A quiet but important milestone for education recently came and went.
At the Schools’ Inspectorate and Education Department Senior Management Conference held the 29-30 January, the finalized aims and guiding principles of the Cayman Islands’ new schools curriculum were unveiled to Cayman’s education decision-makers.
While sessions over the two-day meeting covered such topics as school improvement planning and assessment of learning, the main action focused on improving the national curriculum.
The problems with its current incarnation have raised concerns from a cross-section of influential members of Cayman society, and have become the mantra of national education reformers.
Simply put, too many students are leaving high school with very few recognized qualifications and in several cases, very poor standards of literacy and numeracy.
In introducing the curriculum report, Curriculum Development Officer Clive Baker explained how the changes are intended to bring what, and how, children learn up to date by creating a more interactive and accountable learning environment.
The impetus for the reforms stems from issues raised at the 2005 education conference which revealed a paucity of students fully prepared to be active and engaged 21st century citizens.
The review document covers a broad range of concerns, such as the international trends and challenges local students face and the growing diversity of Caymanian society.
The new approach to teaching Cayman’s young people is also backed up by developments in research into how students learn that is being acted upon worldwide.
After the 2005 conference, a 16-teacher task force undertook the first phase of curriculum reform, and produced a draft document submitted for public consultation in July 2006.
In September 2006 the Education Department hired two curriculum development officers to present an outline of the review process and gather feedback from teachers, students and parents.
The finalized overview document was presented at the management conference.
The new, pared-down curriculum is intended to equip Cayman’s students for further studies anywhere in the world, offer credibility with employers and providers of further and higher education at home and abroad.
The details of what to teach are still being finalized, but the areas of concern are clear.
That leaves the how – how to teach a new curriculum that neither teachers nor students are familiar with.
Fortunately, a framework addressing these very issues is already in existence.
It’s called the International Baccalaureate, and the Department hopes to replicate the success of the IB Organization’s programme framework in other jurisdictions.
IB programmes promote the education of the whole person, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social development.
Schools wishing to become an IB World School must pass a rigorous six-step qualifying process that not only gauges a school’s willingness and potential but also the support structures available that can fuel the continued success of the program.
Before a school becomes authorized to teach the programme, the principal, coordinator and teachers involved are required to undergo training; either by attending IB workshops or by participating in school-based training organized by the IBO.
After a school becomes authorized, the teachers are encouraged to engage in an ongoing process of professional development.
Nearly 2,000 schools in 124 countries offer the IBO curriculum framework, including 915 in North America and the Caribbean.
That translates into 500,000 students worldwide, an impressive number that continues to grow.
While the Education Department has not yet finalized its decision to go with the IB, the programme seems a likely choice.
Conference attendees heard from Paul Campbell, head of IBO Outreach and Volunteer services, who provided and outline of the program, Maria Hersey, who explained the frameworks that apply specifically to Cayman, and Marion Pittman Couch, a North Carolina principal whose school experienced a dramatic turnaround after the IB system was implemented.
Their message was clear: the overarching success of the IB system comes out of developing a positive attitude toward learning.
In an engaging presentation, Ms Pittman Couch told how her primary school became one of the most desirable schools in the city of Winston-Salem thanks to the IB program which dramatically improved both teacher and student morale and performance.
‘In the media, we went from being a run-down school of last resort in the ghetto, to a waiting-list only academy in an established historical neighbourhood,’ she joked.
From the teaching standpoint, what makes the IB system so attractive to schools around the world is that it encourages good teaching, and provides an international network of best practices, and a forum for professional development.
Of critical importance to Cayman’s curriculum reform is a radical change in the way teachers teach.
Significantly, the overview document recommends that teaching move away from direct instruction to more hands-on activities that encourage understanding, using and applying skills, exploring, investigating and independent learning.
At the same time, assessment will encourage learning rather than punish failure by building on each child’s strengths, and addressing weaknesses in respectful and constructive teacher-student relationships.
By changing the role of the teacher, it is students who truly benefit.
The most popular incarnation of the IB, as it is known, is as a high school credential that can be earned in any country.
IB diploma holders are recognized internationally as possessing well-rounded skills and knowledge that allows them to adapt to the rapidly changing and internationalized arena in which they will be citizens.
