International College Hong Kong
Oct 04, 2016

Active Engagement and the Curriculum

In their review of the lessons that should be drawn from latest research in the learning sciences, the OECD list seven “transversal” conclusions that, they insist, should be the hallmark of the 21st century learning environment, but which, they lament, generally are not.

I thought it would be worthwhile to connect with these conclusions, asking both what ICHK currently does to align with them and what we might do more of in the future, so as to become still better informed by their recommendations.

In part, this means unpacking the 5+1 Model and its provisions.

OECD transversal conclusion #1:


ICHK engages with this conclusion fully. Central to our 5+1 Model is an understanding that the learner him or herself must be in the driving seat of any learning project. Learning is not something that can be done to you; it is something that insists on personal engagement. The level of engagement will be a key determinant of success.

Without investment on the part of the learner, nothing more than stereotyped responses to stock stimuli can be achieved. Here lies the tragedy of the traditional classroom – motivationally disengaged students learning the answers to a narrow band of prescribed tasks and activities, in order to replicate them, with or without understanding, at a later date. All without knowing the joy of genuinely connecting with concepts and facts, and without cultivating the habits of mind that provide the room and impetus for creativity and innovation.

This is the demoralising scenario that the OECD criticizes, and that ICHK is dedicated to escaping.

Cultivating positive engagement

At the heart of positive engagement lie two mutually reinforcing components: the learner’s genuine interest in the material and the learner’s belief that they are capable of mastering it. The 5+1 Model addresses the motivators of these two components explicitly: first via the work of Carol Dweck on mindsets and second through a proper appreciation of the role and function of curriculum design, especially in its appropriateness for different students given their current stage of cognitive development.

Of the first factor, I will write little here. Suffice to say that fostering a growth mindset is paramount in our understanding of our students’ needs, which is why we invest in Dweck’s Brainology as a discrete module in Human Technologies during Year 7 and why all teachers receive professional development in modelling the language that encourages growth and mastery. I am confident that ICHK parents will witness our staff’s proficiency in this respect first hand, through feedback to their children on Gibbon and during Parent-Student-Teacher consultations.

So then, it is about the second aspect, curriculum design, that I will write extensively here. My goal is to explain why we have structured the experience of our youngest students in the ways we have, at both micro and macro levels i.e. within individual lessons and throughout their cross-curricular experience of Years 7 to 9.

In designing and delivering curriculum, the 5+1 Model recommends the insights of Canadian educator Kieran Egan as a helpful guide.

Egan’s 5 cognitive dispositions

Egan suggests that there is a clear developmental path in young learners through a series of five ‘cognitive dispositions’, travelled from birth to late adolescence. The dispositions succeed one another. However, Egan suggests, their unique appeal to the learner during their period of dominance is diminished but not altogether lost with the onset of the next stage.

So it is that the influence of the first two stages – the somatic and mythic, with their emphases on bodily interaction with the world and in seeing things primarily as binary opposites – is never wholly absent from our more mature thinking. Witness any Hollywood film. Rather, while most salient in the early years of life, when their ‘ways of knowing’ constitute exclusively the infant’s grasp and interpretation of its environment, these two elemental dispositions are blended into and undergird the stages that follow.

And it is at this point in the journey that we, as secondary school teachers, become most directly interested and involved.

Egan labels the third disposition ‘romantic’. It encompasses the late years of primary and the early years of secondary education.

Romantic thinking is actively engaged by the sensational, the fantastic, the grotesque, the wonderful, the extreme; it responds best to storytelling and to strong characterization: the archetypal romantic figure is the hero. Romantic thinking latches onto memorable moments and onto material that mobilizes the heart and guts as well as the brain. Emotions are the stuff of romance. It revels in drama and in the larger than life.

Romantic thinking is gradually superseded (though, as mentioned earlier, rarely obliterated) by the philosophic phase. This fourth phase is where many adults, let alone adolescents, come to finish their journey.

Philosophic thinking, as Egan’s label suggests, takes new pleasure in knowledge for its own sake: in constructing systems, tracing genealogies, abstracting concepts, and applying logic and reason to complicated problems. The programme of the philosophic thinker is to build ever-larger networks of correspondence and understanding.

Philosophic thinking is taxonomic, completist and mastery-orientated: at its best, reasoned, reasonable and temperate; at its worst, soulless, inflexible and didactic.

It is philosophic thinking, by and large, that the school examination system is designed to engage and reward. What it looks for in students are the classic philosophic indicators of value – precision according to a prescribed and universal measure, a thorough retention of systems and their parts, a capacity to categorize accurately, and an objective control of information and data. Even the few necessarily romantic elements of the curriculum – creative writing, fine art, dramatic performance – tend to be assessed, often predominantly, on their technical, philosophic detail rather than on their subjective, emotional appeal.

Cognitive dispositions at ICHK

Well then, what do Egan’s insights mean for us as teachers at ICHK? Principally, they involve us in a project of creating curriculum that matches the evolving dispositions of our students as they progress through the school. Most Year 7s and many Year 8s remain, at heart, romantic learners – and the transition to “big school” does not alter this.

They are generally far more excited by stories and sensations than by systems and structures, though there are always a few developmental outliers who come to us as Little Professors, and for whom the philosophic cannot come quickly enough. Catering to these early bloomers is part of the challenge for teachers in Year 7, just as catering to those who make the shift a little later than most is part of the challenge in Year 10.

Typically, it is in Year 9 that we tend to detect a popular, common shift in orientation to a more intense and concentrated interest in abstractions, generalities, theories and formulae – in a word, to the philosophic disposition.

So it is that, as we craft and re-craft our schemes of work and lesson plans in Years 7 and 8, we make a conscious effort to engage the romantic disposition of our youngest students, even as we identify opportunities gradually to scaffold their emergent transition to a more philosophic mode of engagement.

Curriculum innovations such as Human Technologies and Big History, being comprised of materials of our own devising and design, are perhaps the most effective test-beds for the efficacy of this approach. But well-established subjects such as science and mathematics are also benefiting from the imperative that Egan’s insights generate. A demand to weave learning around striking stories, compelling characters, memorable moments, and a live sense of drama and excitement.

The fifth stage – an ironic disposition

Finally, what of the fifth of Egan’s stages? Where does that fit in?

Egan styles this the ‘ironic’ disposition – it is that point in one’s thinking when one realizes (with relief? terror? amusement? resignation?) that no matter how comprehensive, our fullest systems remain incomplete; no matter how nicely conceived, our best categorizations cannot justify their assumptions; no matter how well articulated, our words leave something left unsaid.

I like to think that it is groping towards this exalted state that makes the IB Diploma’s Theory of Knowledge course such a worthwhile and stimulating intellectual experience; but, sadly, at its end, there remains that most philosophic of instruments: an examination.

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