Curriculum Development and Nine Year Schooling

One of the wisest decisions made by the present Minister of Education and Human Resources is not to introduce the nine-year schooling this year. She is again right in saying that the beginning of the reform should be the curriculum

One of the wisest decisions made by the present Minister of Education and Human Resources is not to introduce the nine-year schooling this year. She is again right in saying that the beginning of the reform should be the curriculum. The previous regime was too keen to come up with new measures without understanding the nature, processes and pace of implementing change and ensuring the sustainability of the changes being brought about, especially when not adequately reflected upon, planned and explained to all stakeholders.

Viewed in a traditional way, a curriculum is the complete set of taught material in a school system, be it pre-primary, primary, secondary or vocational education. It is “prescriptive” in the sense that it prescribes what needs to be taught. This includes the knowledge, skills, competencies, attitudes and values that the country believes the student should have when he/she leaves that particular school level. This is in opposition to the ‘descriptive’ syllabus, which is the list and outline of topics covered. In a way, the curriculum prescribes the objectives of the system; the syllabus describes the means to achieve them. There is also a “hidden” curriculum.

The national curriculum is in a way decided by the government about what needs to be included in the course of study, of course depending on the levels (pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical, etc). The curriculum is meant to be a guiding document that will help teachers in understanding standards that students need to achieve at the end of a developmental stage. The curriculum document will indicate “what” to teach, ”how” the curriculum is to be taught and help in checking “whether” the curriculum is taught as per the document, and the way the students’ learning will be assessed.

Over the years, “curriculum” meant different things to different educationists. For some teachers the curriculum was equivalent to the syllabus that is to be completed in class. For other teachers, all they understood about a curriculum was the more focused outline for particular subjects. Most teachers are so concerned with their own subject area that all they are interested in is their own subject syllabus that is equivalent to what they believe means the curriculum. To my knowledge, neither heads of schools nor departments nor subject teachers take the pain to see their subject in the context of the larger curriculum of the school.

The syllabus is certainly essential in that the content, the list of topics/concepts to be taught are all listed. The curriculum is a consideration of the objectives, the content and the methods chosen to achieve those objectives. It contains a consideration of the kind of assessment one will use to check progress. Curriculum is developed keeping in mind the standards students should achieve from well-researched best practices. Curriculum alignment thus requires that there is perfect congruence between teaching and testing, along with the standards set for each developmental stage.

A curriculum can be a teacher’s friend or an enemy depending on how he or she decides to use it. Teachers need to understand what the curriculum is meant to achieve. At the primary level, most Standard 4, 5 and CPE teachers use it, often badly, as a crutch because they make no effort to engage with it or understand what it hopes to achieve. Their interest is the number of marks that the students will get at the end of the process. The textbook is a support to assist the teacher in implementing the syllabus. However, many teachers are bent on completing the questions and exercises in the textbooks and believe that it is all they have to do to complete the syllabus and thus the curriculum. That is why at primary level, students sometimes have to buy more than 4 or 5 textbooks for each subject. The objective is to drill students into answering examination questions. This is true even at SC and HSC levels.

The introduction of the nine-year schooling implies the expansion of basic education. This expansion provides the challenge of a comprehensive curriculum reform so as to align curriculum structure, content, pedagogy and assessment to the re-defined objectives of basic education and the changing profile of learners. It is not good enough to use the same present curriculum at Forms 1-3 levels added to the present CPE curriculum or syllabus. The emphasis will now lie on the achievement of a range of relevant learning outcomes that will prepare learners for life, for citizenship, for work and for continued learning. As the new curriculum of the nine-year basic education is developed, entrepreneurship education, for example, and its modes of delivery (right from early childhood) to prepare young people for life and work need to be fostered and conceived as an overarching approach to foster the principles of lifelong learning, emphasis on skills and competencies as learning process and outcomes throughout all levels of the education systems.

Curriculum (along with its assessment), therefore, needs to be at the heart of basic education reform. However, there is a range of other components of basic education which will require adaptation. These include teacher education reform, attention to learner support material and ICT, whole school improvement, issues of governance and management, the linkages with community and labour market, and inter-sectoral collaboration at national and local levels.

Strategic challenges need to be addressed in many areas. In this paper we will consider only the curriculum challenges. In the area of curriculum development, it is necessary to develop an integrated framework, with clear learning outcomes, norms and standards, which can adequately inform syllabus construction. Also there is a need to move from a knowledge-based approach to learning towards a competency-based approach, focussing on a range of core competencies and skills for all learners completing expanded basic education. In the area of assessment, there is a need to construct a learning assessment system that can effectively be used as a formative basis for enhancing students’ learning as well as for making decisions regarding career prospects and entry into options for post-basic education and training.

I have always been in favour of a closer cooperation between general and vocational and technical education. The divide between Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and academic education is such that it conditions the mindsets of parents. TVET is considered of a lower status and standard and meant only for those who cannot do well at academic education. When we talk of skills parents often assume that skills (believed to be only manual) are the prerogative of TVET while knowledge that of general education. If the nine-year schooling is to succeed, it must bridge the gap between TVET and general education.

Most countries that are serious about curriculum reforms appoint expert-led curriculum committees and give the whole public a chance to make contributions. For example, in 2014, in an effort to review and reform the Australian curriculum, the Australian government appointed 2 curriculum international experts to conduct an independent review of the Australian Curriculum. The Review of the Australian Curriculum was informed by consultation and research to ensure that a broad range of views on the curriculum was heard. These included stakeholder consultations, international and national research evidence and evaluation of Australian Curriculum learning area documentation by subject matter specialists. Members of the public also had a chance to have their say through an online submission process. The aim of the review was to seek to understand whether the Australian Curriculum was delivering what students need, parents expect and the nation requires in an increasingly competitive world.

In Mauritius too, if the government really wants to reform the curriculum in the context of the nine-year schooling, it needs to carry out a complete review of the Mauritian curriculum through an independent curriculum committee, with the help of national and international experts who will advise on the processes of curriculum review, curriculum design and curriculum delivery. Without a thorough review of all the implications of curriculum design, nine-year schooling may remain a white elephant.

The government, through the Ministry of Education and the UNESCO desk, can ask for assistance from UNESCO. UNESCO, through its International Bureau of Education (IBE) in Geneva, can assist the government in this undertaking. IBE supports countries by sharing expertise on curriculum development in all regions of the world, and aids them to introduce innovative approaches in curriculum design and implementation, improve practical skills, and facilitate international dialogue on educational policies and practices.

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* Published in print edition on 23 January  2015

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