OUR CURRICULAR PHILOSOPHY
The way the traditional classroom operates, it is no wonder that students look at the arbitrary divisions for reading, math, science, art, social studies, and physical education and begin to define the subject areas as separate bodies of knowledge with little relationship to one another. Students then complain that school is irrelevant to the larger world. Indeed, a fragmented school day does not reflect the real world.
Alternatively, The Knox School of Santa Barbara’s “integrated” curriculum organizes learning in a way that links together the humanities, natural sciences, mathematics, social studies, music, and art. Our curriculum creates opportunities for exploration, active learning, and meaningful connections across subject areas. Through this curriculum, students come to see the interrelatedness of disciplines, which in turn brings meaning and relevance to their education. The Knox School of Santa Barbara’s curriculum is based on the Integrated Curriculum Model developed at the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary and refined in gifted classrooms over the past 30 years. Specifically, each trimester at The Knox School is organized around a “Unit of Study”, such as Architecture, Natural Disasters, Africa, Space, and the like. Within the Unit of Study, lessons span the disciplines, incorporating them into the broader Unit topic. For instance, in the Unit of Study ‘Architecture’, the following might be included as larger lessons:
• History and social structures of ancient and modern civilizations are investigated and compared
• Reading selections and writing, whether poetry, narratives, or biographies surround topics related to architecture or to specific historical periods which are being studied within architecture (e.g., Romanticism in literature during the Gothic era)
• Mathematical concepts and skills are incorporated when discussing the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and the symmetry in Greek architecture or measuring a territory
• Physics lessons explore energy, mass, inertia, and momentum as these topics relate to architecture; roads, levies, aqueducts, and bridges are explored in terms of the physics and mechanical engineering involved
• Technology is used to showcase learning as well as to model, graph, or otherwise explore the topics; specific technology or programs used by professionals in the field, from protractors and compasses to survey instruments, core sampling, and computer modeling to Sketch-Up and AutoCAD, are explored.
These integrated curriculum Units, such as Architecture, include lessons and projects that are hands-on, high interest, and encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, creative thinking, abstract reasoning, higher-level thinking skills, inquiry, and collaboration.
The Workshop Model
While lessons are integrated when possible, there is also the recognition that each discipline has elements specific to its domain. The workshop model provides a daily opportunity for whole group, small group, and individual instruction around specific skills within the domains of mathematics, reading, and writing. For example, basic math facts are discreet pieces of information that need to be learned in order to understand higher-level complex mathematics; an understanding of phonics is necessary in order to decipher novel words; rules of grammar and punctuation aid in the construction of a logical narrative. While Unit time is spent on the application of skills and concepts, workshop time entails direct instruction around specific skills.
Workshop time is scheduled at the same time across all grades, which allows students to participate in the workshop which best matches their individual level. For example, a third-grade student is welcome to join the math workshop focusing on Geometry if that is where the student’s capabilities lie, even though it is “above” grade level in the traditional sense. In this sense, all 3rd graders at The Knox School may not be reading the same books or doing the same mathematics, nor should they be, solely because they are 8 and therefore, in the 3rd grade. The teachers consistently assess to ensure the student is not missing foundational elements of the skill while allowing the student to progress through the curriculum at their own pace without being held back by the curriculum.
The Knox School’s curriculum organizes the learning experiences for gifted children around broad, timeless ideas and themes that define deep understanding of a discipline and provide meaningful connections across disciplines. Differentiating and individualizing the curriculum ensures that gifted children are appropriately and supportively challenged at their individual capacities: student needs are established and documented, goals are then developed, and appropriate pre-assessments are administered. The curriculum is then carefully organized and differentiated for the specific cognitive and affective needs of the gifted learner. Lastly, providing multiple opportunities for higher-order thinking and processing and engaging gifted learners in deep and meaningful interdisciplinary inquiry is a critical element of the curriculum model.
