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Time to talk quality in school curriculum

With outdated terms and technologies, the present state of affairs of schools curriculum paints a bleak picture

Time to talk quality in school curriculum
Gadget-savvy or tech-savvy.

Following the upheaval caused by high fee charging private schools, I have been researching the quality aspect of school education offered by both the public and private sectors. In doing so, I also reviewed curriculum documents developed by the Ministry of Education, Pakistan, namely the National Curriculum 2006 and draft pacing guides (2008). It is to be noted that the pacing guides were completely aligned with the national standards but were never circulated for use. However, they have been referred to here to show the cutting edge thinking that goes into developing our curriculum.

For the purposes of this article, I chose to write about “Computer Education” specifically for grades pre-K to 8, given the subject’s relevance to all in the new economy.

A striking feature of the document is the dated terms and technologies whose anachronistic use litters the entire document. As an example, pre-schoolers should be able to “name the technologies at home and at school (e.g., paging systems, telephones, VCRs).” Paging systems died with the introduction of cellphones, and VCRs were replaced, even in Pakistan, by VCDs and DVDs more than 10 years ago. Third graders will be taught about technologies to network computers such as “modem and telephone line, or through local network systems, or internet and intranet.” Hardly anyone still uses a telephone and modem to connect to an ISP anymore, but even in 2008 nobody seemed to have been aware of WiFi as an access technology.

Third graders are also expected to be able to connect to bulletin board services, which saw their peak use before 1994 and were made practically obsolete by the Internet after that.

The most disappointing example in this respect is the 7th grade competency to programme in BASIC, a programming language whose heydays were the 1980s and that has since not been used for any practical purpose worth mentioning. This competency is listed 2 years after the 5th grade competency to “develop computer games.” Talk about putting the cart in front of the horse.

But most disappointing, perhaps, was the following: “Knows that science cannot answer all questions and technology cannot solve all human problems or meet all human needs.” Instead of unchaining young minds from the effects of the many challenges and limitations that are all too clearly visible around us, someone among the authors still saw it necessary to remind students that in spite of everything religion still trumps science and planted the seed of surrender at the first failed attempt, in not too subtle a way.

The National Curriculum standards were developed almost 10 years ago and have not been revised since. Ten years is a very long time for knowledge to become outdated, especially in the applied sciences. The document should have been reviewed and revised periodically.

On the other side, a survey of major private schools in Islamabad shows that although some leading private schools are touting their latest acquisitions in educational technologies, substantively matters are only little better than they are in the public sector.

A few schools have been going beyond the standard yardstick of extra-curriculars and are pushing flashier claims and buzzwords in their offerings. One chain school has recently been running a public campaign touting their ownership of gadgets including tablets, PCs, multimedia projectors and smart boards. However, beyond this, the school is quiet about whether the use of these gadgets is woven into its curriculum, and if so, how?

Similarly, another chain school has been touting its “Robotics” classes for middle schoolers. Parents shopping for schools for their children are told that students will be made to work on a robotics kit. After the child is admitted, however, “robotics” class turns out to be weekly 90-minute lessons of building static LEGO models. The fact that the models are static means that there is no connection to either electrical or mechanical subsystems that makes the exercise even remotely relevant to robotics. It is only at the end of the school year that children graduate to building a simple lever, still a far cry from anything that qualifies as robotics!

Yet another school chain is promoting its “nanotechnology” programme at various campuses. A survey of past activities conducted under this programme, however, shows that the programme comprised an hour long presentation by a guest speaker, a field trip to NUST, and hands-on activities using some inexpensive office supplies which, while useful, could (and should) just as well form a lesson in a mathematics classroom.

The National Curriculum standards were developed almost 10 years ago and have not been revised since. Ten years is a very long time for knowledge to become outdated, especially in the applied sciences. The document should have been reviewed and revised periodically.

