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Curriculum Matters

BY: Sally Ocran

During my studies in Education, I loved almost all of my classes, but one class had a deep mark on me: The Foundations of Education. I still remember our first day in the class. This African-American woman pulls up a chair, sits in it and asks us to each come forward, give our names and why we want to be teachers. As you can imagine, we all had simple but lofty reasons about why we wanted to be teachers. When we had all spoken, she smiles and says, your job as future teachers is to make your students good citizens and good workers. You can imagine that we were surprised at her words. But she is proven right when you consider what was said in 1993 when England started work on revising their National Curriculum:

Education is not concerned only with equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to earn a living. It must help our young people to use leisure time creatively; have respect for other people, other cultures and other beliefs; become good citizens; think things out for themselves; pursue a healthy lifestyle; and not least, value themselves and their achievements. It should develop an appreciation of our cultural heritage and of the spiritual and moral dimensions to life. (SCAA, 1993: 18)
Curriculum Development: A Guide for Educators, 2016.

As you noticed, skills needed to earn a living (good workers) and become good citizens. No matter how well-written and inspiring the words are, the requirement of most education around the world, is for the creation of workers and desired citizens.

Why do I recount this memory and have a long quote supporting it? The answer is something everyone who knows a little about school knows, curriculum. We build our curriculum on what we hope for and expect of every generation. That is why curriculum changes and why curriculum must change. Curriculum must be as dynamic as human society. This is why the development of curriculum has yielded so much research and the publication of a myriad of books and papers about it.

Smarter people than us have noted that curriculum is more than the content, resources and assessment. It goes much further. The work of researchers has pointed out important types of curricula that we need to be aware of, explicit and implicit curriculum as well as excluded curriculum. To go into all of that would overwhelm anyone. What we need to realise is that as the name suggests, explicit curriculum is basically, the formal curriculum; the subjects, knowledge and skills expected to be learnt as well as the assessment of them. Implicit curriculum refers to the things that are taught informally such as gender roles and biases. Implicit curriculum tends to be affected by the culture of the society and/or the school. Then we have excluded curriculum which refers to the things that are intentionally censored so they cannot be learnt.

It is very important that we know a little about curriculum and its development because we as Ghanaians will also revise our curriculum sooner or later. It is a praiseworthy decision but in revising it, we have to know how important this revision will be to our country’s future. It cannot be stressed enough that curriculum building does not come out of thin air. It comes out of our expectations, as I have stated earlier, but it also comes out of our view of the world, our wishes and more importantly, our biases.

Now back to my Foundations of Education class. Since I went to an American School, I learnt how the United States developed its curriculum over time. It is centred on the political, social and economic goals of the time period they found themselves in. Many would not be surprised to find out that one of the goals of education in the United States was anticommunism among its people during the height of the cold war. One goal which was extremely surprising to me was an economic goal which meant high schools were first developed to get youth labour out of the labour market between the 1920s and 1940s. In 2005 at the National Education Summit on High Schools, 150 governors, heads of corporations and educational leaders many of whom have not been in the classroom came up with the agenda for high schools. Many of us rightly found it frustrating that no teacher groups, parent groups or even student groups had been invited to this summit.

You might say, what does it matter? These people are the leaders of the country. But wait a minute, I’ll draw your attention to the No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Child Succeeds Act and how teachers and parents are arguing that it has failed and is failing their children. I’ll draw your attention to the fact that the National Centre for Education Statistics has found that reading levels have been falling in the United States.

Yes, Covid-19 has played a role but before 2019, the levels had already been dropping. The incessant testing and the agendas put forward by politicians, heads of corporations like Bill Gates and “educational leaders” have not led to educational gains but to many issues for teachers and students.

As someone who knows teachers in the American Public School System, I have first-hand knowledge of some of the successes of their curriculum and the increasing frustration many teachers feel about the policy changes and the expectations being put on them; this frustration comes from both teachers in high achieving and low achieving schools. Many of them love their jobs and their students but they keep watching the system fail their kids and they can do little about it because their hands are often tied by decision makers who have, most often, not stepped in a classroom. It is no surprise that in a recent poll, a large number of teachers are planning on quitting their jobs by the end of the school year. This is because when decisions are being made about the curriculum, teachers, parents, students are excluded from the decision-making process.

