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Reading the curriculum

Opinion

August 7, 2020

 ISLAMABAD: February 11 - Federal Minister for Education, Professional Training & National Heritage, Shafqat Mahmood participating in opening ceremony of National Conference on Single National Curriculum being held in AIOU under Ministry of Federal Education. Parliamentary Secretary Wajiha Akram and Joint Education Advisor Rafique Tahir also present. APP

The public debate on the Single National Curriculum (SNC) prepared by the National Curriculum Committee (NCC) has turned into a PTI vs others fight.

As a non-partisan myself, I felt it would be helpful to separate fact from fiction. Until recently, the promised education reforms included three major items: A) transitioning to local languages as medium of instruction; B) a unified school system (which implies the elimination of foreign examination systems); and with it, C) a single curriculum.

On the first item, a large body of research supports that changing the medium of instruction in primary schools to mother tongue(s) would be helpful for many students that are handicapped by having to study in English or Urdu. However, in the recent debate this issue has taken a backseat.

On the second item, in a tweet last week, Shafqat Mahmood, federal minister for education and professional training, thankfully (and in a U-turn this government is famous for?) retracted his earlier public statements about eliminating foreign examination systems. Perhaps he realized that handicapping better performing students down to the level of an inferior local curriculum would prove politically counter-productive.

Finally, by leaving private schools be, the SNC has been made largely irrelevant to private schools preparing students for Cambridge and IB exams. That means it will principally affect public schools and madressahs.

The simplest definition of curriculum is the entire learning experience that a child goes through at school. This includes the syllabus, books, other teaching and learning materials/ resources (labs, libraries, field trips), teacher input, assessments. Like the previous National Curriculum 2006, the current SNC document under debate only provides the minimum learning standards that every child should be able to achieve in a particular subject at a certain grade level. Even though the SNC’s every document bears the slogan ‘One Nation, One Curriculum’, calling it a curriculum is a misnomer.

Seeing how the SNC is mostly copied from the National Curriculum 2006, there is no sign that the NCC made the kind of effort the government claims it did. Comparing the SNC and National Curriculum 2006 one finds that, for almost all subjects, the SNC is essentially a copy-paste job from the National Curriculum 2006. I am making this claim because I processed the SNC documents through Turnitin, an online tool used in Pakistani universities and, more recently, government departments to detect and quantify copied content in documents.

For the SNC subject curricula, ‘General Knowledge’ had a similarity score of 45 percent, ‘Social Studies’ scored 47 percent, ‘Mathematics’ 58 percent, ‘General Science’ 59 percent, ’English’ 78 percent and ‘Early Childhood Care and Education’ scored 89 percent. I could not check the documents for Urdu and Islamiat because they are not in English and cannot be checked this way.

The primary source with which all these documents have overlap is the National Curriculum of 2006, but I also recognize a lot of material from unpublished documents of different NGOs operating in the education development sector. So, the overlap is in fact much higher than what Turnitin was able to detect. Interestingly, the NCC has not seen fit to include into the SNC any of the advances made in early childhood education over the last 15 years (similarity being 89 percent).

Proponents of the SNC have been assuring the public that it was prepared after consulting curricula of countries enjoying reputations for having the best schools in the world today, including Singapore, the UK, etc. I expected to see fingerprints of those foreign curricula all over the SNC, but there are none. Although most of the SNC has been copy-pasted, almost none of the sources appear to be from Singapore, the UK or any other country the NCC claims to have referenced.

Even if you put the above issues aside and let the curriculum contents speak for themselves, you will discover that its characterization by its proponents as emphasizing critical thinking skills is false. Learning outcomes seldom rise beyond having students “define” or “describe” concepts.

Since the SNC leaked out, criticism has started pouring in. Its proponents are defending the SNC arguing that judgment is premature and uninformed, since it has not been officially released. Meanwhile, the ministry has already sent out an undated call for applications for textbook authors on its website, which lets us conclude that the SNC is already finalized. Why then is it still being kept under wraps?

Instead of releasing the SNC, critics are being told to give it a rest, because it was prepared by “400 subject matter experts.” Who are these experts, and what are their qualifications and pedagogical accomplishments? I would expect to see recognizable names, ideally included in each subject’s curriculum document, or listed on the NCC’s website. Instead, the public is being stonewalled. I have learned some names included in the NCC’s deliberations from my professional contacts, as owners of local NGOs and private schools’ chains – business owners who are education-adjacent but have no qualifications or experience in curriculum development.

Every graduate school course on public policymaking teaches the need to make these processes consultative, open and transparent. If this government has confidence in the quality of the NCC’s work product and wishes to silence critics, it can still release the SNC to the public. The manner in which it is being kept under wraps signals bad faith. Instead, it is wheeling out social media trolls and a few professionals and relying on their academic credentials to blind and silence the public. Amusingly, some people publishing long threads of tweets in support of the SNC (when asked) admit they themselves have not seen what they are defending!

Much of civil society’s criticism of the SNC has centered on Islamiat for grades 1 to 5 – and for good reason. For the last few decades, (together with Pakistan Studies) it can be credited as successive governments’ primary vehicle of choice to indoctrinate children, a policy which has yielded us the intolerant society we have today. I came to review the Islamiat curriculum with an open mind, seeing how its proponents in the media have reassured us that it is largely the same curriculum as before.

The first item listed for every grade level is not just reading but recitation of the Holy Quran, covering all 30 chapters over five grade levels, representing a significant expansion of course contents. Add to that the memorization of dozens of verses and passages. Learning outcomes for other concepts in the subject seldom venture beyond rote memorization. What makes it stand out is the overwhelming volume of content. This is further augmented by curriculum items which amount to reprogramming children with imported, alien cultural norms that are heretofore unseen.

It appears that the SNC is a result of a simple bargain: add a boatload of content to the Islamiat curriculum for public schools and in return madressahs will adopt the SNC. Coupled with the requirement to hire teachers from madressahs certified to cover the Islamiat curriculum, it will serve as the religious right’s Trojan horse to enter public schools. Anyone who has spent time in an office in Pakistan knows that even a single ultra-conservative staff member can significantly alter the work environment.

Two years after being voted in and being unable to deliver on any major campaign promise (half a million houses, a million new jobs, police reforms, etc), this is an attempt to check the promise of bringing a unified school system off that list, without any spending. A poorly executed review of minimum learning standards, which is a routine process in other countries, has been politicized and is being sold to voters as a bill of goods, in the guise of major school reforms.

We are a society where you can put three high-school graduates together and make them endlessly debate the best way to break a fast, or consume a watermelon, etc. However, ask them to explain how we get the four seasons in a year and almost no one will give you the correct answer. Ask yourself: is the SNC – which saddles students with one bloated course but no improvements where needed – the change we need?


The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Email: [email protected]