A curriculum paradigm whose time has come [Article]

In an increasingly globalized economy, a country’s most precious resources are not extracted from deep within its bowels. It is not the oil, gold or cocoa that will, in the end, lead to Ghana’s economic prosperity. Our greatest and most critical resources are the men and women who lead our industrialisation efforts, turn the wheels of technology and innovation, run our businesses and cater for our physical and mental health needs and all the other constituents of our workforce. No nation has developed without a well-educated and dedicated critical mass of workforce to pursue its developmental aspirations.

There are many nations that have achieved higher levels of development with only a fraction of Ghana’s natural wealth; they relied on qualified and patriotic citizens to achieve their enviable status. The arc of success of these nations can only provide key lessons for Ghana. If we are to spur economic growth within the context of a globalized knowledge economy, then we will need to grow a capable workforce characterised by creativity and innovation, nationalistic zeal and a sense of moral purpose and duty. A plethora of studies have shown that a well-educated and skilled workforce is indispensable for economic transformation and shared growth. The school curriculum plays a particularly important role in this regard. If you are what you read, you are even more so what you study. The learning experiences we offer our children accounts in large part for what they eventually become.

Unfortunately, our curriculum appears to have long failed to keep up with the changing times and demands of the moment. For far too long, we had remained tethered to the colonial ideal of producing graduates who are little more than pliant paper pushers. Over the last three decades, our educational system and the school curriculum and assessment, in particular, appear to have done little to encourage or foster the kind of curiosity that leads to world-changing innovation. The results of this have been evident for long. In global tests that assess the application of knowledge and reasoning, even our best students struggle. Something about our education has been holding our students back and stifling their ability to lead world-beating innovations, life-changing discoveries and wealth-creating ideas.

In 2016, for instance, the National Education Assessment found more than seventy percent of students struggling to achieve basic competencies in English and mathematics. Similar discernible patterns were observed at the early grade level where less than five percent could read with comprehension as reported in the EGRA/EGMA studies. Earlier on, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessments consistently ranked Ghana at the bottom of the global table in Science and Maths. Attempts to uncover the underlying cause of this phenomena produced common findings that included curriculum overload and lack of performance standards to guide teaching and learning. These findings raised important issues for policy-makers. Curriculum overload, particularly, leads to poor fidelity of implementation as teachers and schools make their own value judgements about what should and should not be taught in their lessons.

Against this backdrop, the Nana Akufo-Addo led government, on taking over in 2017, considered the development of a new curriculum as part of a comprehensive school reform agenda that included teacher education reform, school management and accountability, and improved education service delivery in general.  The government, particularly the President, believed that the expanded access to education that it was pursuing, would be fatally compromised if it was not complemented by enhanced relevance and quality of education expressed in the form of curriculum materials.

There had been previous attempts to revise our school curriculum. None of such attempts, however, seemed to have attacked the very core of the problem. None had sought to explicitly answer the question “what kind of Ghanaian do we want walking on our streets a generation from now?” in such a direct and sustained manner as these present reforms do.

In September 2019, after two years of an extensive curriculum review process, the government introduced a standards-based curriculum at the kindergarten to primary levels, with emphasise on core and foundational skills such as the four Rs – Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic and cReativity – while also nurturing in the children a lifelong passion for learning and discovery.

This was in sharp contrast to the earlier objectivists-based curriculum we have so long relied on.  Developed on the bases of the B. F. Skinners and Edward Thondikes behaviourists learning theories, the objectivists-based curriculum encouraged leaners to demonstrate competence by reciting or regurgitating concepts; an approach understood in the extant literature as drill and practice. In contrast, with the emphasis on set grade-level expectations, the standards-based curriculum highlights what learners are expected to know, understand and be able to do (with emphases on doing). Textbooks and other instructional resources that align with the expectations of the new curriculum have since been developed, approved and are currently being procured by government to facilitate the reform efforts.

