Understanding the UWCSEA Curriculum: A Science example from our K-12 concept-based curriculum
Carla Marschall, Head of Curriculum Development and Research, UWCSEA
20 June 2018
Developed from our mission, the concept-based curriculum at UWCSEA enables students to embrace challenge and take responsibility for shaping a better world. This is achieved through all five elements of our holistic learning programme—academics, activities, outdoor education, personal and social education and service.
Concept-based curriculum explained
Our concept-based curriculum organises learning around the development of transferable ideas, which may be disciplinary or interdisciplinary. Knowledge and skill acquisition is vital, but not the end goal in a concept-based curriculum. Using their knowledge and skill learning, students construct and express conceptual understandings, which transfer to new contexts. This allows our students to apply critical thought in any situation, now or in the future.
Standards are the significant concepts from each learning area, articulated into ‘conceptual statements’. These apply to all grade levels from K1 to the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP). This ensures that these concepts are revisited in developmentally appropriate ways as students transition from grade to grade.
Under each standard are conceptual understandings, which are conceptual statements written for specific developmental stages. These may be grade-specific. This allows students to access the broader concepts in the standard, while simultaneously developing an understanding of specific concepts appropriate to the grade-level.
Benchmarks are attached to each conceptual understanding in each grade. These describe what a student should know or be able to do at each stage of their learning in order to develop understanding in each subject.
How this fits with IGCSE and IB examination courses
In the High School, the standards, conceptual understandings and benchmarks specifically take into account the requirements of the external examining bodies that set the (I)GCSE and IBDP examinations that students sit at the end of these two-year courses in Grade 10 and Grade 12.
An example from Science: energy and its transformation
In this Science example, all students work towards a Standard related to energy and its transformation. The Conceptual Understandings in each grade outline what students should understand at each stage—in early Primary School this consists of conceptual understandings around light and sound energy. By Middle School the conceptual understandings widen, asking students to understand electrical and thermal energy. This is further refined in the High School as students in the IBDP are asked to investigate, within their chosen area of science, myriad concepts in-depth such as electricity, magnetism, wave phenomena and nuclear energy.
Developing the UWCSEA Qualities and Skills: Across all grade levels, students also learn about the scientific process and the attitudes required to be a scientist, for example being a critical thinker, a communicator, resilient and creative.
Energy comes in different forms which can be transformed from one to another, the total amount of energy remaining constant in the universe.
This Science Standard related to energy and its transformation is illustrated by the examples below. Note how the learning activities align to the grade-level Conceptual Understanding, as well as to the overarching Standard.
Conceptual Understanding: Substances and surfaces can reflect, refract or absorb light, changing its pathway.
Our approach to science learning in the Infant School is to harness students’ instinctive curiosity by designing rich, open-ended activities that connect to ‘big ideas’ from our curriculum.
In order to build students’ conceptual understanding, teachers engage them in activities that ask them to question, wonder and hypothesise. At the beginning of the Grade 1 Light and Sound unit, teachers create a ‘light lab’ in the Pod where students can tinker with their ideas. The space is filled with myriad objects to explore: mirrors, transparent blocks, coloured cellophane, torchlights and prisms. With these materials, students make observations, develop testable questions and engage in scientific experimentation. Teachers listen to students’ thinking and ask probing questions, changing the Pod space over the course of the unit to provoke further investigation and support learning.
At the same time, students learn about the scientific process and attributes of being an effective scientist such as perseverance and open-mindedness. Part of this process involves the accurate recording of one’s thinking. In Grade 1, we do this by introducing students to their own science notebooks. Through Writing Workshop mini-lessons, students learn to create observational drawings, use arrows and labels, and embed scientific vocabulary into their writing. Teaching students to engage intentionally with their notebooks shows them how important their work as scientists is!
- Critical Thinker
Conceptual Understanding: The transfer of heat energy occurs through conduction, convection and radiation.
Middle School students investigate heat transfer as they explore more sophisticated scientific concepts in their unit in Grade 7 that sees them deepen their understanding of the concepts of conduction, convention and radiation through group investigations.
In Middle School students are introduced to more sophisticated scientific concepts. These are relevant to their lives, interests and experiences, and presented in ways that spark their curiosity.
Grade 7’s unit on heat transfer links to the Standard being illustrated. Wanting students to see how the particle model applies to ideas in their lives, teachers engage students in a variety of learning activities that go well beyond rote learning. These activities build on ideas introduced in Grade 6, expanding students’ understanding by presenting learning in a new context. After forming an initial understanding of the heat transfer concepts of conduction, convection and radiation, students are placed in expert groups to investigate a particular form of heat transfer. Each group then teaches students from other groups about their topic. In this way, Middle School students engage in scientific discourse and experience the value of collaboration in deepening their understanding.
Scientific knowledge is powerful, but only if it is used to understand and interpret phenomena from the real world. To nudge Middle School students to develop their metacognition and transfer their understandings, teachers engage students in a number of novel demonstrations. Students must then explain these using their prior knowledge of conduction, convection and radiation. This stretches student thinking and reiterates the importance of using one’s learning to make sense of the world. Throughout Middle School, theory and hands-on application are balanced to ensure that students view their learning as something which empowers them.
- Critical Thinker
Conceptual Understanding: For simplified modelling purposes the Earth can be treated as a black-body radiator and the atmosphere treated as a grey-body.
In Grade 11 IB Physics students explore solar radiation and the concept of black body radiation (radiation emitted by a perfect emitter). After students form an initial understanding of a black body, and compare it to the related concept of emissivity, they use an online simulation to investigate further.
In Grade 11 IB Physics students explore solar radiation and the concept of black body radiation (radiation emitted by a perfect emitter). After students form an initial understanding of a black body, and compare it to the related concept of emissivity, they use an online simulation to investigate further. Using the simulation, they take measurements and extrapolate the relationship between temperature and peak emissivity, represented by the equation P = eσAT4, where e has values from 0 to 1. This helps students acquire specialised concepts within the area of solar radiation, and begin locating relationships between them.
In order for our students to become scientists, they need to see the applicability of science ideas to a variety of situations. To support students in making connections between unlikely contexts, teachers present case studies and ask students to link them to ideas studied. In the IB Physics example, students apply the concept of ‘peak emissivity’ to an incandescent light bulb and a low-energy LED light bulb. Using their understanding, they see that the incandescent bulb’s temperature means that most of its emissivity is in light which is not visible. Hence these bulbs are less energy efficient. The LED light bulb, in contrast, is fixed to have peak emissivity in the visible range, thereby reducing the amount of energy needed. Such case studies help students see the usefulness of specialised scientific knowledge to solving some of the most critical environmental, sociocultural and economic problems we face.
- Commitment to Care
- Critical Thinker