International schools in Hong Kong

For inquiring minds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am

Parents browsing through the Renaissance College's primary section newsletters cannot but notice the ubiquitous use of words such as 'finding out', 'investigating' and 'researching'.

'The key in PYP [Primary Years Programme] is learning how to learn. We want our students to be able to find information, analyse, synthesise and evaluate,' says Jamie Schmitz, head of primary at the Ma On Shan school operated by the English Schools Foundation and offering all three International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes.

'Say, when we look into a genre, we show our students different pieces of writing, ask them what the pieces have in common, what they think the purpose is, and get them to discuss. They will come to the conclusions themselves through facilitation and guidance by the teacher. We won't lay it out and say this is the genre, this is 'this part, this part and this part',' Schmitz says.

While local parents are becoming well versed with the IB Diploma Programme (DP), they may find PYP and the Middle Years Programme (MYP) - noted for a relatively flexible course structure (especially for PYP) and the absence of a standardised exam - a tad mind-boggling.

Learning in PYP isn't based on subject knowledge. The programme supports students' conceptual development and revolves around six themes: who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organise ourselves, and sharing the planet. These themes guide teachers in the design of teaching materials and are inquired into throughout PYP. As students grow older, the inquiry becomes more sophisticated.

'In Grade 4 or Grade 5, it doesn't matter what you need to understand. You need the skills to find the information and make sense of it, put things into action, reflect on the action and adjust accordingly. The content is important because you need something to engage students. But the skills of inquiry should transcend that particular situation, so that regardless of what students need to learn, we go through the same steps of the inquiry cycle,' says Schmitz.

Renaissance College has developed key concepts such as form, change, connection and responsibility, to help students explore the six themes. For example, those who are finding out how the world works by studying the concept of cycle and examining the impact of seasonal changes, will be exposed to the concept again as they learn about the rise and fall of empires.

'When we learn something, our brain is making connections naturally to the different ways we understand the world,' says Schmitz. 'With traditional education you tend to educate that out of the students to bring them in line with convention. That dampens creative thinking, which is about generating ideas and making connections in unusual and different ways.'

The school's PYP students learn to read and write, and do maths, while taking classes in art and music and playing sport. There are no science or general studies lessons as such. All assessment is internal, and the school attaches great importance to quality feedback.

As students move on to MYP, knowledge as a single discipline increases in importance. They are required to study their mother tongue, a second language, humanities, sciences, maths, arts, physical education and technology.

In the final year, they engage in a personal project to demonstrate the understanding and skills they have developed, and which prepares them for the research-intensive extended essay at DP level.

Schools develop assessments for students according to the objectives and criteria published in the subject-group guides provided by the global organisation behind IB. External examinations are not provided for MYP but schools can opt to undergo either external moderation or monitoring of assessment by the IB.

Carol Larkin, head of secondary at Renaissance College, says there isn't an exam at the end of Year 11 for the sole purpose of proving students are ready for Year 12, as the Year 11 curriculum leads neatly to Year 12. Students sit internal exams and learn how to work through revision cycles and deal with stress. Students from Years 7 to 11 do three days of exams a year and the Year 12s five days. Exams carry the same weight as the other assessments.