Sometimes I miss the good ol’ days of grad school and student teaching, sticky Michigan summers and lake effect winters, and strict adherence to the UbD framework by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody else at my school does this, but I’ve taken to writing learning objectives on the whiteboard at the start of each lesson:

I know, I skipped the “Students will be able to…” objective.  Still, a little UbD is better than none at all, right?  Okay, okay, JM and GW, don’t freak out!  I’ll do better next time!

I can see how the “Students will know” sentence stem may feel a bit too prescriptive to some.  A defining characteristic of the MYP (in fact, the entire IB curriculum) is that it is “concept-based” rather than content and skill-based, and the most important “skill” students are supposed to learn is inquiry.  Theoretically, this is beautiful.  It reminds me of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of education, placing independence, imagination, and the development of a well-rounded individual over mandated learning objectives.  The adults I’ve met who attended Steiner schools are uncommonly articulate, have varied proclivities and proficiencies in all disciplines, are all multilingual, and tremendously kindhearted.

The MYP lives in a strange liminal state between the boundless, exploratory Primary Years Program, where all students progress in phases and there are no actual standards to master in order to move up a grade level, and the strict Diploma Program, which is skill- and content-heavy.  Reconciling the desire to continue concept-based teaching with the need to equip students with skills they will require in later years seems impossible.  I know I’ve struggled with this enormously, and that each MYP teacher at my school has a different idea of how concepts, content, and skills should be balanced.

These are my thoughts:

1. Content is important, no matter what they say.

The fact that the MYP is supposed to be “inquiry-based” often manifests as a series of open-ended research projects.  One problem I have found with this kind of approach is that younger students often lack foundational knowledge, and are unable to ask the right kinds of questions because they simply do not know where to begin.  Also, it can be difficult to find texts on the topics they truly find interesting at low enough reading levels, as reading comprehension is a skill and therefore not always emphasized in concept-based educational systems.  Another difficulty I have faced with this model is that it allows teachers to run units, perhaps created by someone else, without actually knowing the content.

For example, last year I was new to teaching seventh grade Individuals and Societies, aka social studies, and with an overwhelming total of six preps (four of which were new to me that year) I decided to take the easy route with one of my units and have the students do research essays.  I helped them come up with research questions, guided them to resources, and gave them organizational models, but I didn’t bother to learn all of the content.  Anyway, they had selected such an array of topics to study that there was no chance I could possibly learn it all in time for their assessments.  When it was time to grade their essays, I ended up just checking their claims on the internet.  I felt–and still feel–ashamed at my lack of preparedness for that unit.  I did not have the subject knowledge required to teach it properly.  This year, despite being allocated classes outside my areas of expertise once more, I have vowed to never again teach a class or unit without knowing the content backward and forward.

2. Students learn concepts from content, not the other way around.

I don’t think understanding concepts and learning content are mutually exclusive; in fact, quite the opposite.  One must have content knowledge in order to come up with conceptual understandings.  Factual knowledge leads to inquiry leads to more factual knowledge leads to analysis leads to the generation of new understandings.  A conceptual understanding shouldn’t be dictated first and supported second; that would make it simple dogma.

Besides, isn’t the whole point of any curriculum to have students walk away with conceptual understandings?  Isn’t that an essential part of all forms of education?  All educators believe that what they teach matters in the grand scheme of things.  The way in which it matters–the way in which the content is not only relevant, but important–is generally conceptual.

3. Assessing what we don’t teach is unethical, so we should make sure to teach the skills prescribed by our standards/criteria.

Check out Criterion D: Using Language, one of the four MYP Language and Literature objectives:

crit d
In the MYP Language and Literature, there are 4 Criteria: Analyzing, Organizing, Producing Text, and Using Language.  That means a full 25% of the course standards are tied to literacy skills.

During my couple of years in the MYP I didn’t teach grammar, spelling, punctuation, or any of these mechanics explicitly.  Nobody else was doing it, and I didn’t want to be that one person who was too old school.  Now, I do daily grammar games to make mechanics fun and get kids talking about language.  I have kids do sustained writing and practice proofreading in every lesson.  I’m in the middle of this action research at the moment, so maybe the results will show that this work has been ineffective, and that all of the students in that grade level made similar growth in literacy skills.  Still, I’d rather make the attempt to address these skills than assume any attempt would be futile.


Education professionals, students, and parents: What do you think is the right balance between concepts, content, and skills in late elementary/middle/early high school?