(Not) for the first time in Asia

September 13, 2020

We do not have the required data, the parties involved did not ask for it and the naysayers and believers do not think we need it.

The divisive nature of the conversation around the Single National Curriculum is on account of one fact: that a large part of bandwagon A or B is not interested in how classroom instruction will improve because of this exercise. Because it will not.

Teachers will continue to teach what is in a given textbook with little regard for the contents of a document compiled in Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar or Lahore. While not discounting the intention behind the Single National Curriculum; or the apprehension that this will either infringe on the rights of the provinces; or teach too much or too little Islamiyat; we are again failing the 50 million in-school Pakistani children, and the 22 million more who are somehow considered irrelevant to this conversation.

The effort has been, proposed and showcased as a ground-breaking exercise. The promotion is similar to the tallest, highest, biggest, first in Asia (or the world) claims we are quite familiar with. It is not. With very limited amendments, provinces continue to develop and print textbooks based on the 2006 National Curriculum despite the passage of the 18th Amendment. Why? Because the document is actually quite good; it can definitely be improved upon, as is happening now, but by no means is the curriculum-under-development an exercise without precedent.

The disconnect, between what has happened in the past (2006 National Curriculum) and what Pakistan is setting out to achieve (Single National Curriculum) can reduce this to an exercise in futility. A process of purposeful change requires an analysis of decisions taken in the past.

The entire Single National Curriculum process, while consultative, sheds no light on compliance with textbooks printed in the 2006 iteration; has no analysis on how many teachers were trained, what impact it has had inside the classrooms and how teachers’ feedback on student-learning outcomes, content length, teacher training programmes, and assessment systems has been incorporated; or if the Boards of Intermediate and Secondary Education have developed an item-bank of questions based on the lower- and higher-order thinking skills students need to develop.

On the quality management front, there has been a push to switch the phrase ‘continuous improvement’ with ‘continual improvement’. The new phrase is part of the standard vocabulary of any quality-driven process as well as international standards. Why the change? Because ‘continuous improvement’ meant that we were improving processes in the long-run, while ‘continual improvement’ acknowledges a time-delay between action, data collection, analysis of results, and then improvement.

A curriculum development process is one of continual improvement; of what a child studying in any kind of school learns in Awaran and 155 other districts. For that to happen, the federal and provincial governments have to look at data, invite experts for analysis on how classroom instruction can be improved, teachers consulted, and assessment data reviewed. Instead, with months to go before the promised release of the SNC, the naysayers and the believers continue to debate the merits of the medium of instruction, too much or too little religion, or the provincial autonomy; all extremely important conversations but not merited if the intent is to improve what happens in that classroom in Kurram.

It is important to take stock of what we know and don’t know. We don’t know if existing texbooks compy with the 2006 National Curriculum. Which subjects are taught better- in which school, district or province? How many hours of instruction, activity and assessment are allocated for each subject in each grade. Moreover, apart from simply knowing how many passed or failed, who the position holders were – did the examination papers comply with the assesments requirements of the curriculum?

We do know however, that no province has been able to develop training programmes and trails all its teachers for any subjects, whether school is private or public. Moreover we know that no analysis is available for every subject and grade-level as to what students know and how well they know it.

As Dr Faisal Bari recently pointed out an in article, if the purpose of this exercise was to define minimum standards of education across all types of institutions, then that’s what it should be.

An attempt at reviewing and improving curriculum requires data, and more importantly, an established need acknowledged by the ‘stakeholders’ that the process cannot move forward without it. We do not have the required data, the parties involved did not ask for it and the naysayers and believers do not think we need it. Hence, the teacher in Shangla will continue to teach the way s/he has been, in a language s/he is comfortable with, comfortable in the knowledge that no one is going to train her/him, and there is no expectation of academic excellence.

The high-horsed routine will continue to get eyeballs in print, electronic or digital platforms. But it definitely won’t be serving the interests of those who will attend a primary school in Attock in 2021.

The author works at the Pak Alliance for Maths and Science, and tweets at @seennoonkaaf

(Not) for the first time in Asia