By Stephen Holmes and James MacDonald
We all recognize that differentiation in the classroom is essential for a high-quality learning environment where all levels of ability are nurtured to thrive in an age requiring personalization of the student experience. However, differentiation in curriculum and pedagogy are also still relatively unchartered waterways for many schools and, critically, provide an opportunity for schools to offer a teaching and learning experience that is unique and authentic.
While major changes to curriculum may be more difficult (e.g. switching from an American to UK curriculum), adjustments around pedagogical approaches and themes within a curriculum can be more easily implemented with the right training and support (e.g. introducing more project-based learning, industry explicit and connected learning, or new approaches to the teaching and learning of mathematics).
This kind of pedagogical development is on-going in many schools, especially as more schools incorporate research into their teaching approaches, resulting in real improvements. So why aren’t we hearing more about them? How can we more successfully capture and communicate the ‘good news’ that is happening through advances in curriculum and pedagogy at CIS member schools so that we can help other schools take action to operationalize differentiation in their classrooms? And as marketing is an essential part of school leadership team efforts, how can they use their approaches to differentiation to make their school stand out and increase their market appeal?
One of the most valuable things CIS does as an organization is to draw together a diverse community of schools through a network of shared beliefs in the importance of global citizenship and core educational standards. Additionally, CIS rightly recognizes that no two schools are alike, and as such it does not prescribe that schools should emulate each other or follow a set of identical practices, but it rather encourages all schools to embrace and express their individuality by, for example, developing their own definition of global citizenship—a wonderful example of an organization celebrating and encouraging differentiation in their community, and in a prime position to help their network of members share knowledge and learn from each other.
Here are some of the things that CIS schools are considering in relation to differentiation which help them to choose, evaluate, explain and promote why and what they offer:
Open vs closed curriculum
Broadly speaking, different curriculums are underpinned by different beliefs, particularly around how much the curriculum can be adapted at the school level.
English National Curriculum, for example, is more ‘closed’ and quite prescriptive when compared to the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) where educators have considerable local flexibility over curriculum decisions. In assessing the degree of strategic flexibility school leaders have in differentiating their curriculum options, key questions include: who decides upon the curriculum content, are assessments standardized for easy comparison between schools of the same curriculum, can teachers/departments modify their curriculum and resource, and is pedagogy prescribed?
More ‘open’ curriculums accommodate adaptation at the school level, with greater potential for meaningful and authentic differentiation. In basic terms:
- Open models: content is relevant to the students and adaptable to their needs; focus is likely on more than academics in terms of ‘learning’; allows teacher’s freedom and student agency over their learning.
- Closed models: likely a full curriculum system with supporting resources readily available, clear academic standards and agreed assessment allowing for benchmarking between schools; easy for parents to objectively understand what the ‘learning’ as it is prescribed and, by extension, easy to understand how their child’s progress and attainment; quality control mechanisms are often baked into the learning systems.
Another way to really think through how your pedagogy and curriculum stands out is to consider your reporting systems through the lens of the parents. We can sometimes forget that much of the connection (and interest!) parents have with the curriculum is through the reporting system. For example, have you considered who is the audience for report cards? (Parents or students or both?) And how does your answer affect your marketing message—your promotion of your curriculum and pedagogy? Do your report card and transcript align with your core marketing messages and stand as a testimony to their delivery and the benefits of your curriculum and pedagogical practices?
Claims and proof points
So many claims that schools make around their curriculum and pedagogies are generic in nature. For example, anyone can attest to being innovative in their approach to teaching, but what does this mean to parents? Similarly, schools have common or generic values they strive to embed into their community, and it is pretty difficult to come up with genuinely distinctive concepts or claims. In both cases, it is not what you say (as many others are probably saying it too), it’s what you are doing.
What sets you apart is not that you say you are innovative, rather it is showing both your tangible proof and impact of innovative approaches to teaching; you must demonstrate and communicate how these activities are having an impact on their students and their learning, and how the innovation links to other aspects of the curriculum or school operations.
Similarly, with ‘values education’, by pointing to unique experiences or specific expectations, a school’s marketing message has a chance to stand out. Differentiation claims of any sort without evidence will almost certainly be generic and lack impact. Therefore, to stand out today, one needs to lead with the proof points: authentic areas of evidence to showcase how your approach to curriculum and pedagogy is being implemented and having an impact, both for the short and long term.
More than ever, approaches to pedagogy and curriculum in schools are being scrutinized by stakeholders, including parents and students. Now is the time to centralize and intertwine curriculum and pedagogy to definitively build a more compelling identity and positioning for your school.
Stephen Holmes is a CIS Affiliated Consultant. Based in Singapore, his 5Rs Partnership Pte Ltd (www.5rspartnership.com) is a specialist marketing, market research, communications, strategic planning, and reputation research-based consultancy for the international school sector.