When it comes to curriculum, the MOE syllabus is only the tip of the iceberg. Teachers are the ones who do most of the work in developing and planning a curriculum, and such work requires professionalism and deliberation – lots of it.
Dr Christina Lim-Ratnam recalls the time when she was with the Curriculum Planning Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE). She was part of the team that developed the Literature syllabus for secondary schools.
“Boy, did we deliberate!” she says. They deliberated about alternatives, how the examination format should be changed, and whether local literature should be included, among other things.
But teachers who use the syllabus are not involved in the planning of the curriculum, nor are they privy to these discussions. They merely enact the given syllabus.
This is where school-based curriculum development (SBCD) comes in to help teachers make sense of what they teach.
School-based Curriculum Development
So why do teachers need to develop the curriculum in their schools when MOE has already defined the syllabus?
“If we really own what we teach, we should engage in SBCD,” asserts Christina. It includes choosing the teaching materials you use and designing the units and lessons.
– Christina Lim-Ratnam, Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group
SBCD, also known as school-based curriculum innovation (SCI) in Singapore, is closely tied to “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM). As part of the TLLM initiative, MOE started the Ignite! project to provide professional development and funding support in SCI for participating schools.
Christina sees curriculum as larger than the syllabus, which is just the tip of the iceberg. The syllabus is just a reference for teachers to plan a curriculum that will encourage positive and useful learning experiences for their students.
“A curriculum is also about your convictions, your beliefs, about the aims of education – it could even be as broad as that,” says Christina.
The late Professor Colin J. Marsh introduced SBCD to Singapore teachers in 2006, when he was invited to work with the TLLM prototype schools. His model of SBCD was a wide-ranging one, with variations in time commitment, type of activity, and the persons involved (Marsh, 2009).
“Even for the selection of materials, he may consider it as SBCD,” says Christina, who had worked with him. “That means, SBCD is basically the work of any professional teacher.”
Reclaiming Teacher Professionalism
Indeed, more than anything else, curriculum development calls forth the professionalism of teachers, or what Andy Hargreaves and colleagues (2001) call “professional discretion”. But first, they need to have autonomy.
“We need that autonomy to be able to say: ‘Hey, I planned my lesson myself and I’m carrying it out the way I want it to be.'”
This may seem unnecessary in a centralized education system like ours, where even the textbooks we use have been pre-approved by MOE. But that is precisely the mind-set that needs to change, says Christina.
In an article published in 1969, titled “The Practical: A Language for Curriculum”, Joseph Schwab sounded a rallying call for educators to reclaim the curriculum from theorists, back into the school. Curriculum needs to be grounded in reality.
Schwab says the stuff of theory is abstract, an idealized representation of real things. But a curriculum in action deals with “real things, real acts, real teachers, real children” – things that are far richer than their theoretical representations.
That’s why his series of articles was called “The Practical” – we have to come back to the practical aspect of teaching, he contends.
“We can still reclaim the curriculum if people would reclaim their professionalism, realize what it means to be professional, and act on it,” Christina affirms.
Gatekeepers of Curriculum
Stephen Thornton (2001) describes teachers as curriculum gatekeepers. You are the one who decides what to let in through the pearly gates of curriculum and what to exclude.
As gatekeepers, you have to prioritize, you need to know the purpose, and you must know when to say “no”. Christina urges teachers and heads of department to exercise their professionalism to think through, decide and own what is taught.
“That’s why teach less, so that they can learn more,” notes Christina. “What is the less? What do you leave out and what is retained so that they can learn more?”
The only way to arrive at these answers is to deliberate. Deliberation is at the heart of curriculum development. This explains why Christina and her colleagues deliberated their hearts out when planning the Literature syllabus.
Schwab described the deliberation as “complex and arduous” because teachers have to weigh the alternatives, costs and consequences.
And there will always be plenty to deliberate about. “You have to deliberate about the learner in your classroom. You have to deliberate about the teachers: how ready they are to deliver the curriculum,” says Christina.
“You have to deliberate the subject matter,” she continues. “There are a lot of assumptions and misconceptions out there, even about the subject matter.” (Read about developing a curriculum for character and citizenship education in “Educating Values-driven Citizens“, SingTeach, Issue 36.)
MOE’s syllabus is for the masses, Christina reminds us. They don’t know your school or your students. “You have to deliberate about even the milieu, that means the context, such as the type of parents, the type of background that students come from, and things like that.”
Eisner, E. W. (2002). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Facebook. (n.d.) Prof Colin James Marsh. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/ProfColinJamesMarsh
Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., Moore, B., & Manning, S. (2001). Learning to change: Teaching beyond subjects and standards. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Marsh, C. J. (2009). Key concepts for understanding curriculum (4th ed.). Oxon, UK: Routledge.
Schwab, J. S. (1969). The practical: A language for curriculum. The School Review, 78(1), 1-23.
Schwab, J. S. (1973). The practical 3: Translation into curriculum. The School Review, 81(4), 501-522.
Thornton, S. J. (2001). Educating the educators: Rethinking subject matter and methods. Theory and Practice, 40(1), 72-78.