Curriculum through teachers’ eyes

Sridivya Mukpalkar

cs1The end of the year may mark several kinds of transitions for children and parents: from one class to the next, from one level of schooling to the next, sometimes one town to another. It’s a time when we all evaluate our experience and see if this is what we want to continue with. Parents have a tough time choosing the right school with what they may see as the right curriculum for their children. But what about the teachers? How does a teacher go about choosing his/her place of work and deciding to stay with this choice year after year? Does curriculum figure in their criteria? What does the curriculum mean to a teacher? Why do some teachers prefer one curriculum over another?

In view of the curricular changes framed in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) of 2005 and the systemic and structural changes outlined in the Right to Education Act of 2009, it is important to ask what curriculum formation and change mean to various stakeholders, especially teachers who bear the responsibility of ensuring that the expected outcomes are achieved.

Broadly defined, curriculum is the complete set of taught material in a school system. It is prescriptive (as opposed to the ‘descriptive’ syllabus, which is the outline of topics covered. If the curriculum prescribes the objectives of the system, the syllabus describes the means to achieve them). Jane Sahi of SITA school, in Karnataka says, “Curriculum comes from a Latin word which means the course of a chariot race. However, curriculum has come to mean much more than a prescribed one track race and calls for a search for an understanding that gives meaning to education that is both functional and ethical”. Curriculum as a guiding document helps teachers in understanding standards that students need to achieve at the end of a developmental stage. Vimala Nandakumar, an educationist based in Mumbai, explains, “The curriculum document will indicate “what” to teach, ”how” the curriculum is to be taught and help in checking “whether” the curriculum is taught as per the document”.
“A curriculum gives a guideline of what the salient learning points are and it is good for a teacher to have the framework to work with,” says Dr. Yasmin Jayathritha, a teacher at Centre for Learning, Bangalore.

Over the years, ‘curriculum’ has meant different things to different educationists. Some simply equate curriculum to the syllabus that is to be transmitted in the class. “A syllabus gives a more focused outline for particular subjects. It can’t be equated, because a curriculum is for a course but a syllabus is for a subject,” says Dr. Yasmin Jayathritha. The curriculum is the superset and syllabus is the subset of curriculum. “The syllabus is the content, the list of topics/concepts to be taught, whereas the curriculum is a consideration of the objectives, the content, methods chosen to achieve those objectives. It could/should contain a consideration of the kind of assessment one will use to check progress,” says Dr. Gurveen Kaur of Centre for Learning, Hyderabad.

“Curriculum is developed keeping in mind the standards students should achieve from well- researched best practices. Curriculum is designed so that the teaching and testing are aligned with the standards set for each developmental stage,” adds Vimala Nandakumar. Some see it as an end-product, which is to be achieved through a prescribed plan with pre-set objectives. For others, it is the interaction between ‘knowledge’, students and teachers.

A curriculum can be a teacher’s friend or an enemy depending on how the teacher plans to use it. “The curriculum can be a straight-jacket or a crutch or a spring-board. For a teacher the curriculum stops being stifling if she understands what it is meant to achieve. But most use it, often badly, as a crutch because they make no effort to engage with it or understand what it hopes to achieve. Once a teacher understands that, she can use it or work around it to achieve the same ends,” says Dr. Gurveen Kaur.

CBSE, ICSE and the various state boards are the main curricular frameworks that are predominant in India but the focus is different for each of them. Pointing out the differences in curricula, Vimala Nandakumar says, “For example the Maharashtra SSC boasts of thoroughness in grammar and basics of mathematics and science. CBSE focuses more on high standards of Hindi, communication skills as far as English Language is concerned and a diluted version of science as compared to earlier days. ICSE, on the other hand, emphasizes on English Language and English literature, high levels of Hindi, mathematics and science.

“The content, i.e., the topics listed – in these three syllabi (SSC, CBSE and ICSE) in science, socials and math- is more or less the same according to me. In socials, one difference is that the SSC syllabus has more information on the state – which is the point and as it should be – whereas the other two do not have a state-specific bias. Yet there are significant differences,” adds Dr. Gurveen Kaur.

While the language texts in SSC are perceived as being of lower quality, ICSE and CBSE are better printed with illustrations and plenty of exercises. “ICSE is more challenging, CBSE much improved but slightly less loaded, so more flexible. But in terms of what a curriculum can do to inform the perspective of a child/student, I think, right now the CBSE texts are worth adopting – particularly in socials. There is another Board – The NIOS (National Institute Of open Schooling). While the syllabus is bare-bones, it is quite well-done. It has the essentials to acquaint one with the necessary information, in simple language and yet doesn’t over-burden with facts and figures,” adds Dr Kaur.

While some schools are beginning to open up to new curricula (such as the IGCSE or IB) and methods of teaching, some major changes are being made to the ways in which the existing curricula are implemented, to incorporate new trends and techniques and do away with those that have not worked.

Anjali Razdan, Principal, Indus World School, notes some big changes in the CBSE curriculum, as framed in NCF 2005, highlighting the grading system.

“If you ask me what difference the curriculum makes to a teacher, I must say not much. I have taught in ICSE and CBSE curricula and I don’t see much of a difference in the core concepts. It’s the approach that is different. 2+2 can only be 4 and not something else,” she notes wryly.

Commenting on the curriculum’s impact on a teacher’s choices, she says, “In the earlier days it was the love for teaching that made people take up teaching as a career. Now it is as good or bad as any other profession. Remuneration is a big draw, not so much the curriculum. Teachers also look at the environment and the added benefits that the school might give”.

