I recently bumped into a friend who is an experienced teacher at a suburban primary school and who generally loves his work. But he says he is becoming tired of the jam-packed curriculum that leaves no time or space for him to be responsive to the children, or to do anything creative.
During a recent research interview, a primary school teacher from the Valley of a Thousand Hills said that the curriculum is so fast-paced and overloaded that she and her colleagues have to teach extra classes three afternoons a week for the children who didn’t understand the work taught in class.
Teachers have to abide by an annual teaching plan, which is a schedule for each subject that outlines exactly what topics need to be taught on specific days throughout the school year.
Department officials check to see that teachers are covering this work at the pace that the annual teaching plan requires. If teachers are not keeping up, they need to find ways to catch up, such as teaching extra classes.
To understand why the department has implemented this curriculum schedule, we need to understand the problems the plan is hoping to solve.
One thing we are very clear about is that learners’ achievement is low. Less than half of all grade three children are able to read for meaning. Education researchers have a range of explanations for this poor achievement.
A 2016 report by Stellenbosch University’s Research on Socio-Economic Policy argues that there are four major “binding” constraints that make it hard to achieve quality education.
These are poor organisation, inappropriate interference by teacher unions, teachers’ poor content knowledge and weak pedagogic knowledge (the ability to teach the content clearly and coherently) and poor use of time. Thus it makes sense that an annual teaching plan will ensure better curriculum coverage and use of the teaching time.
Novice teachers seem to find the plan particularly helpful because it clearly shows them what they need to teach, and when. But like any one-size-fits-all intervention, whose prime purpose is monitoring and accountability, the annual teaching plan has unintended consequences. Many experienced teachers feel that it undermines their professional judgement because it allows no room for responsiveness or creativity. For some teachers, it may lead to a compliant “box ticking” approach to teaching because they need to “prove” that they are covering all the required topics in the required time frame, even though they know that many learners have not adequately grasped the concepts.
The cruel reality is that learning outcomes are weakest in the schools attended by the poorest children. For teachers in these schools, the annual teaching plan is simply too fast for many of their learners, whose actual learning level is likely to be three years below the grade that they are in.
The annual plan assumes that the only challenge for learners is that the curriculum is not being adequately covered by their teachers. It does not acknowledge the huge gaps in learners’ knowledge and skills that cannot easily be plugged. These gaps will only be remediated if teachers can carefully diagnose learners’ underlying misconceptions and knowledge gaps.
What is needed is progressive building of the foundational understandings and skills that are missing.
An overambitious curriculum taught at too fast a pace can cause more learners to get left behind early and stay behind, because there is no time for this diagnosis and reconstruction work.
If children do not acquire solid reading and writing skills early, then textually based teaching in higher grades is pointless.
Improved curriculum coverage and better use of learning time in classrooms is necessary, but will not be sufficient for all learners to acquire the knowledge and skills they need. If the amount of content was reduced and the pace of curriculum coverage slowed down, it is more likely that learners could develop deeper conceptual understandings, particularly in learning to read with comprehension, and in developing a strong number sense.
Curriculum pacing needs to be more flexible so that teachers can be responsive to the learning needs of the learners in their classrooms and not simply “cover” the required topics.
Carol Bertram is associate professor in the School of Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal