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A place for our children’s children to flourish: the transformative curriculum at St Stithians Girls’ Preparatory

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments


As educators, we are often asked how transformation, diversity and inclusion are changing the curriculum.

This is a really good question, but I would argue that, for our time, it is the wrong question. The right question is: “How can the curriculum be used by us to change our world?” An independent school has a unique freedom to use its everyday business of teaching and learning as a mechanism to respond to this call. The following discussion outlines a few of the pathways along our journey at St Stithians Girls’ Preparatory to heed this call and radically invert the way we do our core business of educating. It is our aim that, in the process of Learning to Know and Learning to Do (two of UNESCO’s four pillars of education1), the other two, which focus on human flourishing and well-being, are simultaneously achieved. Learning to Be and Learning to Live Together are surely the proper objectives of all our knowing and doing. Our audacious challenge, and that which is demanded of us, is a call to walk the talk of having a growth mindset, being risk-takers and improving the lives of women of all races in our country so that they might go on to be agents of change in our global community. Harnessing the transformative power of visionary curriculum reform is our urgent task.

Alignment all-important

In his article on the opportunities and challenges facing independent schools, our rector and executive head, Tim Nuttall, located the challenge of change within the macro-level context of South Africa’s schooling system, which remains profoundly differentiated.2 He drew attention to the particular responsibility that independent schools have to “the necessity of building a new society that is significantly different to the country’s apartheid legacy”3 and to countering all exclusionary forces that discriminate, either systemically or individually, against racial groups, women and people who identify fluidly along the gender continuum. In his article, Nuttall reflects on the extent to which there is alignment between a school’s statement of purpose and intent, and the daily life of the school. The crucial word in that macro context is “alignment”. The curriculum must, as elegantly as possible, articulate with, and speak to, the strategic goals of the school. This is what we are striving to achieve at St Stithians Girls’ Prep.

“Our audacious challenge… which is demanded of us, is a call to walk the talk of having a growth mindset, being risktakers and improving the lives of women of all races in our country so that they might go on to be agents of change in our global community.”

Curriculum the defining mechanism

As one of St Stithians College’s seven schools, the Girls’ Prep is a microcosm within our school ecosystem, and within the broader ecology of the South African independent school landscape. Our focus is on championing the particular challenges facing women. Being a monastic part of a coeducational whole provides a singular opportunity to do this. We can create a learning environment that provides both the necessary and sufficient conditions in which the particular needs of young girls are met. We explicitly work to “create safe and engaged spaces for addressing anger, fear, anxiety, frustration and hope”4 – not only in relation to race, but also in relation to both the strengths and the vulnerabilities girls must negotiate as they make their way in the world. The specifics of women’s challenges will not be directly addressed here, as presently, the local and global conversations around the issues are loud and well represented. Rather, I want to share the power and the magic of seeing curriculum as the defining mechanism through which our statement of purpose and intent might be realised, making the college more “relevant, transformed and inclusive of diversity”.5 More simply put, I want to share how we at the Girls’ Prep are using systematic and explicit, yet strategic, curriculum reform to inculcate our school character and thereby make the contribution to South Africa’s transformation that is still so desperately needed.

Keeping the student in the centre

The model we have chosen to use for radically changing the way we do our core business of educating is Inquiry Based Learning (IBL).6 (I am following the American spelling here only to maintain consistency with the international jargon.) Neither IBL nor its underpinning educational philosophy of extreme constructivism is new. Its student-centred approach, also, is neither novel nor unique. The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO)7 has been implementing IBL for a long time across a wide spectrum of schools around the world. What is differently compelling is the urgency of seeing how a tightly structured, yet flexible, curriculum model such as IBL keeps the student in the centre. Our challenge is to see this as a means of setting into motion transformative educational outcomes. If one looks at the World Economic Forum’s 2030 Global Goals for Sustainable Development,8 it is clear that
there is not much time to waste: in 2030, today’s Grade 1s will be in Grade 11. Our task is to align what goes on in our classrooms with these goals, to develop citizens who will leave our schools with a clear sense of their local and global responsibilities and values aligned with reducing inequality and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Defining a transformative curriculum

