I gave a somewhat unpopular answer to a group of parents the other day. I was asked why we had moved away from the traditional approach of dividing each school day into specific academic subject silos that function largely independently, to a modular approach.
The simple answer is that the model of schooling we as teachers and parents graduated from doesn’t work anymore. This approach failed us and our generation, although we may not have realised it then. Failure to change it for our students today will simply compound the problem.
In 2019 Kingsmead College introduced the ‘Growth Curriculum’; a bespoke, modular, and cross-curricular approach to teaching at Grades 8 and 9 level. This has not been without challenges, but it is working for us and producing some remarkable results. We hope that other schools can learn a little something from what we have done.
What was the problem?
As a school, we identified two serious concerns with the traditional subject defined approach.
The first I have alluded to already. It has not, and will not, prepare students for the future. The silos of knowledge upon which this model of education is based, are outdated. The approach creates a situation where, regardless of the best intentions of educators and educational practitioners, the focus remains largely on the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge which is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The second was a particular concern for us. Before the Growth Curriculum was introduced, our students had 15 subjects on their timetables. That meant 15 subjects with distinct content, assessments, task and homework. Every subject teacher had to report on a student’s progress and provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate competency.
The result was anxiety and stress, which seriously impacted not only on the well-being of students but also on their ability to perform academically. To address this worrying situation, we needed to reduce the stress students were placed under by reducing academic demands, without compromising academic standards.
It was these two concerns that finally tipped the balance towards the creation of the Growth Curriculum.
What is the Growth Curriculum and where does it come from?
The Kingsmead College Growth Curriculum is the culmination of careful design by Kingsmead’s teaching staff, working backwards from the required outcomes of the National Senior Certificate, without compromising our academic standards.
The Growth Curriculum aims at breaking down the silos that have existed between different learning areas, and establishing a more relevant, stimulating, and challenging contextualised syllabus for our junior students.
This journey was inspired by a combination of studying best practice from around the world, including, but not limited to, the International Baccalaureate, John Hattie’s ideas on Visible Learning, and Carol Dweck’s work on the Growth Mindset, as well as local examples of excellent teaching.
This was all considered in relation to Kingsmead’s ethos, voiced by our founder, D. V. Thompson. At the centre of this ethos is the individual and a belief that their potential is unlimited, but also requires bespoke and personalised tending and attention to see it fully realised.
To do this we focused on developing greater opportunities for theme-based collaboration across learning areas, but also streamlining the learning process and developing fewer but richer, authentic assessments that measure what matters, rather than the regurgitation of knowledge.
The focus has become developing and demonstrating proficiency in subject-specific and universally transferable skills as well as an understanding of abstract concepts, which can be applied to new experiences and challenges.
In practice, we have divided subjects into two groups: core subjects (English Home Language, Additional Languages, mathematics and physical education) and noncore subjects. It is these non-core subjects that are combined in different configurations to create our modules.
Each term the students participate in three modules that integrate several learning areas focused on developing subject-specific and transferable skills through rich and varied tasks and assessments.
The assessment plan for each module involves formative and summative assessment which include, but is not limited to, formal testing and examinations, practical work, individual skills-focused assessments, subject-specific tasks, as well as collaborative projects.
What are the challenges?
Our experience has highlighted a few challenges to this approach. The one we were most concerned about, from the start, was the question of ‘buy-in’. Schools are complicated organisations with multiple stakeholders. While there is always resistance to change and anxiety coupled with it, we found that this was less of a problem than we feared.
For teachers, what was important was viewing this as an opportunity to really teach students why their subject mmatters. All passionate educators know far more about their subjects than the content they teach, and want to create an understanding and appreciation of their subject’s value beyond school.
A modular approach is a perfect vessel to do this. We found that a focus on the skills (both transferable and subject-specific) that can add value, develop curiosity and creativity, and deepen understanding beyond the classroom, helped staff.
Staff who have a real passion for their subjects want to transfer that to students, and a modular approach does that by focusing on what you can do with what you have learnt, rather than studying content because you were told to.
Another challenge revolved around parent anxiety. Obviously, this is a departure from the traditional educational structures with which most parents are familiar and comfortable. Many expressed concern that this approach was untested and that students would not be able to choose subjects at the end of Grade 9. They were concerned that students would not understand what subjects involved or where their strengths lie.
Fortunately, there is a considerable movement internationally towards this modular approach, and while ours is unique, there is a growing international trend in this direction and associated research and literature to support it. Further, students are taught by subject experts who teach the subject-specific content and skills for each learning area or subject.
Each of these staff members also comments on every student’s performance in their subject area as well as reporting on their general performance in the module and acquisition of transferable skills. This goes some way towards addressing these concerns.
What are the advantages?
The greatest advantage of our modular approach has been our ability to maintain academic standards while focusing more attention on developing the 21st century skills our students will not only find useful beyond school, but indeed are an increasing necessity for the future. At the same time, we can reduce the workload students have to deal with. So, we can do more, without adding more to the Grade 8 and 9 loads.
Since modules focus specifically on developing transferable skills, there emerges an opportunity to focus explicitly on developing particular learning dispositions rather than needing to focus on content.
The Growth Curriculum encourages students to see learning as a lifelong commitment that occurs both in the classroom and in other activities inside and outside of school. It urges everyone to explore and adopt a diverse range of interests and develop creative, caring, and collaborative approaches to learning.
The Growth Curriculum rewards and develops academic flexibility and curiosity by supporting students in their endeavour to embrace uncertainty and challenge. Ultimately this leads to resilience, personal growth, deeper understanding, and far more engagement from students. We hope that other schools can learn a little something from what we have done.