassel-Baska, Quek, O’Neil, & Bai, 2005; VanTassel-Baska, Avery, Little, & Hughes, 2000; VanTassel-Baska et al., 2008). Other studies have in fact found that well-written concept-based units have helped children in mixed-ability classrooms improve academically as well (Henderson, 2006; Little, Feng, VanTassel-Baska, Rogers, & Avery, 2007). These promising results, although gathered from research conducted overseas, have convinced and subsequently led several school leaders and practitioners in Singapore to adopt concept-based curriculum for their high ability learners. However, little is known about how concept-based curriculum is adopted, the benefits and the issues faced in these schools. Not much is also known about the scale of implementation in the Singapore context. The fledgling initiatives of schools implementing concept-based curriculum for high ability learners in the
Singapore context need to be highlighted to shed more light on curriculum development efforts and indirectly allow the educational system to be responsive and competitive.
‘Concept-based curriculum for high ability learners’ is a modest attempt to document and analyse the efforts, perspectives and conversations that relate to concept- based curriculum design and implementation processes. The book synthesises the ongoing efforts of the different curriculum stakeholders - those who design, implement and administer as well as those who evaluate and observe in their burgeoning drive to create pedagogies to meet the needs of high ability learners. This book also reflects Singapore’s curriculum differentiation journey, documenting the transitioning of the educational system from one that is characterised by a centrally-controlled, standardised curriculum with high-stakes examinations to one that is customised through school-based curriculum and considers the needs of high ability learners. Throughout the book, the chapters portray the voices and experiences of the different stakeholders whilst drawing on the international perspectives of educators who contribute and comment in the field. The book also documents the opportunities and challenges that abound in Singapore’s drive to provide appropriate curriculum in its efforts at ability-driven education. As Singapore’s educational system is increasingly aware of the systemic inadequacy in preparing young learners to face the challenging twenty-first-century environment with our current high-stakes exam model, our system is currently undergoing change from one that is system-focused (e.g. emphasis on academic achievement in high-stakes exams) to one that is learner- centred (e.g. nurturing adaptive expertise of the learners). Similar to Singapore, many highly competitive Asian educational systems are experiencing the pressure and unknown forces of the twenty-first century. Singapore’s experiences in transforming from a centralised curriculum system to one that requires teachers to make decisions in differentiating curriculum and instruction based on knowledge about the learners will receive attention from countries in the East and the West as they too are grappling with similar issues.
Differentiated curriculum and pedagogy is dynamic and flexible, more so when this is understood in the context of the diverse learning environments for HALs: from self-contained high ability learner classrooms to mixed-ability classrooms, especially in the high-stakes examination-oriented educational systems in Asia. This volume provides the much-needed analysis and discussion of current developments in this exciting field and contributes to new ways of thinking about instructional design and inclusive learning environments. In addition, it will add a fresh perspective to the international discourse on inclusionary practices for HALs.
This volume will be the first edited book to provide an overview of the latest developments related to customization of school-based curriculum and pedagogies for high ability learners after the implementation of the Integrated Programme in Singapore. As the role of making curriculum is a relatively new endeavour and rapidly evolving area, it is crucial that stakeholders keep abreast of the contexts, issues, challenges and processes of evolving teacher knowledge, beliefs and teacher learning in practice. This volume will provide a timely means of access to the latest developments in terms of ideas, research, policy and practice for international stakeholders in the field.
This volume creates opportunities to present curricular initiatives from both top- down as well as bottom-up perspectives. It can be seen as a form of curriculum theorising, in as far as it examines the interpretations and the debates in concept-based curriculum development and in that process it can ‘bring about present new possibilities and bring about deeper understanding’ (Huenecke, 1982, p. 290). This book presents the multiple perspectives and experiences of leading academics and practitioners from different parts of the world. It also provides a much-needed analysis of the lived experience of teachers and other practitioners in the field of high-ability studies that has been a part of the local educational system for the last 35 years. As such, this volume presents a layered and wide-ranging discussion of key issues, which will be useful in both local and global contexts.
Chapter authors, who are experts in their fields, are well positioned to contribute thoughtful and useful ideas, analysis of issues, research-based strategies and practice-oriented perspectives. They have structured their writing around the larger framework of themes which the editors have provided. Every chapter has been peer reviewed and cross-referenced to ensure consistency.
As this volume provides a range of perspectives relating to the latest developments in differentiating curriculum and pedagogies for high ability learners, we believe that it will broaden understandings and offer new insights to stakeholders, enabling them in turn to be innovators in their respective domains. The target readership for this book includes educational policymakers, researchers, educators, curriculum leaders and specialists, practitioners, and advocates who are interested in differentiating curriculum for high ability learners. Internationally, it will be a good resource for stakeholders in the field of high-ability studies as development and implementation of differentiated curriculum for high ability learners. In addition, the book will also have a wide readership locally amongst IP schools, specialised schools, TLLM schools and mainstream schools catering to high ability learners.