A transformative curriculum must also take into account aims and objectives related not only to race, gender and women’s empowerment, but also to the imperative to prepare girls for an unknown world of work – a landscape across which artificial intelligence is already striding. For our students to thrive and to have the best lives we and their parents wish for them, our curriculum must develop strong empathic, creative and metacognitive skills to do the work that machines cannot. If we want to transform, we need to have the broadest possible sense of what it is we want to transform: people’s world view and values. And therefore, nurturing not only the mental development of little girls, but especially their value system, their characters, their sense of ethics and morality, and their ability to empathise, must be at the centre of educational reform. This commitment drives the undeniably difficult task of whole school IBL implementation. So, if IBL is student-centred, exactly what aspects of the “student” – in our case, the young girl – must be centred? How do we use curriculum as a mechanism to effect change?

Twelve core character attributes

At the Girls’ Prep, our response to these critical questions has been informed and guided by a contextualised synthesis of the principles of backward design, as outlined in the seminal IBL guidebook, Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)9 and by the strengths of the IBL model. In practice, the starting point for the design of a unit of instruction is one of 12 core character attributes we at St Stithians Girls’ Prep have identified as aligning with the strategic vision and mission of the school. These include, but are not limited to, having a growth mindset, being spiritually aware, mindful, reflective and resilient, informed, open-minded and a risk-taker. In terms of instructional design, right at the outset, step one is to identify just one of these core attributes around which every aspect of the overall unit of inquiry (UOI) is designed. In this way, our model is inspired by the IBO’s method without being confined by its definition of which aspects of the Learner Profile10 are important. We are free to create working definitions of concepts that are specific to our St Stithians – and our South African – context.

Pedagogic freedom and responsibility

For example, spiritual awareness is defined as being confidently mindful of one’s own expression of spirituality, yet also knowing and respecting that religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution. A teacher could choose this value to focus on in a UOI. The curriculum then is used to teach children to honour their own faiths and other belief systems. Both the pedagogic freedom and responsibility we as a South African independent school have, as alluded to by Nuttall, are put to work. By centring instructional design around the inculcation of a particular value, the delivery of the written, taught and assessed curriculum becomes recursively dynamic and process-oriented. Teachers are challenged to think about how knowledge, skills and concepts, as curriculum content, are all co-opted in diverse processes to develop the particular attribute identified as both the overarching and the underpinning instructional motivation. The key point here is that every pedagogic decision has to have as its core objective the development of spiritual awareness. In the IBL model, the questions that drive the enquiry and its assessment must all link to the discovery of and respect for a student’s own spiritual awareness, and that of the other, those with whom a student lives and learns in the school day. More specifically, by way of example in our church school context, this might entail structuring an enquiry that guides the student to explore Methodism and continue in the research process to discover the similarities and differences between Christianity and other faiths. Holding the enquiry together, and keeping the student attribute central, are select transdisciplinary concepts: respect, empathy and perspective could be chosen by the teacher as three meta-ideas that would be spiralled throughout the planning, assessment and teaching in a particular UOI. Because, to be spiritually aware, one has to be able to see varied life-worlds from multiple perspectives, to have empathy for the experiences people have across different religious contexts and, crucially, to respect other people’s right to live out their faith free from discrimination. This process of backward design can be used with any core student value, guiding big questions and transdisciplinary concepts in an IBL UOI.

Doing deep work

Not only does backward instructional design effect the inculcation of values and character, it also develops metacognition, as particular, intentionally selected concepts are reiterated throughout the enquiry cycle. Fostering this higherorder thinking by doing deep work, as Georgetown professor of computer science, Cal Newport, calls it,11 is the energetic mechanism by which students develop the conceptual framework, world view, moral vocabulary and the character needed to transform society.12 And, taking a long backward glance at history, leveraging the wisdom of hindsight to believe that human society is getting better, as MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker hopes, can sustain our vision and our energy to transform: education is the lens through which people see how to live together less violently.13 Implementing IBL, not as start-and-finish projects – otherwise known as Project Based Learning (PBL) – but as whole school curriculum reform, is a daunting task. Daring, directed leadership linked to institutional values and strategic intent are essential. A determined and coherently conceptualised, yet flexible and articulated, curriculum strategy is needed to create learning environments conducive to doing deep work. If we are going to change student outcomes to be more value-centred, if we are going to effect transformation through education, certain conditions must prevail so that IBL as a curriculum mechanism achieves its objectives.

