Teach children or curriculum?

AOL's Curriculum Design Model
AOL’s Curriculum Design Model

Lately, we have been silent on the blog front as we untangled curricular confusion and cobwebs helping four schools under the same management spring clean their primary school curriculum.

Over the academic term/year, school curricula tends to get cluttered with redundant and developmentally inappropriate content that our well-trained, well-intentioned teachers are too busy to weed out because of their rushed schedules. The result is that they teach mindlessly, simply because ‘it is in the textbook’. In many instances, it is also a case of disempowerment with the teachers’ role reduced to being mediators between the curriculum and the children, with even the protocol of mediation (how to teach, time to teach, how and when to assess) being determined outside the community of teachers and tightly regulated.

It is a pedagogical travesty when professionally trained teachers, who have first hand knowledge of learning profile of students’ and the best interest of those students in mind, surrender / are made to surrender to publishers of textbook who neither know the given set of students nor are responsible for their learning. A very natural consequence – teacher starts teaching the content / curriculum and not their students . As a consequence teaching takes center-stage and learning is pushed to an obscure corner, till it meekly drags its carcass out through the door. The classroom then becomes a haven of sage-on-stage (read ‘teacher’) who sprays and prays for students’ learning. Frantic reading, writing and speaking is mistaken for well-paced cognitive development. The result is intellectual stultification of both the teacher and student; joy of learning replaced by boredom and monotony of rote; teacher becoming the sole repository of knowledge and students empty vessels to be kept mute as they are filled.

Teachers in most parts of the world, are suitably qualified and well trained in their craft but seemingly their appointment letters have an unwritten clause – “We are happy to hire you for your credentials / experience but leave all that you learnt during your training out in the corridor before you enter the classroom.” As a consequence training/credentials/experience just does not translate into effective teaching-learning in the classroom.

For almost two years, we have held the mirror to the teachers’ beliefs and practices of the four schools. This has been an introspective journey of reconciling and realigning the philosophical / pedagogical beliefs of the teachers / administrators with their actual classroom / school-wide practices. During this journey we have been able to get the teachers’ buy-in as Bloom’s Taxonomy, Learning Styles, Developmental Profile of Learners, Brain-Based Learning, etc started making sense to them. I correct myself here, most teachers were familiar with these concepts (as they were part of their B.Ed. curriculum) but our interactions made them recognise that inspite of high student teacher ratio, paucity of time, curriculum overload, chock-a-bloc school calendar they could scaffold their practices on these pedagogical concepts.

Timely and focussed interactions with the teachers combined with tremendous on-ground implementation support by the school administrators helped unfold the magic of teachers feeling capable, competent and confident enough to take control of students’ learning. The first piece of the learning puzzle was reflections on how we teach, consciously meandering into the next piece of how we plan our teaching. The piece on what we teach was a natural progression to the work we had already done and we deliberately chose to deal with teaching-learning and planning before we reviewed and revamped curriculum.

Curriculum is a lifeless piece of paper only as effective as the teacher that transacts it in classroom. Teacher with a sound understanding of how her students learn best is like a bridge that takes the students from where they are, conceptually speaking, to where the curriculum wants them to get at. Once the teacher becomes student-friendly in her methodology, she can learn the tricks to work smart, to maximize the learning of her students. Curriculum has its role, but at the end of the day, it is a lifeless piece of paper. It is the teacher who makes it come alive and an effective teacher can infuse life into the most archaic, inane and irrelevant curriculum to make students’ learning relevant, significant and holistic. Effective teachers become super-effective if the curriculum that they transact is well-aligned and holistic.

So after facilitating a measurable degree of effectiveness into the teaching-learning paradigm in the four schools, we embarked on the complex exercise of curriculum review. Curriculum review is like playing dominoes, with substantial and far-reaching implications. In a setting where textbooks were the key determinant of the syllabus and flow of the taught content, the reluctance of the teachers, to take ownership of deciding what to teach was perceptible. Once again, our role was ‘mirror-holders’ to what was being taught in the different grades and we held up as many as 3 different mirrors – alignment (horizontal & vertical) mirror, the holistic mirror and the mirror of developmental appropriateness of content.

Over the next 10 days, we focussed on reviewing and realigning curriculum of individual subjects at different grade levels. It was heartening and satisfying to see teachers’ skepticism replaced by keen enthusiasm as they went over the curriculum with a fine tooth comb. It would have been less time-consuming and laborious for us to review and redesign the curriculum for the school but this approach would not have achieved its desired outcome of making the teachers the owner-designers of what they teach!

After the micro-level scrutiny by teachers, as we finalise the curriculum for the academic year 2013 along with the academic and assessment leaders in the schools, there is a sense of satisfaction with keen awareness of the support that teachers will require after this curricula coup d’etat, as the teachers usurp the driver’s seat from textbook. One of the school principals aptly remarked, “Two years ago, my teachers were chopping (read- ‘teaching-learning’) stale and limp vegetables (read-‘curriculum’) with blunt knives (read- ‘classroom practices’). Over the past two years, they have been sharpening their knives and bringing in more crisp and fresh produce to cut. This is increasing their professional output with little incremental effort and reorganization.” We couldn’t have asked for a greater proof of change!

Now, as we initiate work on the final piece of intervention – assessment, at our end, we hope to hand over complete control – the steering wheel and the navigation charts back to the school leaders and look forward to taking a back seat on the observation deck.

Note: The word ‘curriculum’ is used in the blog narrowly to define learning outcomes associated with a structured, pre-defined syllabus.