I bring the issues facing America now so that when the time comes for us to revise or change our curriculum, we may start on the right foot. We as a nation should consider not only the expected success but the potential pitfalls when reviewing and developing our existing curriculum. Based on the little that I know, I give my opinion on what we could do to make any curriculum development work for the good of the country and its people.

The first thing most needed for curriculum development is time. We need to take the time to talk with teachers, parents and students for our primary, junior high and senior high school levels. Ghana is very unique especially in the fact that it is tied to other West African Countries through the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). This means that any revisions or changes must be done with consideration for the other member countries. To that point, for the good of the future, we need to take the time to access and understand how any reviews we make affect not only our country but also our partners in education. Furthermore, we need to take the time to bring teachers, parents and students into the room with economic and political leaders. The ship does not sail properly without the input of all the crew. If some members of the crew are ignored, the ship may not get to its destination. Each crew member understands the ship in a certain way. That is the same with education, there are different hands which play roles, and we need each one’s experience and wisdom in planning and developing curriculum. In my opinion, to ignore any group in curriculum development, is to be disadvantaged right from the very beginning. It will take a lot of work and time to do this, but is our future as a country not worth the time and work?

Secondly, we also need to be aware of the differences in our country when planning for curriculum development. Often times, the dominant group develops things around their identity and their perceptions of how the world works; a situation which does not often bode well for those in the minority. Not every teacher has access to a fully equipped library or a classroom wired for internet access. Not every student has a computer at home or at school and not every student is exposed to more western liberal or conservative belief systems. Yes, the world is changing but access is not the same for everyone. With this in mind, it is important we develop a curriculum with expectations that it will be accessible to a majority of our students around the country.

As well as being accessible, curriculum should be adaptable. Research in education is beginning to draw attention to the fact the experience of students matters in their learning and it is still going on. We do not always have to wait till decades of research is done before we act on it. We can stay ahead by ensuring that any teacher is able to effectively teach our curriculum, no matter the difficulties or opportunities available to them.

The late Ken Robinson, one of the most important voices in education said, “The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.” This is important for us to remember in our curriculum development in a world which tends to focus more on the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and little on the humanities. If I went into the thoughts, arguments and opinions about how equally important all subjects are, this article will be longer than needed. The crux of it is this; when we develop curriculum as a nation, we should consider all subjects. No subject is inferior to another and that should always be remembered. In fact, it is in the exposure to different subjects which deepen understanding, critical thinking and creativity. Thus, our curriculum development should give every subject importance. During lesson planning in a system which focused on Math, English and Science, we were challenged to include subjects such as art, music, and other “non-essential” subjects into our lessons in order to get our students to be more creative and connect more with the objectives of our lessons.

Added to these, I think that our curriculum development should reflect who we are as Ghanaians, as West Africans, and as Africans. These are the subjects I found annoying as a child, they included Religious and Moral Education, Geography studies on West Africa, Africa and the World just to list a few. However, as an adult, especially one who has trained in education in a country which tends to centre itself, ignoring a lot of other regions in the world, I am very grateful for the Ghanaian curriculum that I was educated with. Due to the education that I had, I think I began to understand that the world was big, and it included different weather, land, cultures and values than what is familiar to me. Today, I cannot say enough about how grateful I am for my primary and high school and undergraduate education in Ghana. There will be things to make better and change concerning the cultural and social identity in our curriculum development but the fact that our curriculum includes the study of other regions of the world is a very good start.

You and other people can add more to my list, it is definitely not exhaustive. However, one thing to finally say is that we need not make the same mistakes other countries have made. We can learn from them. There are hundreds of people who know of the British, Finnish, German, Chinese, Singaporean and so many experiences in the development of curriculum, their successes and failures. We can learn from them, we can listen and assess what is being shared. When the time comes, and it will come, we can develop a curriculum with a stronger foundation than most; we can develop a curriculum that borrows from others but is built around who we are as Ghanaians and as Africans.

Written by Sally Ocran

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