Some believe that the content might remain the same for each class, the approach is different in different curricula. That’s where the devil is – in the approach. How you teach a simple multiplication table makes or breaks the child’s future in mathematics. Others believe that the curriculum adopted is not as important as are the school environment and the teachers’ ways of dealing with children and learning.

I think most curricula world over are very similar since the learning requirements for particular age groups are the same. I believe Germany has a lot of vocational training in their curriculum for 16 year olds. There may be minor differences in the Indian curricula but I am not sure there are major differences,” says Dr. Yasmin Jayathritha.

“Whatever the train of thought is, a strong and continuous orientation (training) is critical,” adds Anjali Razdan. “The ICSE board has orientation programs for teachers at the beginning of the academic year, whereas the CBSE board has a continuous orientation program”.

What about someone who is planning to take up teaching as a career? Does the curriculum draw them to teaching? “Yes it does”, says Anjali Sharma of Gitanjali Devashray, “I took up teaching about three years ago and I wanted to get into a CBSE school because I heard many positive things about this curriculum from friends and acquaintances”.

For some the adventure lies in learning something new and imparting that learning to their students. Susmita Chervathoor of Chirec School believes that, “Teachers should constantly update their skills, be open to change and try out new things. This will eventually help them when there are systemic changes in the curriculum. For example, the CBSE curriculum is undergoing so many changes that one should be adept enough to cope with such changes”. Some boards offer the teacher greater scope for experimentation and learning while others tend to be a bit more static. There is a certain “fit” that teachers look for in terms of the teaching approaches demanded by a particular curriculum and their own style of teaching.

So what makes teachers prefer a curriculum over others? “Teachers generally opt for a certain curriculum because of their own background as they have been taught in the same curriculum. One must seek opportunities to learn new things even changing curricula,” says Susmita Chervathoor. For some the passion for teaching seems to have been enough to take up the profession. Rashmi Bali of Jain International School who has taught in four different curricula SSC, ICSE, CBSE and IB says, “When I began my career as a teacher the curriculum did not really matter. But as I grew in the teaching profession and learnt new things the curriculum started to make a difference. However teaching is all about innovativeness and the way to teach ultimately matters more than the curriculum you are following”. “A teacher who has taught in different boards will be a great asset to an institution. The reason being she/he could evolve a curriculum which will integrate the plus points of various boards,” adds Vimala Nandakumar.

For individuals who are in the field of education but are not teachers it’s a different story. “Curriculum starts making a difference to teachers only when they are teaching in middle or higher classes and not in the lower classes”, says Rajika Dhiren of Greenwood school that has classes till the 4th standard. She also adds that, “While hiring teachers, school managements in India prefer teachers who have taught in the CBSE and ICSE curricula as their communication skills are better than the others”.

Gita Krishnan of Gitanjali school who counsels both teachers and students says, “Planning and implementation are two major issues that I have to constantly guide teachers for. The curriculum is not really the issue. Time management and balancing activities in any curriculum are also important factors. Continuous training for teachers must be made mandatory by all school managements irrespective of the curricula, only then can teachers be better at what they are”.

In recent times, schools have shown the promise of a different schooling experience from the conventional systems. New curricula like the International Baccalaureate and systems like Waldorf have also been gaining momentum in the recent past. How are they different? Jyotsna of Sloka school which follows the Waldorf system till the eighth standard and CBSE in the ninth and tenth says, “The lessons in a Waldorf system are not structured like the conventional system. Lessons are taught in the form of stories. They are a powerful medium that stay in children’s memories forever, that is what they remember and each story incorporates a certain level of learning. These stories are again different for different classes. By the time they finish eighth standard they are well equipped to take up any curriculum”.

The International Baccalaureate system is also gaining popularity in India, albeit among an elite minority. There are about 65 IB world schools in the country. Orchids International based at Hyderabad has both International Baccalaureate and CBSE curricula. Uma Bala of Orchids International schools says, “We have the IB curriculum till the sixth standard and from the sixth the CBSE curriculum as parents start getting worried when their children reach higher classes; they want them to be ready for competitive exams after tenth”.

The Montessori method of teaching developed by Dr. Maria Montessori has been around in India for quite some time now but this method is primarily applied to young children only. Likewise the Rishi Valley schools which are based on Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s philosophy claim to provide a flexible curriculum with affiliation to the ICSE Board.

With new curricula being introduced in India and changes being made in the existing ones, new challenges are likely to come up. “What is important for teachers is to know before-hand what a particular curriculum offers in terms of space to try out new things and resources and then decide on which curriculum he/she is most comfortable with”, says Prasuna Balantrapu, an English language teacher based in Vijayawada. Dr. Gurveen Kaur says, “I think teachers must engage with the curriculum to understand what it hopes to achieve and not just accept it as matter to be taught. Once they understand what it hopes to achieve, they will have more control and autonomy in planning their classes – which makes the process much more fun and satisfying for the teacher than blind rule following. The teachers should try and see how it differs from another curriculum”.

Some teachers seem to have a definite preference for a specific curriculum and for some it is not such a big deal. “Changes in the recent guidelines of the Curriculum Framework of the NCERT have opened up many possibilities in innovative and creative ways of teaching. However textbooks and guidelines in reshaping curriculum will only come to life through the active engagement of teachers who are conscious and aware of what they are doing”, says Jane Sahi.