Private schools are bandying about the latest media buzzwords in education, building weak extra-curricular activities around them and either charging extra for those who opt for them or charging all students a premium in tuition fees. Meanwhile parents, for lack of knowledge or lack of asking deeper questions, are gladly or forcibly made to pay out for enrichment activities, whose quality in most cases can be described as mediocre at best.

The present state of affairs of the public school curriculum of the future, and the situation in the most elite private schools paints a bleak picture. As we have witnessed a few weeks ago, when these same elite private schools hiked their tuition fees in concert, parents immediately took note and mobilised on a heretofore unseen level. Within days we saw pictures of meetings of concerned parents with ministers and a good deal of noise in the media, and rightfully so.

However, there has been little in the way of accountability of these same schools and the curricula they have been teaching for the last many years, in the name of fancy sounding contents such as robotics, computer classes, nanotechnology workshops etc. How many parents have ever really bothered to find out how all those glitzy smartboards, tablet computers and projectors, that schools proudly never fail to mention in their admissions brochures and advertisements, have contributed to the improvement of learning of students? How has the teaching of Urdu, English, Mathematics, Science, History and other subjects changed with the acquisition of all this technology?

The bottomline is that many parents are all too happy with the bragging rights of how much their children’s schools charge in tuition (as long as they can still afford it), but nobody bothers to verify whether they are getting their money’s worth in that bargain.

On the side of public schools, the lack of review and revision of the Computer Education curriculum, that was created way back in 2006, sums up the state of affairs even more succinctly: nobody is bothered about anything!

A thorough critical analysis of the national school curriculum should be carried out periodically to reflect knowledge and skills that our children will need to compete globally. It does not demand donor money or expensive consulting services to carry out this review. However, identification of competent local professionals and educators is critical.

Providing quality education or enrichment activities does not necessarily require huge investments on schools’ part. Tablets, without content, are just appliances, which many children going to these premier private schools have access to at home anyway. Without suitable software to use the hardware, children will, at best become gadget-savvy, which is different from being tech-savvy which is presumably the implied meaning of touting their availability in a school.

Unlike public school teachers, private school teachers are not required to have completed any teacher training, and often have not. Private schools often have a hard enough time hanging on to their best teachers to cover classroom subjects, and usually put in little to no resources on any significant training or capacity building of their teachers. In such conditions it is understandable that schools either do not have the resources or the will to prioritise the acquisition and retention of human resources to develop and deliver quality enrichment activities.

Nevertheless, just because schools cannot effectively perform this function, does not mean that no one can. There are now companies in the private sector that have seen significant success that specialise in such enrichment activities. An example of one such company is Learn-O-Bots, a start-up based in Islamabad. Learn-O-Bots has developed an indigenous robotics kit that it uses in its summer camps and after school activity workshops which costs just a fraction of the LEGO’s Mindstorms robotics set (priced at about Rs75,000 when bought from a local vendor in Pakistan), long considered the gold standard for robotics instruction. To contrast, in its 15-day summer camps Learn-O-Bots takes participants, of which most have no prior experience in these technologies, through photography, basic electronics, building robots, 3D printing, 3D doodling and computer programming. Of the latter activity it should be noted that these same children spend their middle school years “Computer Studies” classes at premier private schools where they do little beyond making drawings in MS Paint, creating simple documents, presentations and spreadsheets, usually in the MS Office suite, and changing basic computer settings on Windows computers, but are kept away from the most important activity that will make them truly tech savvy, i.e. programming.

There are also a handful of other vendors that at least provide access to other, cheaper learning toys/kits, such as RoboticsPK and TechToys.pk.

We ask innumerable questions and bargain while buying the least important articles every day but when it comes to the education of our children we stay mum. Nothing will change fast enough unless parents choose to inform themselves in order to ask intelligent questions of their schools, and the teachers of their children, to hold schools accountable.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque

Ayesha Razzaque
The author is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University. She may be reached at [email protected]

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