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May 1, 2017

Rethinking the curriculum


May 1, 2017

Many discussions regarding the qualitative improvement in education have taken place. A number of recommendations have been given to revamp the educational system. One of the factors that are often discussed in conferences and seminars is the ‘curriculum’. There seems to be an agreement that the curriculum is an important tool of educational change. The usual criticism on the curricula in Pakistan, however, is that they are outdated, fixed, irrelevant and outdated. This criticism comes from practicing teachers, researchers and policymakers. Before commenting on the nature and validity of the criticism, it is important to unpack the term the ‘curriculum’ and challenge some of the assumptions underlying the conservative and contemporary view of it.

The literal meaning of the curriculum is a race course or a race track. Like a race course, the curriculum, in educational setting, determines the scope of the track for the educational process. Thus the curriculum includes a set of topics and activities to be covered in a certain period of time.

The race course metaphor, with the passage of time, was turned into a straightjacket, as the curriculum was viewed as a cold and frigid document that is much talked about but is never seen by many teachers and usually gathers dust sitting on a shelf. Teachers in schools are usually concerned with textbooks they have to teach and are not necessarily motivated to have a look at the curriculum.  They, however, complain that the curriculum is thrust upon them by some external agency. Consequently, they consider themselves helpless and start believing that there is little space for freedom.

This conservative view of the curriculum considers it a fixed phenomenon and oversimplifies this complex notion. This naive and misleading view attracts governments in the developing countries which means every new government embarks upon the process of redesigning the curriculum. Usually in such exercises, the execution part of the curriculum is ignored. As a result, paperwork for the new curricula is done in a hurried manner. But what about the execution? The teachers who are supposed to execute the ‘new’ curriculum continue to work within the old paradigm and are not in a position to help students attain the intended objectives of the newly-designed curriculum. 

To arrest the vibrant nature of the curriculum, we need to redefine the term. Connelly and Clandinin refer to four commonplaces of the curriculum, including the teacher, teaching materials, students and the school milieu. A curriculum is thus an interaction between all these four aspects. This notion of the curriculum is not fixed, confined or inert. It shows the vibrant and living nature of the curriculum that happens every day. It also encompasses the explicit and implicit nature of the curriculum where the teacher is not just a helpless creature but occupies the central position in the arena.

To explain this let me refer to the term, the ‘hidden curriculum’. This is not the stated curriculum but becomes part of the curriculum indirectly – the attitudes or values that are inculcated in students not as a result of direct teaching and planning by the teachers but as an outcome of the way the activities are planned, organised, and implemented. For instance if the stated curriculum mentions punctuality and the teacher teaches the significance and advantages of punctuality from textbooks and lectures but comes to class late, students will learn that coming late is something normal and there is nothing wrong with it. This is a simple example of the hidden curriculum which is usually more powerful than the stated curriculum.

Let us now look at the curriculum from a different perspective to understand that it should not be taken as a straightjacket as the teacher can play an important role to enrich and empower the given curriculum. It is important to trace the stages of curriculum realisation. The first stage is the ‘intended curriculum’ which is visualised by the policymakers and handed down to the teachers for consumption in the classroom. A large part of the intended curriculum is manifested in textbooks and other reading materials specially written for this purpose. The books and reading materials are then read by the teachers before being taught to students.

The way teachers comprehend the curriculum may be considered the ‘comprehended curriculum’. Similarly the way teachers exploit textbooks/reading materials can be termed as ‘taught curriculum’. Finally what is learned by students at the end of the day through an implicit or explicit way can be called the ‘learnt curriculum’. The assessment system focuses on certain aspects of a given curriculum and approaches it from a different perspective. The parts of the given curriculum emphasised by the assessment system constitute materials.

It is important to note that the intended curriculum may be modified through changes made during different stages of manifested, comprehended, taught, learnt, and assessed curriculum. This view of looking at the curriculum underlines the important role of the teacher who is not just a passive recipient, but an important stakeholder who can act as a useful catalyst in generating an interaction between the school milieu, students and teaching materials.

If we are serious about bringing educational change through the curriculum, it is vital that we “unfreeze” the conservative view of the curriculum as a cold and mysterious document which is sitting in the shelf of a policymaker or gathering dust in the cupboard of the head teacher.

Curriculum, on the contrary, is much more than that. It is a living and vibrant phenomenon in which students, teachers, teaching materials and the school culture are important components.


The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]


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