A brave new world: giving students power of choice at Bridge House School

BY LINDA CASTALDO AND SHAUN KIRK

Bridge House School, in the Cape Winelands close to Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl, is a Grade 0000–Grade 12 co-ed school with approximately 16% of its students boarding on the campus.

For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on our academic achievements, but recently, we believed that to best serve the young people with whose education we are entrusted, we needed to revisit our approach to teaching. Our mission statement has thus been revised to read:

Our mission statement has thus been revised to read: Bridge House is a sustainable South African learning community. In a changing world, we deliver a globally relevant education which realises each individual’s potential to lead, innovate and serve with confidence.

Foremost among the reasons for revising teaching methods was how to approach students. We began to work on a version of curriculum delivery for grades 8 and 9 that allowed more freedom to all parties involved. We wanted to give our students the opportunity to choose the subjects they found most appealing, and we wanted to give our staff the chance to explore content about which they were particularly passionate.

We had heard about Cedar House School in Kenilworth, Cape Town, offering an elective model for grades 8 and 9 students, and so we reached out to the school to meet and talk about what it has done and what its experience has been. We cannot thank Cedar House enough for its time, generosity and genuine spirit of collegiality.

How does our new model work?

The general education and training (GET) curriculum1 at Bridge House functions on the premise that the more say a student has in their subject choices, the more likely they are to be engaged and interested in the subject matter and, therefore, the more they will enjoy what they are learning. At the same time, there are certain subjects – especially those specifically required for promotion purposes – that cannot be made optional. To distinguish between these two subject groupings, Bridge House has opted to name the non-choice subjects core subjects, and those which are chosen are known as electives.

Core subjects (English, Afrikaans, mathematics, natural science, life orientation and creative arts) have been restructured with the collaboration of the heads of department. Some have chosen to follow a modular approach, while others have largely stuck to their existing model, with a few changes made to how content is presented and assessed. In Grade 8, students complete a module in each of the creative arts (visual art, drama, music and dance) during the course of the year. In Grade 9, students select two of their preferred creative outlets and only study those. Electives, which are focused, semesterlong courses stemming from other learning areas (e.g. geography and history) are chosen from three different groups.

Giving students a say

While we strive to give students more say in how they structure their own learning, we are also cognisant of the fact that they will almost certainly require some kind of guidance when making their selections. We want them to cover a broad range of topics, so they have multiple options available to them at a later stage.

So, students ultimately will have to complete a total of four electives from each of the three groups. In reality, this means that each student will cover a broad range of topics by default. However, as there are more than four courses in each group of electives, students are reassured that there are subject areas which they can avoid completely. A student who is not at all confident with performing need not take the musical theatre elective, while a student who is particularly interested in economics can take all the courses on offer during the two years they are in grades 8 and 9.

Bridge House has also decided to blend the grades for electives. This means that an elective class may be comprised of a mixture of any number of students from either Grade 8 or Grade 9. Core subjects remain grouped according to grades.

Set-up

It should come as no surprise that setting a system up like this requires considerable work from every party involved beforehand. Staff need to be given the opportunity to voice concerns or make recommendations. They need to be given time and space to revisit their curricula to identify areas that may be suitable to being modularised into an elective, and they need to be given the opportunity to get together to discuss potential areas of collaboration between subjects and courses.

Further, the frameworks for the actual running of our new curriculum need to be worked out and put into place: course outlines and planners, timetables, classroom allocations and materials are all necessary before starting.

The work the teachers completed to revisit their subjects was all recorded in a vision document, which was then distributed to parents. Finally, we held an information evening, where parents and students in grades 6–8 (our current grades 7–9) had our curriculum explained to them, allowing them to ask questions or voice concerns.

Once this process had been completed, we gave the then- Grade 8 students the opportunity to select their electives. Students made a first and second choice from each group. These were captured and then totals for selections were made. Electives that were full or oversubscribed were noted, and where necessary, students were moved to electives which had fewer students participating. Spaces were also reserved to give the Grade 8s of 2017 the chance to take some of the more popular courses.