In addition to a strong skills-based curriculum, the concept-based and inquiry-based programs afford the students the opportunity to investigate topics at a level that challenges them and taps their interests, learning styles, and natural intelligence. Teachers strive to stimulate the development of curiosity and imagination and offer an extensive opportunity for a creative expression of knowledge. The environment is one of rich self-discovery, and the curriculum is delivered through approaches that are best practices in gifted education, allowing children opportunities to extend and enrich their own learning on their individual journeys to becoming educated, thinking, and moral adults.
A common question of prospective parents looking at The Knox School curriculum is whether facts and content specific to their child’s grade will be covered. We at The Knox School feel that commitment to academic subject knowledge is critical and is complemented by learning how to learn, the critical evaluation of knowledge gained, and the use of knowledge in a broad range of contexts.
Traditional education focuses on learning facts in each separate discipline in isolation with the goals of content coverage and memorization of facts. However, facts do not transfer – they are locked in time, place, or situation. Knowledge transfers at the conceptual level as principles applied across global contexts and situations. So it is the cognitive interplay between the factual and conceptual levels of mental processing that promotes synergistic thinking, an essential element for intellectual development. At The Knox School, teachers use facts in concert with concepts to effect synergistic thinking, carefully selecting content to achieve critical thinking processes. By taking this approach, not only is the same basic content “covered” but all of it is learned in a relevant context.
Traditionally, in lessons surrounding the American Revolution, names of important battles and generals are memorized. While students at The Knox School are exposed to the same material, their learning will go deeper into broader and more timeless concepts such as power, freedom, loyalty, sacrifice, and conflict. Instead of a worksheet of dates to remember, students may take various roles of the Sons of Liberty (such as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hannock) and engage in debates for and against war with Britain. Students will understand the danger in which the Revolutionaries put themselves and their families simply by the act of assembling to discuss their disputes with the government. Students may develop a diary or narrative from the point of view of George Washington during the winter at Valley Forge, as well as from a private in his command. Contact with all the factors and viewpoints allows for a deeper conceptual, as well as factual, understanding of the topic.
The future will need learners who are able to demonstrate out-of-the-box and non-linear thinking to solve increasingly complex challenges. The tools of a single discipline will be insufficient for solving real-world problems and priority will be placed on interdisciplinary expertise and collaborative learning within teams. Education must shift, therefore, from a focus on dissemination and memorization of information to thinking with and applying knowledge at both the factual and conceptual levels. Students need to learn to plan, engage in risk assessment, think critically, reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, and moderate their emotions. Students must develop the skills with which to effectively question and construct insightful understandings in all disciplines, and know-how to learn about their world.
The Knox School’s curriculum is a rigorous intellectual model that values student inquiry and constructionist learning. It is a pedagogy that engages the learner as an active seeker and constructor rather than a passive receiver of knowledge.
The Knox School curriculum guide is not organized in the traditional way, showing what each grade will be taught during the school year in the ‘scope and sequence’ format to which most parents are accustomed, and therefore comfortable. The Knox School’s curriculum relies on the capacity to differentiate and individualize for each student. Therefore, although students are grouped by age into standard grades (5-year-olds in Kindergarten, 6- and 7-year-olds in 1st/2nd grade, 8- and 9-year-olds in 3rd/4th grade, etc), their strengths and needs may be at, or way above, grade level in various domains, and this demands that their education be differentiated based on their capabilities as well as their areas of growth. For instance, all 3rd graders at The Knox School may not be reading the same books or doing the same mathematics, nor should they be, solely because they are 8 and therefore, in the 3rd grade.
In the traditional educational model, “students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.” (Sir Ken Robinson). We, at The Knox School, believe that one of the greatest barriers to the fulfillment of gifted students’ potentials is this age-grade lockstep model of teaching and learning. A spectrum exists along which gifted children develop – accordingly, the depth and pace of the lessons at The Knox School are ability-based and therefor, student-driven. While Faculty have appropriate expectations for the students’ learning, the children are neither pushed nor held back by the curriculum. Students are given opportunities to move on when they have mastered a concept or skill, as well as when they desire to linger and continue deeper exploration of a topic. In this way, students typically surpass the curriculum offered at their grade level in a traditional setting whilst feeling connected to the learning and the enjoyment of that process, and practicing the creative and critical thinking skills that are the true objective of education.