The curriculum dilemma resolved

Teachers face a multitude of decisions as they consider what is required to equip students with the knowledge and skills required to lead productive and satisfying lives. Much has been written about the changing landscape of the workforce and how occupations required into the future have not yet been invented.

We know that students need technical skills to source information, interact with others and present their knowledge and ideas. But, what else do they need? If we were to fill a room with teachers and ask them to create a list of competencies required by students it is very likely that they would include; self-management skills, social competence, critical and creative thinking, using initiative, applying conceptual understanding, problem-solving, persisting and more.

Over the years these competencies have been taught as stand-alone programs that teach specific personal, social, thinking and ethical skills. In my experience as an educational consultant, the best way to teach these competencies is by embedding them in units of work that require students to understand and apply them in action. While co-authoring  MAPPEN this was a key focus. MAPPEN shows teachers how to teach engaging, age-appropriate content through the application of essential skills for 21st Century learners.

Different approaches to teaching these competencies

Many educationalists, educational jurisdictions and systems are exploring the best ways to both teach and assess these 21st Century skills. Some examples are outlined below:

Programma for International Student Assessment

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. PISA began in the year 2000. The assessments try to find out whether what students have learned in school can be applied to real-life situations. Examples of 2015 PISA test questions can be found here.

The OECD has recently announced that the Global Competencies will become part of the PISA assessment process in 2018.

PISA defines four dimensions of Global Competence as:

  • Examine local, global and intercultural issues
  • Understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others
  • Take action for collective well-being and sustainable development
  • Engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions across cultures

These dimensions of global competence are supported by four inseparable factors: knowledge, skills, attitudes and values.

It is possible that having all students master these competencies would make for a more harmonious and peace abiding world. It is reassuring to see that the OECD has included these global competencies in the PISA 2018 assessment process.

This inclusion by PISA follows trends worldwide that education systems are increasingly recognising the need to teach and assess the ‘non-cognitive’ skills that have traditionally taken a back seat to subject-specific knowledge and skills.

Mark Treadwell

Mark Treadwell in his article titled The Global Curriculum Project defines an individual competency as a collection of enabling dispositions that collectively allow a learner to take increasing agency over their own personal behaviours and learning.

Treadwell, an educational consultant, outlines five competency frameworks he has defined as ‘essential’. The competency frameworks he outlines are:

  • Identity
  • Thinking and questioning
  • Managing self
  • Collaboration
  • Connecting and reflecting

According to Treadwell, these competencies provide learners with a set of capabilities, realisations and skills to support better decision making, while creating a realistic set of expectations, along with providing learners with the capability to take greater agency over their lives.

The Australian Curriculum Capabilities developed by ACARA

The Australian Curriculum identifies General Capabilities that play a significant role in equipping young Australians to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century.

In the Australian Curriculum, ‘capability’ encompasses knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions. Students develop capability when they apply knowledge and skills confidently, effectively and appropriately in complex and changing circumstances, in their learning at school and in their lives outside school.

The Victorian Curriculum Capabilities developed by the VCAA

Embedded in the Victorian Curriculum are four capabilities that teachers are required to teach and assess. These capabilities are:

  • Personal and social
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Intercultural
  • Ethical

With regard to Critical and Creative thinking, the VCAA have developed psychometrically validated critical and creative thinking assessment tasks which can be accessed through FUSE. They have also recently began testing students to see if they have the skills that are meant to prepare them for life. Last year, almost 2000 Year 6 and Year 10 students were assessed for “critical and creative thinking” as part of a new push to measure non-academic skills.

Practice Principles

Towards the end of 2017, the Victorian Department of Education and Training published Practice Principles for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The vision for learning that supports the uptake of these practice principles states that ‘all students are empowered to learn and achieve, experiencing high-quality teacher practice and the best conditions for learning which equip them with the knowledge, skills and dispositions for lifelong learning and shaping the world around them.’

Throughout these principles there is reference to developing students’ competencies. Examples below have been paraphrased from the Practice Principles and define the importance of teachers developing a range of student competencies such as:

  • the capacity to monitor their own progress and achievement
  • their capacity to collaborate
  • an ability to exercise authentic agency in their own learning
  • the development of skills of reflection, questioning and self-monitoring
  • their role as global citizens
  • their ability to co-design learning that connects to real world contexts

The Thinking Curriculum

Prior to authoring MAPPEN, Amanda McCallum and I delivered professional development for teachers around the ‘Thinking Curriculum’ as it was known in Australia over a decade ago.

