Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Myth of One Curriculum

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn, Monday, 12 Apr, 2010
ONE of the major impediments to educational change in Pakistan is the oversimplification of notions, ideas and solutions. Certain stereotypes have become so popular that they have become social truths. Amongst them is the much-favoured educational recipe of having a uniform curriculum.

A section of society sincerely believes that a uniform curriculum is the panacea to the social injustices and economic disparities in the country — that if the state declares that all schools must follow the same curriculum, the educational stratifications that are the precursors to social categorisations will come to an end.

Is the issue of inequality that simple? Can inequalities of class and the unfair distribution of opportunity be solved merely by applying a uniform curriculum? To find the answer, we must first examine the notion of a curriculum.

We tend to define ‘curriculum’ in a narrow fashion, i.e. as an official document that provides a blueprint of the objectives of learning. It is necessary to recognise that most of the teachers engaged in implementing the curriculum never see this document. Before we can directly tackle the question of a uniform curriculum, we must see how a state-provided curriculum changes until it reaches students. First of all, it is translated into textbooks. Much thus depends on how well the intent of the curriculum has been carried forward by the textbook writers.

Then comes the teaching of the textbooks. The quality of the teaching/learning process determines how effectively the message of the curriculum is communicated. Linked to this is the school environment since a large part of learning is imbibed from the campus environment. Then, the quality of learning and teaching also depends on the quality of assessment, since this has a negative reverse effect on classroom teaching. Therefore, the state-provided curriculum undergoes significant changes at the hands of the textbook writers, teachers, school/classroom environment and assessment methodologies.

These factors prompt us to move away from the conservative view of a curriculum as a rigid document and revisit it as a vibrant process with many components. These can make or mar the curriculum, and necessitate the realisation that there are huge inequalities among schools in terms of student communities, teaching faculties, textbooks, environment and assessment systems. Students attending elite private schools come from well-off socio-economic backgrounds with enhanced opportunities of exposure to learning — particularly in terms of the English language, which plays a decisive role in the process of learning across the curriculum.

Textbooks being used in public sector schools are poorly written, contain content that is not contemporary in nature and are printed on substandard paper without appropriate visuals. The textbooks used by private schools, on the other hand, are expensive, written in a more professional manner and printed on fine paper with functionally and aesthetically appropriate visuals. The quality of teachers too, especially in terms of proficiency in the English language, is far better in most private schools as compared to public sector ones. Teachers at the former have more exposure to the language and the general facility of using it at least at the spoken level. Such teachers are in a much better position to use the textbooks.

Students’ learning is linked to another crucial factor: the classroom/school environment that has visible and invisible aspects. The visible aspect refers to physical facilities such as furniture, temperature-control arrangements, drinking water facilities and washrooms etc. The invisible aspect, which is admittedly affected by the visible aspect, is the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom.

In the majority of public sector schools the size of the classroom is unmanageable. I know of some schools where there are around a hundred students in just one section. Such a large class size leads not only to discipline problems but also to a negative impact on the quality of teaching. Private schools usually have an effective monitoring system and teachers have to be on their toes. But teachers in public sector schools are usually detached and under-motivated.

There is a special focus on the English language in private schools; most parents demand fluency from their wards. Since in the majority of the private sector schools students and teachers come from socio-economic backgrounds that offer greater opportunities to learn English, the entire environment turns into one that enables the acquisition of English language skills. Students have ample opportunity to speak English with their teachers and peers.

Conversely, the teaching of English in public sector schools is achieved through the age-old grammar-translation method: by forcing students to memorise grammatical structures in isolation. The end result is that students in mainstream public sector schools are required to focus on form rather than meaning, and usage rather than use. They possess a good knowledge of grammatical structure but cannot express themselves in the spoken or written forms.

Similarly, there is a marked difference between the assessment systems used by private and public sector schools. In most of the latter the assessment system is based on memory and recall, with higher-order thinking seldom being tapped. In private sector schools, however, emphasis is usually placed on the application of knowledge rather than mere reproduction of memorised facts. These disparities contribute to students’ varying self-images. The worst aspect of the matter is that the state has given up on public-sector schooling. In a situation where inequalities are constructed and perpetuated on the bases of students’ socio-economic backgrounds, the quality of textbooks, environment, teaching and assessment, merely making the curriculum document uniform will not bring the significant, meaningful and sustainable change required.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.
shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com