With the exception of accounting and foreign languages, electives do not have prerequisite courses, and most are run in both the first and second semester. This means that even if students do not get allocated their first choice in a particular semester, they will almost certainly get to take it in another.

Results

The new curriculum gave us the perfect reason to drop in to see what staff are doing and how it is working.

We were especially interested in the social dynamics of grades 8 and 9 students in the same classes. After an initial settling-in period, the Grade 8s rose to the occasion admirably. Indeed, it was almost impossible to discern who was who in terms of grade. Both grades asked and answered questions effectively in class and, indeed, in some electives, it was a Grade 8 student leading the way academically.

As the staff had been instructed to design curricula where no previous knowledge of the subjects was required for students to take the electives (except in the case of the foreign language components, where a certain level of proficiency is needed to take French 103, for example), it meant that all the students had an equal advantage.

What has also proved to be interesting is watching the social dynamics of the electives slowly evolve – initially, grades sat segregated from each other, but once group work was introduced by staff and interaction began, there was a merging of the grades as they collaborated on tasks and projects.

Positive changes

Our observations of the staff who deliver these electives and those who have revolutionised the delivery of the core subjects in the GET phase reveal that they are more energised, more experimental and definitely more passionate about what they are teaching.

At the end of the first term this year, we surveyed the students to get a sense of how our new curriculum was being received, and the results we received are very positive indeed:

The shift has been away from a garnering of marks. To support this, the reports for Term 1 reflected an effort rating for each elective, but no percentage. Instead of examinations in Term 2, there will be an Assessment Week, where students will complete projects for the electives and be assessed in various ways (not just in written form) for the core subjects. It is hoped that this will go some way to reduce exam fear.

Frequently asked questions

These are some of the queries that have arisen since we first pitched the idea of our new curriculum. We have endeavoured to answer these as succinctly as possible:

1. Could you make it clear what the consequences are of choosing one elective over another for the student when they are in Grade 10 onwards? A student can still take a number of subjects in Grade 10 (or even under special circumstances, in Grade 11) without having completed an elective in that subject area.

2. Will there be an evaluation after the first year to monitor the success of the new curriculum?

Yes, there will be student surveys conducted at the completion of each semester, as well as regular monitoring by the heads of departments and the academic head. Review meetings will also be held to gauge the effectiveness of each elective.

3. How can we be sure that academically strong students are challenged?

The availability of a wide range of curricula, materials and resources, as well as the teachers’ abilities to differentiate tasks and projects, should cater for these students.

4. Does a student have the choice of choosing a Level 1 course as an elective e.g. French 101, even though they studied French as a subject in Grade 8?

Yes, students can “start again” with French if they feel they need to – or, at the discretion of the head of foreign languages, they can slot into a higher level. The essence is not to penalise students in any way.

5. Is there a minimum or maximum limit on class sizes?

By virtue of the number of electives on offer, it is almost guaranteed that classes will have sufficient students to run the elective. Class sizes will not exceed 24 students, as this is in line with school policy.

6. Can a student repeat an elective if they do badly in it, and what happens if a student fails an elective?

No, they cannot repeat it, and we are hoping that students do not fail an elective. The electives will be structured in such a way that there are a number of formative and summative tasks that staff will use to monitor students’ progress throughout the course, and passing or failing will not hinge on a single written task or examination.

References:

1. See, for example: http://edglossary.org/one-to-one/.

2. To learn more about South Africa’s national curriculum statements,see:http://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/NationalCurriculumStatementsGrad

esR-12.aspx.

3. See: http://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/CurriculumAssessmentPolicyStatements(CAPS).aspx.

4. See, for example: https://www.bemoneyaware.com/blog/cbse-icse-ib-igcsechoosing-school-board/

 

Category: Winter 2017

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