Vertical planning: developing a conceptual scope and sequence

In my last post, I wrote about horizontal planning and developing a more conceptual focus across a grade-level. But each grade-level sits within a larger scope and sequence, and our curriculum needs to reflect this interdependence.

We naturally look to texts (or topics in disciplines such as science or the humanities) and skills as a focus for progression. As students move through a programme of study, we consider which texts might provide the appropriate level of challenge and which skills need to be developed with greater sophistication. But what about progression of concepts and conceptual understandings? A Grade 6 student’s understanding of perspective, for example, will be very different from a Grade 10 student’s. And how do all of those concepts fit together to tell a story across the grade levels?

We’ve always had a narrative thread running through each year of the programme, so there is a certain sense of thematic unity implicit within the curriculum. But that conceptual cohesion was just a little too implicit, so at the end of last year we really mined those concepts and made them more explicit. Intentional is my word for the year: intentional in curriculum design and intentional in the teaching.

This is a peek at our scope and sequence for the MYP. Grade 6 focuses on storytelling and the individual experience. Grade 7 looks at the individual’s place within a community (local and global). Grade 8 moves on to consider issues related to coming of age and interpersonal relationships. Grade 9 revolves around conflict — external and internal. And Grade 10 centres on wider global issues. We take a multi-genre approach with each unit, using a mix of literary works and non-literary texts to support the concepts. This just gives an idea of our conceptual focuses across the MYP but could be adapted to suit any relevant content. I have omitted the “meat” of each unit (the statements of inquiry) to respect the hard work my departmental colleagues have put into personalising each unit for our unique school context.

A thoughtful curriculum should tell a story: what story does yours tell?

Horizontal planning: minimising content to maximise understanding

The old idiom “less is more” has so many different applications, but 2020 certainly gives it new meaning. By the first couple of weeks of remote learning back in the spring, I realised what a truism that statement is in relation to curriculum. Despite the many challenges that lay ahead, coverage was not one of them. Having a concept-based curriculum never felt like such a privilege; we had the ability to adapt our curriculum to meet the sudden demands of remote learning and consider our students’ wellbeing. For some, this might be a challenge, but we seized on the opportunity to make our curriculum work for our students. I’m not saying it all worked perfectly, but I don’t think anyone in my department feels that our students fell behind during lockdown (despite what many politicians may lead the public to believe).

I plunged ahead with my Diploma syllabus, teaching the same number of texts but strategically cutting content within each unit of study, often taking a whole-text approach as opposed to the more guided approach I would normally take in the physical classroom. We cut content in our MYP units as well, where we have a bit more freedom because we are not bound by a syllabus. The result was an opportunity to explore the concepts in more depth, using the content as a tool for developing conceptual understanding, rather than as an end point. But shouldn’t this be the norm, not the exception? These “exceptional circumstances” we have found ourselves in this year should be an opportunity for schools and systems to really reconsider what is “essential content”.

I believe that curriculum is a living organism; an authentic, live curriculum should never be “complete”. Luckily, my departmental colleagues are on the same page and are always looking for ways to adapt our curriculum to meet the needs of our students and reflect our local and global contexts. Our scope and sequence has gone through many permutations over the years. At one point, we were teaching 5-6 units per year in each grade. It always felt like a race to the finish line, and inevitably we never actually managed to get through everything. So last year we reduced the number of units per grade to 4. This seemed like the right number because it meant we could focus a unit on each major genre (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry) — except, this plan was flawed from the start because the units were very text-focused; the conceptual elements became a bit of a bolt-on.

This year, we have scaled back again to 3 units per grade. That’s roughly one per term, with room built in to allow for flexibility if a unit runs shorter or longer than expected –and time for meaningful IDUs to take place. We also have more time to promote independent reading and embed opportunities for student choice within the curriculum. In most grades, we have not had to cut too much content; we have simply repurposed it through a more conceptual lens. And the conceptual focus has allowed us to bring in lots of different text types to support the statement of inquiry, which better prepares students for the DP Language & Literature course. Here is a peek at our Grade 9 (MYP 4) curriculum:

Cutting down to 3 units has presented challenges in terms of assessment. Previously, we sort of naturally developed 2 creative and 2 analytical tasks across the year (one summative task per unit) to ensure that we hit each criterion strand twice. Now, we have to approach assessment in a more holistic (less linear) manner. So we might have a unit which includes more than one summative task, or we might create a task which includes both analytical and creative elements. It’s a work in progress, and although it does require more intellectual weightlifting on the part of us as teachers, the opportunities it provides our students to develop critical, conceptual thinking is worth the extra effort.