This article is based on real-life experiences with the Primary Years Programme within a Chinese context in a bilingual school that is currently in its candidate phase. The article looks at the cultural dimensions as well as the structural changes within the organization to make it not only culturally relevant, but also to support learning English as an additional language.
I had heard of schools following the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) in a bilingual context but used to wonder if it really was possible. It is my first time in China and I am having a first-hand experience of curriculum delivery in a bilingual setup. The move to China was not only helping me to explore the PYP in a new context with an added perspective, but also getting me to see beyond the cultural iceberg—the aspects of culture in any given society that need to be delved into for years. There are behaviours and social norms that are apparent and then there are other aspects that are not so visible but gradually learned over time owing to the personal experiences within a community. For me, it was a unique concept to understand that there is more to the Chinese culture than the obvious aspects of its heritage and tradition, such as the values and belief systems, the acceptable and not acceptable codes of behaviour and so on.
At all times, I was constantly thinking about and reminded of being an internationally minded person. My notions of being inclusive were constantly reshaping themselves and evolving. Starting with the Chinese language (Mandarin) to food, to festivals and holidays, it was all brand new, yet appealing. It was only after a couple of months that I started to sense and dig deeper into things that were not so apparent, such as: biases, family roles, body language, self-concept, work ethics, personal space, gestures, and aesthetics within this community. Once I became more mindful of the cultural context, it was easier for me to make connections with the way things were.
It was a daunting task as a Programme Coordinator to find a good starting point, and then begin to form a strong team of teachers, who are driven towards the shared vision of providing an international education to students from diverse backgrounds. The cohort of teachers was equally diverse, representing different countries, cultures and ethnicities that I needed to be mindful of.
Curriculum guidelines for schools in China, including international schools, can be governed by the regulations of the Chinese Educational Bureau. Being a PYP candidate school, we are constantly looking to the IB Programme standards and practices (2016) for guidance. It became evident that somewhere there was a need to make our practice better as PYP educators and practitioners. It was the students in our care who although seemingly enjoyed the PYP curriculum, but at the same time, disapproved some of the rote methods of learning the Chinese curriculum. At one point, it seemed like we are running on two parallel tracks, leaving a lot to be desired by the parents and students.
It was not until August, when we began with a brand new academic session with a new leadership team, that we made a unanimous decision to put an end to this confusion. Our focus was on developing a vision for creating and strengthening a community of learners receiving international education. With this goal in mind, we explored what would be the best bilingual model that would work for our students in terms of agency and also allow our teachers to feel empowered when in the classrooms. The first step was to introduce parity for the overseas as well as the Chinese homeroom teachers, so that they could plan and collaborate on all aspects of learning and teaching. We knew we had to get rid of our old model that gives an impression of one teacher being responsible for making all the learning happen, while others support them at all times. This thought and ideology had to go, so we brought in a bilingual model where our foreign homeroom teacher and the Chinese homeroom teacher within each grade felt empowered to contribute to the planning process to ensure higher rates of student success. Change, however comes with some resistance. It was for the leadership team to support the educators to see the value in following this bilingual model, with learner at the heart of everything that we would do.
As much as we would want our students to learn an additional language, we decided that there has to be a focus on using home and family languages as this helps the students in more than one way. Research (2008) indicates that home and family language support not only leads to improved learning outcomes, but also secures increased access and equity apart from the sociocultural benefits. Our ideology to have a Chinese homeroom teacher along with a foreign teacher in each of the PYP classes was just right to ensure this support for our bilingual learners. Until now, we had been contemplating the percentage use of Chinese or English within the classrooms. However, based on research, we decided that we would make language a vehicle for all learning instead.
There is an atmosphere of fresh ideas as well as applying innovation and research-based practices. There is an increased focus on working towards our new vision of creating a community of learners who can speak more than one language. The parent community has responded positively to these structural and pedagogical amendments and share hope and faith as we strike this partnership in ensuring student success. I feel grateful for this opportunity and that it is a great model for us to explore and work with the big ideas around internationalism and language acquisition. I am beginning to see a shift in culture as the Chinese curriculum teachers collaboratively plan lessons with the foreign teachers, thereby fostering a culture of learning. Finally, I have discovered the starting point for me in this journey!
Programme standards and practices. January 2014 (updated March 2016).
The Cultural Iceberg: https://www.languageandculture.com/cultural-iceberg
Bühmann, D. & Trudell, B. 2008. Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0016/001611/161121e.pdf
Priya Kapoor is a PYP educator and Primary Years Coordinator at Beanstalk International Bilingual School (Chengdu campus) in China. Priya has been working with children for over 14 years. She has worked in different set ups; guiding, mentoring and supporting team of teachers to achieve the IB standards and practices, and getting the schools through IB accreditation process. Practicing the IB philosophy, she values all round development in children. Priya has recently moved to Beanstalk International Bilingual School and is on her journey to discovering what it truly means to be an internationally minded person. You can follow Priya on Twitter @PriyaPwnK.