By Marcy Stamper
“It’s not a curriculum — it’s a framework.”
Methow Valley School District administrators have repeated this distinction frequently to explain the IB program to the community.
But to understand what that really means requires looking beyond teachers’ role in the classroom.
Those classroom activities are built around detailed lesson plans that the teachers create, which outline what students need to learn and the readings and other activities that will accomplish that. Teachers must also ensure that their curriculums fulfill the learning standards set by the state.
The IB framework is essentially a way of organizing a lesson plan, according to Robin Khan, marketing communications manager for IB Americas. The framework provides basic questions to help teachers develop each unit, such as “What is our purpose?” “What lines of inquiry will define the scope of the inquiry into the central idea?” and “How might we know what we have learned?”
For each IB unit, teachers list the central idea, key concepts, and the resources they’ll use to teach it (such as books, software or music). They include suggestions for student projects. They also describe ways to evaluate how well students have learned the material.
In IB, the focus is on the reasons students are learning the material and how it relates to their lives, said Methow Valley Elementary School Principal Anne Andersen, who previously served as principal at two IB schools. “That’s the power of this kind of teaching — the student’s voice is important,” she said.
IB’s primary-years program (kindergarten through sixth grade) uses six big themes, including “Who We Are” and “How the World Works,” while middle-school classes are organized under more familiar subject headings, such as language and literature, mathematics, sciences, and arts.
Once the learning plan is complete, a simplified version of each lesson is compiled in a grid that shows all the subject areas across the top and every grade level on the side. The content of the grid is different in every IB school, since the school chooses the content and textbooks to meet the standards, said Khan.
Called a program of instruction, the grid is posted in the school and on the school’s website so that everyone — teachers, students, families — knows what each class is doing at any given time.
For example, at one IB school under the “Who We Are” heading, the grid shows kindergarteners are using the five senses to interpret their environment, while third graders are reading literature to understand common themes in human experience.
Under “How the World Works,” the same outline shows that first graders are studying the physical properties of materials and fourth graders are learning about gravity and the solar system.
Each theme incorporates several subjects, so “Who We Are” may include lessons about family and friends, recorded history, food and physical activity. “How the World Works” may include animals, water use and energy.
In addition to showing the material covered each year, the grid lets everyone see the progression of lessons from one year to the next. Andersen says the system enables teachers to avoid repetition and gaps.
Differences in the IB system
The IB approach to planning a curriculum does have some differences from methods used in traditional schools.
In IB, grade-level teachers plan their curriculums together and meet once a week to compare notes. The meetings allow them to review the activities that proved most interesting for students and what was effective in teaching difficult concepts, said Andersen.
Another difference is a section for reflection on the lessons, which grade-level teachers fill out together. For each unit, teachers record what was most valuable and what they would change. “It’s a really important step that almost never happens unless it’s structured like this,” said Andersen.
All of this information is passed on to the teacher for the next year, said Andersen. While individual teachers may refine a curriculum, the basic elements remain intact, even as teachers come and go, she said. The approach also helps parents know that their children will learn the same material in each grade, regardless of who the teacher is.
Many people are probably not familiar with the details of Washington’s learning standards for each grade and subject, but many standards use terminology and concepts also found in the IB system.
The state specifies four main learning goals — including reading comprehension, understanding the core concepts of mathematics and the sciences, being able to think analytically and creatively and using technology.
In addition, there are specific standards for each subject. For example, the Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education standards were designed to be interdisciplinary, and “inspirational and transformational” to make education relevant.
Social studies emphasizes inquiry and interpersonal relations along with “respect for the values of a diverse and democratic society.”
State standards are broken down by grade level. Kindergarteners are expected to learn the basic concepts of fairness and respect for the rights and opinions of others. Second graders learn about the variety of ways that communities organize themselves. Fourth graders learn that there are multiple perspectives regarding the interpretation of historical events.
Washington’s standards also stress inquiry for understanding different cultures and science.
For the other two articles published on this topic this week, see School district info meeting draws IB skeptics – and supporters and International Baccalaureate and UNESCO — is there a connection?
Click to see all Methow Valley News articles about the proposed International Baccalaureate program in the Methow Valley School District .