SPONSORED BY GEMS AMERICAN ACADEMY QATAR
One of the most important decisions an expat family will have to make is deciding which school is right for their children. It may seem like a fairly straightforward task, but the range of options available can make it difficult. As parents weigh the decision, it’s crucial they have all the facts to make the best choice for their family.
Curriculum vs Methodology
Before moving forward, it is crucial to have an understanding of the meaning of many of the educational terms used during school visits and enrollment discussions. Terms such as curriculum, inquiry-based, student-centered, and play-based are sometimes used without explanation.
The word curriculum is widely used but not always in the right way. Curriculum refers to what is taught—the actual content. For example, when a class completes a unit about the letter A or about insects, that is curriculum. When it is looking at fractions or systems of government, that is curriculum. Common Core is a curriculum, as is the National Curriculum for England (commonly called British curriculum).
When you look at how something is taught, that refers more to educational philosophy, framework, or specific programmes that a school might purchase. At this point, terms like student-centered, inquiry-based, or play-based come into play. They all refer to a methodology or how a subject is taught. Having a student-centered classroom is an educational philosophy. For example, the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IBPYP) is built on a particular philosophy. There can be IBPYP British schools, American schools, and so on. So, when looking at schools, it is helpful for parents to understand the difference, so they know the correct questions to ask.
Which School Is Right for Us?
While there are many options available—especially in a global city like Doha—two of the most popular options for parents are schools modelled after the American Common Core curriculum and the British curriculum.
No one curriculum is inherently better than the other. Each curriculum and school offer something different, and the best one for your family depends on several factors. These can include your home country, whether you intend to return there during your child’s schooling, and where you plan for your children to attend secondary school and university.
That said, there are some key differences between the two models and understanding them can help families make a more informed choice. These differences vary depending on the age of students. The school years are divided into three age groups:
- Early years (age three to four)
- Primary school (age five to 11)
- Secondary school (age 11 to 18)
In secondary school, the difference between the British and American curricula is dramatic. The British system is a more rigid system of standards designed to prepare students to complete a pre-determined series of exams that end with the student taking their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. After completing this step, students may choose to continue with their A-levels, which serve as entry exams into the university system. The benefits are that all students have learnt the same thing, preparing them equally for the next steps.
The American system, however, allows for a little more variation between students, depending on interests and academic ability. Most American international schools give academically strong students the option to enrol in Advanced Placement (AP) courses across a wide range of subjects. These subjects and the exams that follow expose students to university-level content while still in secondary school. If they do well on the final exam, they can earn entry into elite European universities or even earn course credit at American ones. The system is rigorous but flexible, allowing students to pursue their own interests in a challenging environment.
If this seems a little confusing, it can be. If you are looking at options for your secondary-age child, reach out to a local American or British curriculum school and schedule a tour. They will be able to answer all your questions.
But again, this is solely for secondary students. At an earlier age, like in primary school, the differences between the British and American curricula are more easily explained. It’s a bit of an over-simplification, but generally, the British system teaches concepts one full year earlier than the American system. For example, in an American grade three classroom, students will be learning the basics of multiplication and division. In the British system, that usually starts a year earlier. In an American KG1 classroom (four-year-old students), you could expect to find a play-based environment where students are focused on learning social skills and fine motor skills and are learning how to interact with their peers. You can also expect a slight focus on letter sounds and number concepts. In the equivalent year at a British school, you might see students fully focused on academics and beginning to read and do basic mathematics.
The difference here is philosophical and mainly relates to when children are developmentally ready to learn certain concepts. The American system, while acknowledging that some students are prepared to learn these concepts earlier, opts to allow younger students time to ease into academics. Students begin school with a wide range of abilities and levels of readiness. In the early years section of a school, you will often have some students who start school already having the basics of reading while their peers may still be learning their letter names and sounds. This is to be expected and is normal. The term student-centred classroom refers to a classroom that is set up to accommodate students of all levels.
In summary, the American system allows these students to develop at their own speed. The British system pushes its students earlier, believing that early exposure allows more time for skill and knowledge development and sets them up for a rigorous academic career earlier in life. This is not an indictment or endorsement of either system but rather a way to lay out the main differences so parents can make an informed decision.
Ultimately, families should make the choice that’s best for them. Take a tour of the school and understand the curriculum that the school teaches and the philosophy that they use. Get a feel for the students and teachers and make sure it’s an environment into which you would be comfortable sending your own children. Ask questions and make sure you understand what your child’s day will be like. It’s a vital decision, but armed with the right information, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
Jordan Scheer has worked in education for 17 years in five different countries. He has experience working in all levels of elementary and secondary school and with a variety of different curricula and educational programmes. He is currently the Elementary Principal at GEMS American Academy Qatar.