Each chapter provides a detailed account of the lived experience of different stakeholders in curriculum development. Essentially the chapters are divided into three general areas that address the different facets of curriculum development.
Chapter 2 aims to highlight the key findings, issues and debates in the field of curriculum and instruction for high ability learners. The chapter will justify curricular features that are suitable for high ability learners based on their key intellectual characteristics. The intended learner outcomes of developing concept-based curriculum will be discussed. Appropriate studies that compare traditional and concept- based curriculum in terms of engagement and outcomes will be discussed. It will also set the stage by providing useful definitions of the key terms used throughout this book, particularly terms such as ‘high-ability’ and ‘concept-based’ curriculum.
Chapter 3 explicitly examines the role of the teacher in the curriculum writing process and whether the role in curriculum development changes over time. It discusses the key empowering factors that shared curriculum leadership can have for the teacher and for the school and how best to allow for greater curriculum leadership to sustain the curriculum writing process. In essence, the chapter considers the role of the teacher as a change agent in curriculum development processes.
Chapter 4 explores issues in designing and implementing concept-based curriculum in schools. As schools are going through the renewal process in the twenty-first century, questions about the substance and organisation of curriculum are critical to consider, along with issues of teacher responsibility for curriculum innovation and implementation. Curriculum change requires consideration of key concepts at the core of learning in various disciplines and also attention to the knowledge and skills that teachers must have to accomplish the goals of the curriculum in the classroom. This chapter illustrates key elements and challenges involved in designing and implementing concept-based curriculum. It also makes some suggestions as to how these challenges can be handled within classrooms and schools to ensure quality in curriculum and its implementation.
As change and curriculum reform often do not happen in a vacuum, Chapters 5, 6 and 7 present scholarly contributions about the beliefs and philosophy of curriculum developers as well as issues and challenges in developing, implementing and assessing concept-based curriculum encountered in different continents and educational systems.
Chapter 5 emphasises the rationale of teaching for conceptual understanding. The author assesses the models of concept-based approaches in designing curriculum and delves into the mechanisms of designing a concept-based curriculum. The chapter closes with the support that the school and teacher leaders can provide for developing and implementing a concept-based curriculum for student learning.
Chapter 6 outlines experiences in Australian schools with concept-based curriculum. This chapter traces a brief historical perspective on how concept-based curriculum design has been perceived in the Australian context. The inquiry-based approaches introduced in the 1970s, the curriculum integration approaches of the 1980s and 1990s, and the more recent take-up of the transdisciplinary, concept- based International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, will be discussed. Opportunities within the different Australian state curriculum frameworks and also within the new national Australian curriculum will be identified. Here, the emphasis on crosscurriculum priorities as the basis for a curriculum designed to support twenty-first- century learning will be noted. Exemplar case study schools, such as inquiry-based integrated curriculum in primary and secondary schools, IB’s transdisciplinary curriculum, play-based learning in the early years and digital designs, will be used to explore current approaches of interpreting concept-based curriculum in Australian schools. Drawing on Australian research studies, teachers’ perceived benefits and the challenges involved in planning and implementing concept-based curriculum in Australian schools will be examined. Approaches to addressing assessment issues will be highlighted, including the backward design approach of front-loading assessment (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) used by an increasing number of Australian schools. Key findings of Australian studies around the process of designing and implementing concept-based curriculum, including the author’s own research in primary and secondary classrooms, will be drawn upon to qualify her stance on how concept-based curriculum is currently practised in Australian schools.
Chapter 7 offers a South Korean perspective on the development of concept- based curriculum for high ability learners. It begins with a brief discussion of the growing responsiveness of the South Korean school system at meeting the needs of high ability learners. Recent efforts and opportunities for the re-crafting of existing curriculum into a more concept-based one within the national and specialised schools systems are then explored. It is argued that such concept-based curricula assist in meeting the nation’s plan of ensuring that its people are adept at meeting twenty-first-century learning demands and that such readiness is an imperative for the future of its globalised and knowledge-based economy and its burgeoning civil society.
Chapter 8 discusses the opportunities and challenges faced by school leaders as they set out to adapt curriculum to make it more concept-based. It traces the experiences of one school leader as the school embarked on the designing of the Integrated Programme that allows secondary school students to proceed to junior college without taking the ‘O’ levels. As the school set out to innovate and provide a more holistic programme, it had to deal with issues of autonomy to design and organise learning to add breadth and depth to the learning experiences of its students.
