Class Action: Curriculum evolves for a brave new world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 2:15pm

When I was at primary school lessons such as history and geography were called by their proper names, but these days subjects seem to be merged into one. My son does not know the meaning of the word geography. Surely children should know what they are learning?

You would not be the first parent to be concerned that certain key subjects are being lost or not being taught in depth nowadays. The current approach to curriculum design in many schools means that subjects are taught using a more integrated fashion. Traditional subjects such as history and geography are certainly being covered, but are not necessarily being taught separately or as explicitly as they used to be.

As access to information available via the internet and other sources increases exponentially, it is more difficult to compartmentalise subjects. Human knowledge is expanding at a mind-boggling rate and the old distinctions are no longer as relevant as they once were. Many schools have moved away from the old "topic" approach to an emphasis on the acquisition and application of skills over the accumulation of knowledge. This cross-curricular approach with a focus on creative thinking and problem solving has meant that the identities of separate subjects can no longer be so easily prescribed and named as you describe.

However, this does not mean that teachers cannot differentiate between significant categories of learning such as geography and history, even though they are integrated. As often happens in education, the tables are turning and there has been a trend recently in some schools towards making these categories more explicit and focusing students on specialist areas.

Whether your son's school follows an inquiry-based learning system or another approach, a well-managed trans-disciplinary curriculum taught with intellectual structure and rigour does equip the new generation for a world that, in many ways, will be more demanding and faster paced than ours, requiring a good deal more flexibility than the one we, as parents and educators, were prepared for.

Current teaching and curriculum models are often structured in ways that ensure continuity and progression of learning as well as planning for the teaching of a range of skills that are built upon and revisited year by year. This methodology focuses primarily on the interaction of different areas of learning and how they fit together in a logical way that better reflects reality and encourages creative and critical thinking. It also makes learning relevant.

Links between traditional subjects can be better made in a natural and meaningful way. It is also more student-driven and teachers guide rather than spoon feed. Pupils have some flexibility to lead their own inquiries by asking innovative questions and researching areas of interest. Skills are no longer tied down to specific subject areas and taught in isolation, but aim for a deeper understanding of crucial ideas and issues.

Another factor diminishing the need to focus on subject areas is students' attitudes to learning. These are also attitudes for life. Typical is the IB Primary Years Programme, now used by many Hong Kong international schools which directs and encourages students to demonstrate independence, commitment and creativity.

Also important is the learner profile which includes encouraging children to be reflective and principled as well as to be thinkers and knowledgeable. Being a risk-taker is seen as a being a key element in advancing pupils' learning, helping them to approach unfamiliar situations with confidence and showing a positive attitude to new roles and ideas.

In an effort to prepare children for a future work environment that will demand social skills, teachers provide many opportunities for students to work together and co-operate in different groups. They recognise the need for students to effectively communicate the thinking behind their findings, promoting their confidence to use a range of media to interact with different audiences.

Appropriate links are made with English and maths when possible, but these subjects are often taught explicitly in order to cover content and foundation skills that pupils need to be efficient readers, writers and mathematicians.

The role of the teacher is as crucial as ever. Their ability to inspire students and identify how to guide them on to the next step of learning remains central. A good teacher will make learning relevant and meaningful and take their thinking far beyond the answering of closed questions on a worksheet or a subject-based test or textbook.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school