New curriculum to fill gaps left by traditional approach to education

Green Mount School class eight candidates revise past papers ahead of KCPE 2018. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]
The World Bank has pointed out a crisis in learning: “For too many children, schooling does not mean learning…”

In 2012, the International Commission on Financing Global Education reported that 37 million children in Africa would learn so little while in school that they would not be better off than those who never attend school.

Indeed, millions of children who go through the education system do not acquire basic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for life in a fast paced environment that is the 21st century.  

One reason for this crisis is the education approach. Globally, the traditional approach to education has left gaps: it has not met important outcomes such as fulfilling curriculum expectations, preparing learners for college and university, meeting employers and industry needs, and preparing learners for life in general.

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End in itself

In addition, the traditional approach does little to address equity in education. Slow learners, girls, the poor, pastoralists and those with disabilities usually tag along, and as years go by they drop off the education system into a world they may not be properly prepared to face. In this approach, teachers focus on the strong learners, who would do well anyway even without much attention, instead of meeting individual learners at their learning points.  

Traditional education approach is based on age and time; there is a set age when learners should be in a certain grade, and set time (or period) that they should engage in a learning area. But research has shown little or no relationship between time and learning. Individuals differ in how they learn, and the time or duration they require to learn.

The traditional approach also tends to be an end in itself, and teachers usually instruct towards a test, and not toward a skill represented by the test. Yet whereas students may do well in a performance test, they are most likely to fail if they were called back to do the same test.

These are some of the reasons many governments and education systems are exploring alternatives.

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An alternative is competency-based curriculum (CBC), which focuses on what learners can do after going through a subject or a learning period. Learning goes beyond knowledge and ability to remember content; learners are expected to demonstrate what they know. Competency-based education (CBE) focuses on the learner.

In CBC and CBE, learning is not restricted to one place (such as a classroom); it is recognised that learning happens in several authentic places and situations. They encourage and support self-directed learning, that is, individuals are encouraged and facilitated to drive their own learning; self-assessment and self-reflection is also encouraged. Teachers are available to play their role as coaches, experts and mentors in a balanced manner. The goal is to prepare learners for further education, for employment and for life-long.

The learner and the teacher are both involved in determining learning targets and learning outcomes before and during the learning experience. This motivates learners. The focus is to answer the question: “What can the learner do after going through the learning process?”, and for the learners to “show what they know”.

Caution is advised in assessing learning. Research shows that assessments used to diagnose ability and performance (competitive assessments) reinforce existing stereotypes (gender, social economic status, ability, and so on). For example, such assessments lower performance among girls. But CBE approach encourages peer- and self-assessment because it removes competitiveness and encourages collaboration which is an important learning and life skill.

As mentioned earlier, CBE supports self-directed learning. Advances in technology provide limitless opportunities for learning that all learners can access and use independently at any time, and at any place. Remote learning and interaction with teachers is possible, and so is teacher training and professional development.

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There is evidence that CBE has an all-round effect on students. For example, in schools where CBE has been implemented in Alaska and California, US, grades and attendance have improved, and discipline problems have declined. In New Hampshire and Maine, achievement has improved, and drop-out rates declined.

However, this is a relatively new concept in many countries and groundwork is necessary to create an understanding among stakeholders, and to contextualise it. Yet this challenge is surmountable since CBE practices are not new.

Another challenge is resources and structures necessary for successful implementation. These include relevant and appropriate learning and teaching materials, teachers trained in the approach, school leadership that supports this approach, and the fact that existing assessment tools are designed to support the traditional education approaches (eg time, credits and age cohorts). However, implementation and learning can occur at the same time, with what is learned from each step in the way informing the next step. What is important is agreement among stakeholders regarding the need for change.

It is not easy, but a collective shift of mindset is necessary among all stakeholders comprising learners, teachers, school leaders, parents, communities and policy makers. We need to identify, define and clarify in lay terms appropriate competencies at the national and local levels, and map these competencies along all education trajectories and levels.

It is also important to develop and agree on common assessment standards and practices to effectively evaluate mastery of competencies.

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Competency-based approaches depend on data; therefore, we need to develop systems for tracking and securely preserving individual learner profiles and data, and design methods of reporting (and transferring) mastered competencies to individual learners, institutions and organisations.

- Dr Gatobu is a consultant. [email protected]       

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Competency-Based Curriculum8-4-4 systemWorld Bank