Dealing with the attention economy

For us at the Girls’ Prep, creating the right conditions for the success of IBL as curriculum reform has entailed some decisive, yet informed, actions. We have made the classroom a no-phone zone. In the early days of smartphone adoption, children were assumed to be adapting to multitasking and continual demands on their attention. Advances in neuroscience and the proliferation of social media now discredit this view, emphasising rather that what is truly under siege in our teaching spaces is children’s ability to focus long enough to learn hard stuff fast.14 The tech industry refers to this as the attention economy.15 In a podcast interview, digital design ethicist Tristan Harris – a former Google employee – goes so far as to say that “smartphones are eating our children alive”.16 The “Doctors Frankenstein” of Silicon Valley are gradually realising the agile independence of the particular lifeform they have created. As educators, we are vying with extremely powerful, market-driven forces that are taking hostage the attention and mental focus needed by our students to concentrate long enough to learn hard stuff fast; to do deep work. According to Newport, focus is the new IQ, and together with deliberate practice17 is the key driver of the kind of sustained effort and attention needed to thrive in an increasingly competitive global educational and work environment. Continual partial attention undermines this enterprise. Our schools must be places where the environment supports focus and practice, along with experiential learning and enquiry. So, because willpower is a finite capacity, we believe part of creating a safe space for little girls means reducing the number of times they have to “draw down” on their willpower reserves needed for resisting checking their phones, so that they can develop their focus, participate in the enquiry process and make progress in participating in their own character growth as they engage with the central component of the UOI.

Giving every child a chance

It is also crucial to raise the degree of engagement of each student. This links directly with the goal of transformation and inclusion. So often in our teaching spaces, the same children speak and the same children are silent. Sometimes this is an insidious reflection of our apartheid legacy, an unintended micro-iniquity,18 but exclusionary nonetheless. At the Girls’ Prep, we have implemented a neuroscience-based methodology of getting the most out of groupwork. Kagan Cooperative Learning equips teachers with a toolkit of brain-friendly, carefully designed interaction structures that ensure 100% student engagement rates in all kinds of lesson activities. Guaranteeing every child the chance to participate actively in classroom interaction and groupwork speaks directly to our goals of non-discrimination, transformation and inclusion. By conceptualising the curriculum as the engine driving transformation and by creating the right conditions for focus, deep work, deliberate practice and maximum student engagement, independent schools are well positioned to implement IBL. Keeping student character development at the centre of the entire instructional design process is the best hope we have of harnessing the power of education so that “the better angels of our nature”19 live and work together to make South Africa, and the world, a place for our children’s children to flourish.

Adrienne Watson: Deputy Head Curriculum Innovation and Research.

1. See:
2. Nuttall, T. (2017, 2018) The opportunities and challenges facing independent schools – South Africa 2017: a view from St Stithians College: parts 1 and 2. Independent Education, 20(4) and 21(1).
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. See:
7. See:
8. See:
9. Wiggins, G.P. and McTighe, O. (2005) Understanding by Design. Alexandria: ASCD.
10. See:
11. See: Newport, C. (2016) Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. London: Piatkus.
12. Brooks, D. (2015) The Road to Character. New York: Random House.
13. Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. London: Penguin. See also: Pinker, S. (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. New York: Viking.
14. Newport, C. (2016) op. cit.
15. See:
16. Newport, C. (2016) op. cit.
17. Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisiton of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3).
18. Molefi, N. (2017) A Journey of Diversity & Inclusion in South Africa: Guidelines for Leading Inclusively. Johannesburg: KR Publishing.
19. See:
20. Pinker, S. (2011) op. cit.

Category: Winter 2018

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