Chapter 9 documents the journey of a school’s experience as they embarked on designing a concept-based curriculum, emphasising teaching for understanding so that students do not merely regurgitate facts, but instead become critical thinkers adept at meaning-making and dealing with abstraction. To facilitate a school-wide approach to this endeavour, the elements of the curriculum have been aligned to this purpose. This chapter explains the use of the curriculum map and the unit plan to organise facts using macroconcepts and the use of performance tasks as means to demonstrate learning outcomes. This chapter articulates the pivotal role of professional development programme in the curriculum implementation process. As in any curriculum initiative, the implementation of such a curriculum requires consideration of the context. This chapter describes the school’s journey in applying the principles of a concept-based curriculum into actual practice, highlighting its contextual background, aspirations and challenges in meeting the needs of the students and teachers.
Chapters 10, 11, 12 and 13 provide first-hand subject-based perspectives in the design and implementation of concept-based curriculum. Chapter 10 calls for (re) visiting the place for concept-based instruction in English classes in Singapore as curricula continuously evolve to remain relevant. Having curricula that are relevant, engaging and motivating might sometimes appear to be secondary to notions of perceived rigour and key performance indicators in a system where high-stakes summative assessments continue to feature dominantly. Discipline-specific fundamentals remain core, especially in the formative years of education. With increasing calls to cater to a range of abilities in the classroom, we see the integration of higher order thinking, cross-disciplinary approaches and problem-solving skills playing a larger role in pedagogies and frameworks in curriculum development. There is an increasing awareness and drive to enhance conceptual thinking abilities and metasubject understandings. Concept-based instruction premised upon a concept-based curriculum serves as a very real means of incorporating a relevant and current approach to enhancing the established discipline-specific imperatives of depth and breadth. Using the base consideration of a section of an English Language work plan, the chapter explores how a concept-based framework incorporates a Language Arts approach. It aims to indicate how it is not merely a feature for differentiation but also an approach applicable to all for skills attainment and performance enhancement. The question should not be whether concept-based instruction is relevant; it should be where and how we can smoothen the path to implementation.
Chapter 11 focuses on the relevance of concept-based curriculum for teaching Geography. This subject-specific chapter discusses the opportunities and potential in strengthening the intellectual capacities of high-ability students through a concept-based unit of instruction. The author of this chapter documents the thought processes involved in crafting a concept-based unit of instruction and reflects her personal experiences encountered in such processes as a teacher.
Chapter 12 illustrates the Singapore mathematics framework, which has been a hallmark feature of school mathematics in Singapore for well over two decades. Using problem-solving as a central focus, the framework stresses five interrelated components: conceptual understanding, skills proficiency, mathematical processes, attitudes and metacognition. In this chapter, from a curriculum perspective, the author describes how the key components of this framework undergird the content outcomes in the syllabus to provide opportunities for students to develop deep understanding of concepts. An example of how the curriculum is modified for high ability learners is also discussed. From an instruction perspective, using local data, the author discusses the extent to which classroom implementation provides students the opportunity to develop conceptual understanding. Finally, current and possible future approaches to strengthen a concept-based curriculum and instruction nexus are considered.
Chapter 13 affirms the potential opportunities in investigating and solving real- world complex scientific issues through concept-based science curriculum and instruction. The Concept-based approach emphasises and encourages learning through analysis, synthesis and evaluation. High-ability students become effective thinkers in the twenty-first century through manipulating the connections between or amongst scientific concepts. This chapter discusses specific examples of instructional strategies which could enhance conceptual teaching and learning of high- ability students. Such strategies allow students to acquire a better understanding of concepts and the interconnection of various concepts in explaining the phenomenon at hand. Instructional activities that relate well with the students and deepen conceptual understanding help students to clarify misconceptions. This chapter also discusses the challenges of assessing conceptual understanding in the context of high-stakes examination for science educators in Singapore.
Separately, Chap. 14 provides a comprehensive philosophy as well as rationales, objectives and goals for conducting curriculum evaluation in schools. Moreover, the author highlights the alignment of evaluation criteria and the intended outcomes of curriculum evaluation. This chapter also presents the curriculum evaluator’s bird’s- eye view on what to look out for in the evaluation process as well as provides valuable pointers on the pitfalls to avoid so as to ensure sustainable fidelity of curriculum interpretation and implementation.
Finally, the concluding chapter completes the book with an overview of the lessons learned from current practices and experimentation with concept-based curriculum in schools, explicating the insights about the ways such an experiment can benefit learners and stakeholders.
This book is pivotal in analysing and documenting efforts in creating concept- based curriculum and pedagogies for HALs. This is especially important in the context of the continued use of standards-based and high-stakes examinations in educational systems in Asia and other parts of the world. Contributors of this book discuss key concepts and trends in their curriculum development efforts for high ability learners, as well as the challenges and solutions in their work. By drawing on a wide group of stakeholders - practitioners, curriculum writers, administrators and researchers - this book collects a range of perspectives on the processes, outcomes and implications of using concept-based curriculum and pedagogies in a dynamic educational landscape. It is the editors’ hope that these informed perspectives highlighted by the contributors will provide insight and inspiration to practitioners, policymakers and other stakeholders alike.
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