The term ‘Thinking Curriculum’ was coined by Laura Resnick who edited The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) publication, Toward The Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research (1989).

The overarching characteristic of thinking curricula described in this Guidebook is that Thinking curricula fulfil a dual agenda by integrating content and process. Within this agenda, students develop habits of mind with respect to learning that serve them well both in school and in the real world.

… a thinking curriculum weds process and content, a union that typifies real-world situations; that is, students are taught content through processes encountered in the real world.

Some thinking and learning processes apply to all content areas and all areas of life and thus are generic: for example, decision making, problem solving, evaluating, and comparing.

More than thinking skills

Over the past ten years, there has been a push to incorporate more than ‘thinking skills’ into curriculum design. As outlined in the work being done by PISA, Treadwell, ACARA, the VCAA and the Victorian Department of Education and Training there is now agreement that students must understand their role as active global citizens with an open-mindedness that embraces different cultural perspectives.

Students should understand themselves as learners and how they can make meaningful contributions to group work. They need to apply ethical principles in their day to day encounters and they need to develop habits such as persistence and resilience.

Our approach

The authors of MAPPEN spent many years working with teams of teachers designing units of work that embedded the capabilities and competencies outlined above. It became clear that the time-consuming nature of the work, coupled with the intricacies of weaving subject-specific knowledge and skills along with ‘non-cognitive’ skills was an unrealistic expectation to place on classroom teachers.

And so, the idea for MAPPEN was born. A way to teach content and competencies. The intention was to provide teachers with a comprehensive, fully resourced curriculum that provides them with on the spot professional development ‘as they teach’. The saving of teacher time and energy has been a major factor in the development of MAPPEN. Teachers using MAPPEN appreciate that the ‘hard yards’ of resource hunting, developing varied assessments as well as rubric design has been done for them. They can then focus on personalising learning for different ability groups in their class while feeling reassured that they are meeting mandated standards.

1. Teaching Dispositions for Learning

By incorporating the 16 Habits of Mind throughout MAPPEN students learn how to ‘behave intelligently when they don’t know the answer’.

MAPPEN students are taught each Habit of Mind explicitly within concept-based units. For example:

  • Foundation students use social skills cards as they learn the importance of thinking interdependently, while preparing a role-play about sustainable actions in the Sustainability Unit titled ‘Our Sustainable World’.
  • Year 3 & 4 students learn about how striving for accuracy and precision complements their creative writing during the Creativity Unit titled ‘Preparing The Stage’.

2. Citizenship and cultural issues explored

MAPPEN students consider local and global issues as they explore the concepts of Social Justice, Community and Identity.

3. Critical and creative thinking

Throughout MAPPEN students experience a multitude of ways to think critically and creatively. For example:

  • In the Connections unit titled ‘Data and Decisions’ Years 5 & 6 students use critical thinking as they design questions for market research to assist in the preparation of a business plan market
  • Years 3 & 4 students investigate a range of problem-solving strategies in a task that requires them to experiment with friction in the Discovery unit titled ‘Forces and Functions’
  • Both teachers and students are introduced to William’s Taxonomy for Creative Thinking throughout the suite of units

Feedback about MAPPEN

The feedback that we have received to date from teachers delivering MAPPEN has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers see and hear the evidence of students developing a wide range of essential competencies as they learn subject-specific knowledge and skills. MAPPEN students are expressing their opinions as learners, they are reflecting on their effectiveness as team members, they are considering ethical dilemmas and issues that occur outside of their classroom, school, region and country.

MAPPEN students are learning to contribute to class discussions and take positive action in a variety of ways. They are developing empathy and insight into the lives of others and in this way, they are better able to make links to others in their community. MAPPEN teachers are being upskilled by delivering a curriculum that incorporates many aspects of best practice teaching and learning. In these ways, MAPPEN solves the curriculum dilemma by providing a balance between students learning subject-specific content and processes and students developing non-academic competencies.

Karen Green
Curriculum Consultant and Co-author of MAPPEN

MAPPEN consists of a suite of 32 units that are built around eight concepts, providing teachers with age-appropriate, concept-driven units of work specifically designed for primary students in Australian schools.

PedagogyMark Ritterman