Another dot in the blogosphere?

Curricular reduction is an oxymoron

Posted on: February 8, 2015

Thanks to a tweet from @ryantracey, I read this blog entry by @gregwhitby. The main issue that Whitby raised was:

It seems that whenever there is a need to change behaviours or address attitudes we look to the curriculum. Is this the role of a curriculum? Is it the responsibility of schools?

He concluded:

When there are vigorous calls to continually pare down the curriculum (similar to Singapore’s approach), why do we waste valuable time proposing ways of over-loading it?

In between, he raised good points of how schools could be providing just-in-time learning over just-in-case instruction as well as the role of parents in values-based education.

I was drawn to Whitby’s conclusion that briefly mentioned Singapore’s content and curricular reductions.

I was involved in one major curriculum reduction exercise here almost 20 years ago. The reason for this effort was to reduce instructional and assessment loads. This was also before our ICT Master Plans kicked off.

More recently, the reduction of curricula has happened to provide time and space for efforts like ICT integration and the infusion of less academic outcomes in order to nurture more holistic learners. At least, those are the official and administrative statements someone higher up in the hierarchy would make.

Any plan is only as good as its implementation. Fast forward to today and probably the most common complaint teachers still have is a lack of time to complete curricula. The situation is bad enough that the need for private tuition in Singapore continues to rise and the money thrown at this shadow schooling system might soon rival our official education budget.

Curricula may be reduced on paper, but the other initiatives that pushed out content in the first place now take disproportionately more time and effort. I have reflected on this phenomenon before, so I’ll not flog that horse [1] [2] [3] [4].

The quantity-oriented approach of curricular reduction without an accompanying increase in quality instruction and effective professional development of teachers is pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum and schools tend to fill up the time meant for innovation and reflection with traditional curricular endeavours.

When I meet with school leaders and middle managers, I ask them if they know what “curriculum” means. One of the Latin roots of “curriculum is “race”, as in foot race. The nature of curriculum is a race that teachers and students must complete within a limited time.

Content or curricular reductions do not work if the design remains a race: Limited time, same obstacles (or different ones that serve the same function of obstructing), single finish line.

If you were to take the pulse of stakeholders, I wager that you would detect the general feeling that there is so much more to learn today than there was in yesteryear. A content or curricular reduction seems counterintuitive. If there is more content, there should be more coverage in schools. The curricular race will then have more obstacles and twists and turns than before.

That is the wrong design solution to a misperceived problem. The problem is not the need to cover more content; it is to learn how to deal with more information that you can possibly learn. One solution is to think outside the curricular race course and focus more on thinking and just-in-time skills.

Curriculum then ceases to be relevant. The race is abandoned for something that resembles treks or personal journeys. Such paths have different start and end points and are not strict functions of time. Obstacles are natural and may or may not be anticipated.

This suggestion makes most politicians, policymakers, and administrators uneasy. Very little of this approach fits spreadsheets, Gantt charts, or statistical models. But if you realize that we will in a VUCA world, then we need VUCA strategies.

Curricular reduction is not only an oxymoron (it cannot happen by design and implementation), it is an old solution to a new problem. We do not need more of the same. We need something different.

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