While the vast majority of New Zealand primary schools follow The New Zealand Curriculum, a small number favour the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme or the Cambridge International Primary Programme. Here, proponents of each system discuss the relative merits and weaknesses.

The New Zealand Curriculum

MIKE MALCOLM, principal of Leamington School in Cambridge says the open-ended nature of the curriculum is both its greatest strength and its biggest limitation.

The New Zealand Curriculum, considered innovative at its inception is often forgotten in the political maelstrom of government and union policy and public opinion. The reality is it is far more relevant for today’s students and educators than it has ever been. Te Kete is a perfect metaphor of both the simplicity and complexity of a curriculum that should be the envy of the world, but is yet to realise its fullest potential for the New Zealand student.

The interwoven nature of the curriculum where principles, values, vision, language, competencies and learning areas weave together as one reflect the holistic nature of learning and serves as a reminder that learning does not happen in isolation; that developing the whole child academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually is vital for every student as an individual, and for our country. It recognises that children will have strengths and interests in some areas more than others. It reflects the continual nature of learning, showing an understanding that children all develop at their own rate regardless of any expectations that they should be at a certain level of attainment dependent on their batch number (year level!)

The real strength of The New Zealand Curriculum in my opinion is the clear push to simultaneously develop skills, knowledge and attitudes to transcend the context and content of the learning students may currently be engaged in, to then be able to use these learnt traits in future learning. The cumulative effect of this, as children move from early childhood, through their primary years, into secondary and tertiary years, has the potential to be extremely powerful. However, like any living, growing entity, if this cumulative effect is neglected or ignored for any length of time through a child’s education, there is the very real potential that all previous growth will be either lost or seriously stunted.

It is the open-ended nature of the curriculum that is both its greatest strength, and also its biggest limitation. For some who through years of experience, or who have worked with curriculum documents that have been far more prescribed, they have the ability to be able to use their professional expertise, creativity and ingenuity to develop stimulating learning contexts that inspire, motivate and stretch their children. However, for inexperienced teachers especially, a lack of content knowledge (whether that be around literacy acquisition or key scientific principles children need to learn) can be daunting as large arrays of published books are scattered across the table in an attempt to determine what needs to be included in planning.

It should be the dream of every person involved in our education system to see The New Zealand Curriculum develop to realise its fullest potential. We have a long way to go to realise this dream, yet ironically, our children seem to get it instinctively! Let’s hope that in the years to come, developing our beautiful curriculum kete again becomes the focus of our education system so that our children are able to realise their fullest potential.

Cambridge International Primary Programme

SIAN COXON, Headmistress of Pinehurst Primary, says the Cambridge programme is specific and less open to interpretation and provides a foundation to secondary years.

The Cambridge International Primary Programme provides a specific curriculum in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science. Pinehurst School has followed the Cambridge programme since the late 1990s and was one of the first schools in New Zealand to introduce the programme at Primary level.

Students from Year 1 to Year 13 engage in a rigorous, exciting and challenging programme from the time they begin their education at Pinehurst through to when they graduate with an excellent set of internationally recognised qualifications.

At Primary level children need a good grounding in the basics of literacy and numeracy; this sets them up for their future learning and is a solid foundation for later years. A key benefit of Cambridge is that it provides a curriculum with a large number of learning outcomes that enables a teacher to ‘micro-teach’ each step.

One of the key factors for progress that emerged from a meta-analysis study conducted by

John Hattie, which ultimately defined what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom based on the learning of more than 240 million students, rated the ability of teachers to micro-teach as a huge factor for success.

In comparison to The New Zealand Curriculum, which has a much lower number of objectives, the ability to micro-teach, which Cambridge provides, ensures that the curriculum is specific and less open to interpretation. With access to professionally researched and published resources used to deliver the curriculum, Cambridge assists us to develop a programme that has depth and challenge and is the foundation to secondary years.

Cambridge provides Pinehurst with the ability to assess students via standardised progression tests. A school can choose to use these tests or not, culminating in a ‘Checkpoint’ at Year 6 where students can sit formal assessments which are externally marked. Results are entered on the Cambridge website and teachers are able to extract this data and adapt their programmes accordingly in response to the individual needs of each learner.

Students experience a test situation and learn valuable lessons around reading questions properly, time management and becoming assessment capable learners before they take their examinations in later years. Parents are given information on their child’s progress and can compare this to other students internationally. This data is by no means conclusive but rather taken in conjunction with the day to day assessment that takes place in the classroom.

