Published on January 15, 2021
Mrs Emma Bennis International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Coordinator had an exciting realisation while teaching Year 9 English recently.
We caught up with her to hear more about her experience that day and how she is witnessing firsthand the benefits for students learning within a framework that places them squarely at the centre of their learning.
“Art is subjective though, isn’t it? I don’t think there is ever a right perspective about artistic expression – it is always open to interpretation by the individual. We all engage with works of art on different levels and take new meaning away each time.”
This conversation, held in my Year 9 English classroom recently, made me pause. I had just presented my class with a verse novel – a novel written entirely as a sequence of poems – and asked them whether it was, in fact, a novel. The depth of conversation that ensued was stunning – our students were so adept at articulating their position, yet were also willing to listen intently to their peers and shift their understanding as a result. Most importantly, they were comfortable and willing to question what I had presented to them as a teacher, and to make up their own minds independent of my opinion.
This to me is the absolute strength of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP). The MYP is a robust educational framework that puts the student at the centre of their learning – not content knowledge, not disciplinary understanding, but the student. The MYP asks us to focus on how students learn, rather than what they learn. It asks us to build them as critical thinkers, as open-minded and caring, rather than as good scholars of mathematics or literature. This student-focused approach provides us with a platform through which we can achieve our mission as a school – to celebrate each student as a unique individual.
The purpose of a middle years (7-10) education is to provide students with a broad and holistic range of learning experiences, allowing them to develop effective life-long learning habits which set them up for further specialisation at a senior school level and beyond. Watson (2003) describes this as “learning how to do; how to know; how to be; and how to live together.”
The middle years are absolutely formative in a learner’s life. It is widely accepted that students of this age have specific developmental needs and cognitive abilities that schooling must respond to effectively (Smith, 2008). Indeed, Smith (2008) asserts that “it is the teachers and the nature of the curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment practices they construct that make the difference”. It is therefore our responsibility as a school to ensure that our middle years students are supported by a curriculum framework that actively responds to these needs.
Our local and compulsory curriculum, laid out by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), provides us with a robust and detailed outline of what students should learn in these formative years. What is missing is the how. How will we make adolescents feel valued each day? How will we develop students who are internationally minded? How will we develop students who genuinely care for and understand others? How will we develop students who naturally inquire and question? These are the questions that our adoption of the MYP seeks to answer.
So, what does this look like in the classroom?
This is the salient question that parents and educators alike ask, and rightly so. The philosophy of the MYP is such that it can often sound too lofty, unachievable almost, and so it is vital that we take a look inside the classrooms at HVGS and how these might be different to what they were five years ago.
Day to day in the classroom, our MYP students move between direct teacher instruction, small group collaboration and independent work. Sometimes this is noisy and active, other times the classroom calls for quiet introspection. Above all, each lesson is purposeful and motivated by student interest and relevance.
Teaching through inquiry
Motivation and interest are key elements of a successful learning experience in the middle years. If adolescents don’t feel engaged or connected to what they are learning, we have no hope of developing them as learners. The MYP asks that we teach through an inquiry model – put simply, this means that students are guided through a process of asking questions that are important to them and using a wide variety of resources to explore these questions, rather than being confined to one textbook of pre-digested facts (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2015). At HVGS we use the Guided Inquiry Process. As the name suggests, the teacher plays a key and expert role in guiding this process – it is not “free learning” as popular belief may assert.
A great example of this in action is our Individuals and Societies courses (History and Geography). The MYP gives us a framework in these courses for students to develop successful strategies for independent investigation through the development of a research action plan. By using this approach, students have the freedom to select a line of inquiry that interests them, from How has urbanisation caused environmental change in your local area? to How did Agrippina the Younger rise to power in Ancient Rome? The focus is then on students developing robust research and communication skills which they can apply in any chosen field beyond the middle years.
Teaching through concepts
The MYP framework asks us as teachers to step back from content knowledge and focus on conceptual understanding – the “big ideas”. The framework gives us a group of key concepts that students study across a range of disciplines. A focus on big ideas allows students to develop deeper, more complex knowledge, and to apply this knowledge in a variety of new situations (Erickson, 2008).
For example, one of our key concepts is creativity. In English, students may develop and analyse their creative writing skills, creating a piece of their own. In Science, students may look at the creativity and ingenuity required by chemists to classify new substances on the periodic table. Synthesising these experiences, students will come to understand the importance of creativity and self-expression to our development and progress as human beings.
This is a big jump from textbook based learning we may have seen ten years ago, but this greater complexity and higher order thinking certainly sets up our middle years students for greater success in their senior years.
Teaching for international mindedness
As an IB school, part of our mission is to embed in students a sense of international mindedness, the idea that we are part of a global community. One way we achieve this is by including opportunities for service-learning within our curriculum. In the MYP, service-learning is not an additional add-on, something to be done outside of school. Service-learning is an integral part of what students are engaged in as part of their curriculum in each subject.
For example, as part of an energy unit in Science, students will work with their teacher to build a solar light to donate to remote communities around the world; as part of a History unit, students might write to the local MP about reconciliation issues.
Through this engagement, students in the middle years start to see the connection between their learning and the application of this in setting beyond school. In these formative years, students start to build the confidence and understanding that their skills are valued and effective, both at school at in their broader community.
A strength of the MYP is the shared language teachers and students have that applies both in subject groups and in our wellbeing program – our academic and wellbeing programs do not operate in isolation, but rather they support and complement one another.
Part of this is the Approaches to Learning (ATLs) – the skills that students need for success in learning and indeed, life. Self-management skills in particular are developed across both our academic curriculum and wellbeing programs. This synthesis means that for example, Year 9 students might have a workshop with our School Psychologists as part of their wellbeing program, focusing on ways they can exercise mindfulness and positive thinking. Then, as part of our Mathematics curriculum, students are taught ways to manage their thinking, remaining positive and resilient in the face of challenging academic problems.
In this way, students see that self-management is part of their daily life and integral to success in a range of settings. This allows us to build into our adolescents a greater capacity to flourish in their lives beyond school.
The middle years of high school are a crucial time for academic, social and emotional development. It is essential that schools get these formative years right – that they offer students opportunities to develop a positive outlook on themselves as learners and a genuine interest in the world around them. The MYP framework offers us the platform to realise this at HVGS. Through the diverse opportunities offered to students, the robust curriculum and wellbeing programs, the MYP is allowing us to develop the next generation of purposeful and positive young people to take on the world.
Erickson, HL. 2008. Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning (third edition). Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press.
International Baccalaureate Organisation. (2017). MYP: From Principles into Practice [Programme]. The Hague: IBO.
Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K., & Caspari, A. K. (2015). Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century.
Smith, D. (2008). Middle Years Learners – Engaged, Resilient, Successful. State of NSW, Department of Education and Training, Strategic Initiatives Directorate.
Watson, L. (2003). Lifelong learning in Australia. Commonwealth of Australia: Department of Education, Science and Training.