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Curriculum design – what’s that all about? Part 1

In the PYP subject guidance review, the PYP refer to teachers as curriculum designers but why is this and what does it mean for schools? This is the first of three blogs looking into curriculum design in the PYP. Part one gives a little background and context to current thinking. Part two will share some research into curriculum design practices in PYP schools and the final blog of the series will share some ideas for moving the research into action.

People talk about curriculum in many different ways – there’s the planned or intended curriculum, the attained curriculum, the hidden curriculum, the extracurricular curriculum – and in the PYP in the past, we used the terms ‘written, taught and assessed’. In reality, the curriculum is all of these activities, talk, products and resources that are designed for learning – the curriculum process.

The PYP has always considered our educators and schools as designers of curriculum, although the term itself is fairly recent. In national and international publications, it has been common to see the term curriculum development when referring to organisations writing curriculum and delivery referring to the process where schools implement a complete static curriculum in classrooms. However, over the last few years it has been pointed out that in fact the curriculum is constantly adapted and shaped through reflective learning and teaching to meet the needs of students, teachers and schools in their context. The curriculum then, is not so much a document but more of a dynamic process through which curriculum guidance meets classroom practice.

For the IB this idea of ‘curriculum as process’ was recognised early on as our worldwide contexts are so extraordinarily diverse. Instead of a conventional curriculum, the IB uses curriculum frameworks that give flexibility and freedom for local curriculum to be designed in schools so they can best meet the needs of their own learners. Besides the benefit of this to the learners, it also creates a sense of investment and ownership by all the stakeholders involved in designing and building their curriculum. Recently, with the IB revised Programme standards and practices and the increased flexibility in the PYP: from principles into practice, there has been stronger recognition of local curriculum design. As well as opportunities for innovation, this flexibility can also be challenging for schools beginning their journey with the PYP, schools integrating national requirements or schools with no mandated standards.

School curriculum might be seen as a series of layers. These layers interact with each other and contribute to the ongoing process of adaptation, renewal and innovation. In the PYP, the curriculum framework and the IB mission are one such layer, school curriculum documents such as scope and sequences and policy another, then there is the programme of inquiry and units, and then at the heart of all this, there are the learning experiences that respond to the immediate needs of the learner. Schools and the IB don’t operate in a vacuum. Beyond the IB frameworks is the national context and schools have opportunities, and challenges, in weaving in state and national requirements and resources into their curriculum design work.

Some people think of the IB frameworks as a set of building blocks; the elements of an IB education, approaches to learning, approaches to teaching, learner profile, multilingualism, transdisciplinary themes, subjects, concepts and so on. Using these blocks, schools collaboratively design their own curriculum to suit their place and people. By building for a local context schools can address local needs and learning pathways and leverage local resources. There is space for student and teacher passions and interests, space to build relevant support for the community’s language profile, and to develop inclusive practices that meet immediate needs and for inquiry and action to flourish.

The growth of knowledge and expertise in design thinking in the world of education is a potential source of tools and ways of thinking about curriculum design. With its focus on processes, collaboration and iteration there is an excellent fit with PYP curriculum design approaches. More recently, thinking associated with ‘human-centered design’ placing people and relationships at its heart, has enriched opportunities for people working in education to explore the role of design thinking.

How can the PYP better support schools and our educators in curriculum design practices? This is a question we have been asking ourselves and we have some ideas to share with you. In part 2, we will look at what we can learn from our research into how PYP schools work every day at designing curriculum. We’ll start to consider what tools schools are asking for and we invite you to join us on this design journey.

If you have some ideas or resources you’d like to share, please reach out to us at [email protected]


Nikki Welsh, PYP Curriculum development manager
Nikki Welsh, PYP Curriculum development manager
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