“This is a pen”: The consequences of overambitious curricula

At a Young Lives conference last year, Karthik Muralidharan presented what is probably the first ever longitudinal study of learning outcomes in a developing country. By applying Item Response Theory to a learning assessments dataset from Andhra Pradesh, the research found that the primary curriculum only catered for the top 10%. Most students fell further and further behind the curriculum from grade 3 onwards, and the bottom 10% learnt virtually nothing beyond grade 2.

Reading the paper reminded me of my experiences as a secondary science teacher in Tanzania. When I taught, the notes I gave to students would differ from one class to another, depending on class discussions.  But when it came to exams, questions were answered by students from all classes with a common answer in the form of a verbose and complex definition, or at least with a set of words that had similar phonetics and intonation to the “correct” definition. The “correct” definition often bore no resemblance to the wording to their notes, nor was it in the official textbook.  So where did it come from? I eventually uncovered the “yellow pages”: hand written notes passed on from teacher to teacher, student to student, generation to generation. These notes served as the most authoritative text, and were treated with an almost sacred reverence: transcribed, memorised and repeated with unquestioning acceptance and without (intentional) alteration.

In my PhD thesis*, I speculated that this often tacit, but “sacred text” had gained authority as a result of the gap between the aspirations to have a ‘modern’ curriculum with ‘proper’ science and taught in English, and the reality of a system where students (and some teachers) struggled to understand basic English, and where schools lacked books and equipment.  Memorisation of the “sacred text” was a survival strategy for those who had not gained sufficient skill in English and in basic science to understand the curriculum content. Transmitting this sacred text had become part of an entrenched underlying culture of teaching and learning that was then difficult to shift through teacher training, revised curricula and new teaching and learning materials.

This aspiration-reality gap is epitomised by curricula that race ahead of the rate of learning of the majority of students, and force students and teachers worldwide to revert to reliance on sacred texts: from ”this is a pen” to “relativity is the dependence of physical phenomena on the relative motion of the observer and the observed.” Learning becomes equated with the ability to reproduce the sacred text, rather than the ability to understand, analyse, apply and manipulate new knowledge. The result is that a large proportion of students learn very little, as shown by Pritchett and Beatty in their working paper from 2012.

Longitudinal learning assessment data provide valuable new insights into how over ambitious curricula create a barrier to learning for the majority of students. But the idea that teaching should not race too far ahead of learning is not a new one. Vygotsky (1934) explored the idea with what he called the Zone of Proximal Development, and described the consequences of trying to teach beyond it:

“Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrot-like repetition of words by the child, simulating the knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum”.
(Vygotsky 1934/1962: 83)

Blog by Ruth Naylor, Senior International Consultant at CfBT

* Wedgwood, R. (2007) Aspiration and Reality in the Teaching and Learning of Science in Tanzania. PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

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