MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

There is no better time than now to rethink the school curriculum

By Khaya Tyatya 23 February 2021

(Photo: Gallo Images / Roger Sedres)

Revolutionary communist Vladimir Lenin once said, ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ Although Lenin said this in the context of the Russian Revolution (1917-1923), his analogy is applicable to the present times.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced society as a whole to act with speed and to seek new ways of addressing social challenges. Many things that would not have been immediately embraced are now becoming more widely accepted, and the use of technology across various sectors is just one example of this. 

Similarly, in education, the issue of curriculum review has recently come under the spotlight given the delays in reopening schools in 2020 and again at the start of this year. 

Less can be more: We must face the fact that Covid-19 has changed the education landscape

The issue of curriculum review is, however, not new as researchers and practitioners in education have stated for a number of years that the curriculum is too broad and expansive. 

What Covid-19 has done is to bring this issue to the forefront, particularly given that the pandemic is likely to be with us for another few years. 

In response to the lockdown restrictions and the resultant loss in teaching and learning time, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) started a process of trimming and reorganising the curriculum for all grades except Grade 12 in 2020. This was a necessary and important intervention by the government and should be commended as such. 

However, what is not clear is whether the trimmed curriculum will be the curriculum used in the schooling system going forward. This is an important matter that the DBE and the sector as a whole needs to urgently address. 

As early as 2018 the DBE started the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) following concerns in the education community about the demands placed on teachers and learners within the current curriculum.

There is evidence of tension between the expectations of the curriculum and its actual implementation in the classroom. It is widely agreed that CAPS is aspirational in its goals and is highly structured in terms of how the curriculum should be covered. 

In effect, it prescribes to the lowest level of detail how and when teachers should be teaching a specific topic. It prescribes the sequencing, pacing and assessment of topics or subtopics of the curriculum.

This is not entirely uncommon in education reform, and the introduction of CAPS was aimed at addressing the historical challenge of low curriculum coverage in the education system. 

However, research in schools shows that teachers struggle with the curriculum demands in terms of this sequencing and pacing of curriculum content. The pace of the curriculum is considered too fast, meaning that teachers do not have sufficient time to teach, assess and remediate key concepts at the level that is required for learners to develop sufficient grade-specific knowledge and skills. 

The focus on “keeping up” with the prescribed pace of the curriculum results in many learners, particularly weaker ones, being left behind. 

The result is that many learners proceed to higher grades with learning gaps and there is not sufficient time in the curriculum for teachers to address these “backlogs”. 

Research indicates that many learners in the schooling system lack the foundational competencies of preceding grades, resulting in a large (cumulative) cognitive learning gap that progressively inhibits the acquisition of more complex competencies as they move to higher grades. 

The implication of this is that many classrooms in South Africa have learners who are at very different levels in terms of knowledge and skills. 

There is sufficient evidence for the education system to consider relooking at the expansive and fast-paced curriculum. This process should be evidence-led, transparent and clearly communicated to all key stakeholders in the sector.

In effect, the challenges posed by the expansive curriculum result in many unintended consequences. One of these is the difficulty for teachers to dedicate sufficient time in the curriculum to support learners who may have knowledge gaps from previous grades. 

Without sufficient time for catch up in proceeding grades, which the research indicates CAPS doesn’t adequately allow for due to the fast pace, these learners are likely to stay behind and never catch up with the curriculum expectations as they move through the system. 

What the Covid-19 pandemic has done is to exacerbate these existing gaps in knowledge as a result of lost teaching and learning time during school closures in 2020. 

Research from the NIDS-CRAM survey shows that up to 43% of school days were lost due to school closures in 2020. The majority of lost teaching and learning time was in the Foundational (grades R-4) and Senior phases (grades 5-9). 

The lost teaching and learning time could possibly be greater given that schools with higher learner enrolment had to resort to rotational learning to maintain protocols of social distancing. 

Learning losses are bad for any grades, but when these losses occur in foundational phases, then it creates problems for teaching and learning in higher grades. Given the unequal nature of our education system, there is no guessing who is most adversely affected by the issue of learning losses. We know from research that learners from poor communities do not have access to remote learning to enable them to study while home. 

It would, however, be naïve and almost simplistic to place the teaching and learning challenges in education purely at the door of the curriculum. As the implementation evaluation conducted in 2016 by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation shows, there is a multiplicity of issues that have an impact on teaching and learning. 

The Pedagogical Content Knowledge of teachers, weak time management and the inability of departmental heads and district officials to provide curriculum support all contribute to lost teaching and learning time. However, the evaluation also noted that the CAPS curriculum is aspirational in its goals and has potential for review, particularly as it relates to a number of assessment tasks, the breadth of content in some subjects, and the provision of guidance for teachers in the area of assessment.

To its credit, the DBE has included time for “catch-up” of foundational concepts in the revised Annual Teaching Plans for 2021 to cater for the lost teaching and learning time in 2020. This is a necessary intervention, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to catch up on all the lost time if schools are expected to go back to the full curriculum this year. This is partly because the teachers will be required to focus on the pacing of the grade-specific content as per CAPS guidelines. 

The system, however, should not focus on curriculum coverage alone but allow time for teachers to diagnose and address knowledge gaps in the classroom, as failure to do so is likely to increase knowledge gaps as learners move through the system. 

What will be important is not the tracking of pace in an extensive and expansive curriculum, but rather that the focus should be on understanding how much learning takes place in the classroom.

Current evidence indicates that teachers were already struggling to meet the demands and expectations of CAPS before the pandemic. The trimmed curriculum would have gone a long way to alleviating these pressures; however, knowledge gaps are likely to have increased given the lost teaching and learning time in 2020, as well as the fact that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds did not have structured learning at home due to a lack of resources such as technology and learning materials. 

The pandemic has disrupted many facets of political, social and economic systems, but it has also brought opportunities, especially in education, to rethink issues that otherwise would not have been easily embraced. 

There is sufficient evidence for the education system to consider relooking at the expansive and fast-paced curriculum. This process should be evidence-led, transparent and clearly communicated to all key stakeholders in the sector.

There is no better time than now to make this happen. DM/MC

Khaya Tyatya is director of programmes at the Zenex Foundation and a PhD candidate in the education faculty of the University of Johannesburg.

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  • “As early as 2018 the DBE started the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) following concerns in the education community about the demands placed on teachers and learners within the current curriculum.” This sentence doesn’t appear to make sense; CAPS was introduced in 2014.

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