A criticism of Cambridge is that it is narrow. However, Cambridge can be used within the context of a theme for learning and is not meant to be taught in subject by subject isolation. One of my pet phrases is that Cambridge is just a curriculum, albeit an excellent one, but that each teacher creates a context for delivery which is fun, exciting and challenging. We must provide opportunities to make connections to the world for our students, they need to learn how to collaborate, think critically, take responsibility for their learning, to ask big questions and seek the answers for themselves with guidance from their teachers, parents and peers. Put simply, Cambridge works and is a huge factor for the families who entrust us with their child’s education.

International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP)

“How can a rational inquiry curriculum reconcile itself with the fact that the world is full of magic things?” asks BEN EGERTON, who teaches the PYP to Year 7 at an International Baccalaureate World School in Wellington.

Advocates of the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP) may liken children’s learning experiences (or ‘journeys’) with the exploratory voyages of the Phoenicians and Polynesians, or Kupe, Magellan and Columbus, drawing parallels with new knowledge gained during those risk-taking, dangerous and essential expeditions. Consequently, the earth shrunk. It began to lose its mystery. No longer flat or “there be dragons”, the world was mapped and new people, places, flora and fauna were all discovered. Supernatural wonder was swiftly suppressed by explanation and enlightened thought.

Mary McCarney wrote last year (IB sets pupils on a journey of discovery, TES, 30th March 2012) that the PYP allows children and teachers creative control over the direction of the curriculum. She goes onto succinctly explain the PYP process, in which “pupils formulate their own questions, research the answers, reflect on their findings and take action.”

The PYP is a curriculum built around six interdisciplinary themes that incorporate and transcend traditional subject areas. Although some skills are taught discretely, the vast majority of learning takes place through inquiry. It is a curriculum designed to “support students’ efforts to gain understanding of the world and to function comfortably within it” (www.ibo.org/pyp, 2013).

Like the justification for exploration, the PYP assumes that the world is there to be discovered and be reported back on. It’s a rational curriculum. Consequently, it is very easy to fall into, and repeat, the formulaic pattern of allowing children to mine for, and regurgitate, quantifiable information – keeping the emphasis strictly factual. This is a comfortable rut for teachers and children to slip into, and it makes marking and assessing a more straightforward task.

But “the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,” wrote the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet WB Yeats. As our children know, there is much that is unexpected, unexplained and indeed magical – elements that can only be touched on through creativity.

I consider this to be the PYP’s Achilles’ heel. The IB specifies a list of ten attributes that PYP learners should strive to be – the ‘Learner Profile’: risk-takers, inquirers, thinkers, principled, communicators, balanced, open-minded, reflective, knowledgeable, and caring. Unbelievably, ‘creative’ is not on the list.

Why should learners be creative? The world is full of awe, wonder and mystery – and it’s through art, music, fiction, poetry and the creative processes that the intangible is not explained but glimpsed. Exposing children to this needn’t be outcome driven. There is huge value in children simply enjoying the journey – to develop their own imaginations and to appreciate the inexplicable. And it will take children to the less obvious places.

This appears to be at odds with the constructivist PYP inquiry curriculum. Yet the PYP could be excellent at fostering creativity, enabling children to push out in all sorts of unexpected directions. However, the greatest hindrance to creativity can be schools and teachers themselves.

With the PYP, schools take ownership of the curriculum and tailor coverage for each year group. Each PYP co-ordinator must ensure balance, not only of curriculum focus, but also of the creative opportunities that children will be given. Defensive, reactive or controlling teaching and planning will blinker children, force them to stay within teachers’ (and parents’) own comfort zones.

Teachers can be suspicious of creative thinkers – they break the mould, don’t abide by normal teaching and learning templates, and their work is difficult to assess. Therefore, teachers and children must be partners in the assessment process, with the caveat that creativity cannot be measured through a rubric or tick sheet. Just because creativity cannot be objectively explained, it must not be omitted or discouraged within the PYP classroom.

Ironically for a curriculum that aims to create thinkers and problem-solvers, the PYP needs to place a greater emphasis on creativity. Not just imaginative ways to present information or communicate findings – although that has its place – or innovation over the direction of the curriculum. Teachers have a responsibility to model creativity, to be creative. And teachers must embed opportunities to expose children to subjectivity, to relativity and absolutes, to musicians, poets and storytellers – to things that can’t be found in the library or reached via the internet.

In our eagerness to embrace inquiry learning, let us not lose sight of the magic things.

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