Reform efforts, however, must be matched at the various levels of education in order for them to achieve the intended policy outcomes. This is why the common core curriculum for lower and upper secondary levels was developed and subsequently approved by cabinet for implementation this year. This was originally designed as a programmatic curriculum with the view to aligning the lower secondary curriculum more closely to the upper secondary school in accordance with the government’s vision of a comprehensive secondary school system. Besides following the objectivists model of curriculum, the existing JHS curriculum had a number of limitations both in terms of content and structure. For instance, the 1987 reforms, led by the recently deceased Dr Emmanuel Evans-Anfom (may his soul rest in peace), aligned our lower secondary closer to the primary school than upper secondary, to form the basic school system under the government’s FCUBE programme.

This relationship has since influenced many policy choices including curriculum decisions, teacher recruitment and training, evaluation and certification. A major unintended consequence, for instance, was the strengthened link between primary school and lower secondary school, and the weakened link between the lower and upper secondary school in terms of access and quality. That the Anamuah-Mensah committee in 2002 considered an additional year at the upper secondary school “as a remedial period for the poor quality of education at the junior secondary school level and … for the selection of programmes” highlights the significance of this problem.

The introduction of the free SHS policy has addressed the access aspect of the problem involving transition from JHS to SHS. The common core curriculum, on the other hand, attempts to address the quality aspect in the form of improved learning experiences based on a common (core) curriculum from JHS1 to SHS1, thereby conceptualising lower and upper secondary as a collective whole. Students may be streamed through elective subjects after first year of upper secondary. This is in contrast to the current approach where students are grouped either by academic ability or by choice on entering upper secondary education.

A significant body of research shows that early streaming of students into pathways (grammar or vocational education) impacts negatively on learning outcomes. It was against this background that the high-level ministerial technical committee led by former Minister for Education, Prof Dominic Fobih, which conceptualised the common core programme recommended a six-year curriculum system, combining JHS and SHS; with JHS 1-SHS 1 as the foundational learning stage, and extended contact hours of SHS 2-3 for tertiary and work preparation.

This distinctive feature of the common core curriculum, among others, is important for two reasons. First, given that the option for students to specialize is delayed at least for a year, specialisation will occur at a relatively older age. This could help students and parents become better informed about options and about the consequences of early specialization. Second, students who complete JHS would still have more work to cover in the programme and could even prepare with their available textbooks while at home waiting to enter SHS, thereby making efficient use of time and instructional resources.

Beyond these, it is essential that students who have been exposed to the standards-based curriculum at the primary level, transition to a curriculum system that complements the new curriculum in its purpose and characteristics. Otherwise, we risk compromising the gains that we would have made in fostering real-world skills of the young ones.

As the common core curriculum is currently envisaged to finish at SHS1, final assessment would most likely be at the end of SHS1. This assessment needs to prioritise the validity with respect to the higher-order skills in the common core (the ‘Core Competences’). This could involve project work, teamwork, problem-solving, among others, with more open-ended tasks, in order to allow students the scope to demonstrate the skills required. Schools and teachers may be incentivised to provide high levels of support for students and/or mark generously, which will have implications for reliability.

This writer, therefore, recommends that there be two different assessments for the common core programme, each optimised to a different purpose. One would be for placement in Senior High School and one for assessing the core competences. Exact decisions about when and how these will take place can only follow decisions about the curriculum organisation, assessment and school structure, among others.

In conclusion, the common core programme is a crystallisation of the president’s vision of producing an educated and skilled workforce to power the nation’s development agenda. With the common core programme supported with instructional resources and a highly motivated teacher workforce, we anticipate having within a generation, a critical mass of innovators, critical thinkers and leaders who are at par with the best from anywhere in the world and can hold their own in the competitive global arena. Backed by rigorous and faithful implementation, the common core programme stands us in good stead of finally making good on that promise made to a hopeful nation some sixty-four years ago, that we are capable of managing our own affairs.

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The writer is the Member of Parliament for Kwesimintsim, immediate past Director-General of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and Vice Chairman of the Parliamentary
Select Committee on Education.

Source:
Prince Hamid Armah, PhD (Aberdeen)

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