While the high-school IB diploma is the best known of the organization’s programs, the Cayman’s Ministry of Education is looking to two newer IB creations, the Primary and Middle Years Programs.
Mr. Baker said the IB seems a good fit for Cayman’s schools because it promotes high quality teaching, learning and assessment, it reflects the philosophy of the draft curriculum document, it comes with training and support, and has credibility around the world.
The Primary Years program promotes the construction of knowledge and the use of inquiry, development of conceptual understanding, drawing on personal and cultural experiences, varied assessment tools, and a global perspective.
‘These principles are intended to give young students a holistic understanding of who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves and how we can share the planet,’ said Ms. Hersey.
The IB incorporates language, social studies, math, arts, science and technology, and personal, social and physical education subject areas.
For example, when learning about where they are in place and time, Primary Years Programme students will explore their personal histories, homes and journeys, the discoveries, explorations and migrations of humankind, and the relationships between and the interconnectedness of individuals and civilizations, from local and global perspectives.
Middle Years students move onto a more diverse range of study topics including a second language, arts and humanities.
The Middle Years program is intended to provide added guidance to children in early puberty to mid-adolescence.
‘This is a time of uncertainty, sensitivity, resistance and questioning,’ said Ms Hersey.
‘An educational programme needs to provide children this age with discipline, skills and challenging standards, but also with creativity and flexibility,’ she said.
The IB addresses these concerns while helping students develop a personal value system to direct their own lives as thoughtful members of local communities and the larger world.
Middle Years programme students will incorporate such aspects as health and social education, community service and human creativity throughout their coursework.
All of these topics will be examined in an age-appropriate context, and covered using information that is locally relevant and meaningful, while allowing the students to extrapolate what they have learned to other areas of knowledge.
Successfully implemented, such strategies have been shown to produce students who are effective critical thinkers, problem solvers, lifelong learners and productive citizens in an ever changing global society.
While the framework is a good fit with the Cayman goals, challenges remain.
In other jurisdictions, the annual cost of implementing the program is approximately US$13 per student for the Primary Years Programme and $25 per student for the Middle years programme.
Staff training is another cost consideration, with a price tag of about US$500 per educator in other jurisdictions.
It isn’t modest. For every school offering the Primary Years Programme, the IB Organization requires training for a minimum of one teacher per grade level, the school head, the PYP Coordinator and one specialist.
For Middle Years Programme schools, training is required for at least one teacher for each of the eight core subjects, the school head and the MYP Coordinator.
The Department will also need to hire more language teachers, especially at the primary level, as well as a dedicated IB coordinator for each school.
The Education Department is nevertheless optimistic, especially since there is no question reforms are needed, and doing it right the first time will pave a smoother path in the future.
That is not to say adopting the program will allow schools to rest on their laurels. Rather, it will challenge the school system like never before. Worldwide, the IB program stands out for its rigour in holding schools and school systems accountable for the success of their students.
In particular, schools themselves must demonstrate their commitment to the programme and to the students.
But from what he has seen already, Mr. Campbell thinks Cayman is uniquely positioned to succeed on the front that most schools find most challenging.
‘If there’s something that immediately struck us when we got here, it was the tremendous support from government that’s already in place,’ he said.
‘It will really benefit the implementation process, as the schools will not have to go up against government to see changes.’
He says the biggest challenge is now achieving buy-in and cooperation from teachers.
He hopes that this can be accomplished by highlighting that the IB is just an effective approach to teaching, not a curriculum.
‘What we want to emphasise is that IB does not replace local curriculum, local requirements or local sensibilities, and IB never tries to replace local culture with some idealized international culture,’ he said.
‘The intent is not to undermine local control or serve any political master. It’s about providing a way for young people to be educated that works.’
Before any decision is taken on adoption of the IB Programme, the Education Department will be consulting with stakeholders, holding informational forums, and gathering recommendations.
ON THE NET
For further information on the IB and other education initiatives visit: www.brighterfutures.gov.ky
‘If there’s something that immediately struck us when we got here, it was the tremendous support from government that’s already in place. It will really benefit the implementation process, as the schools will not have to go up against government to see changes.’
– Paul Campbell, head of IBO Outreach and Volunteer services