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Mazibuko, E Z

 

 

The Search for Quality in the Curriculum

Dr. Edmund Z. Mazibuko

Department of Curriculum & Teaching, University of Swaziland

 

 ABSTRACT

Improving the quality of schools is a key topic in current discussion in education. This is the case not only in Swaziland, but internationally. The paper discusses issues concerning quality in education in general. The major considerations addressed in the paper include:

a) The concept of quality, the criteria which may be used for its demarcation, the categories in which it may be defined and rendered intelligible;

b) Focus on teachers and the quality of education;

c) Expectations of schools and the curriculum;

d) Quality and curriculum development;

e) Finally, the paper concludes by suggesting ways that can help bring about high quality education and the way in which it may be employed in the framing and discussion of policy matters in educational institutions.

 1. Introduction

The question of how to improve the quality of teaching in schools is perceived to be a characteristic of contemporary education worldwide. New ways of thinking, doing and knowing occupy the time and energy of educators at all levels, in both developing and developed countries. The common technique used to stimulate public interest in this question has been to use some slogans and metaphors such as standards, appraisal, professional competence, excellence, all defining the problem of teaching quality and how it could be improved.

The paper presents a discussion of the issue of quality in education with particular reference to the curriculum. The discussion will cover a number of areas that relate to schools and education. To be specific, the main objectives to be achieved in this discussion are:

a. to discuss some of the major issues in the 'quality' rhetoric

b. to relate the issues discussed in (a) to developments taking place in education

c. to focus particularly on curriculum issues

d. to identify possible ways in which curriculum development might be improved and thereby contribute to improved quality of schooling.

To meet the above objectives, the discussion will be presented in four major parts. First, the paper will look at the concept of quality. What is quality as it relates to schooling and the curriculum? Second, the paper will look at the international concern about the quality of the curriculum. Third, the paper will focus on some quality concerns in schools in Swaziland. Finally, suggestions on how the quality issue can be addressed in educational discourse will be presented.

2. Quality defined

The 1990 World Conference on 'Education for All' defined ambitious targets both regarding access to basic education, as well as quality requirements related to learning acquisition. The conference called for an 'expanded vision' that 'surpasses present resource levels, institutional structures, curricular and conventional delivery systems while building on the best in current practices' (UNICEF, 1990). Schooling for All, is defined as the 'circumstances of having a school system in which all the eligible children are enrolled in schools of at least minimally acceptable quality' (Colclough and Lewin, 1993). These general challenges are highly relevant to our countries.

Improving the quality of schools is the key topic in educational discourse generally at the present time, not only in Swaziland but internationally. A number of countries have been talking about ways of improving the quality of education, and the curriculum in particular, and this has been a major agenda for government policy. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There has been a lot of focus on quantitative aspects of education as opposed to quality issues. There is need to engage in a serious conversation on what we mean by the quality of education, curriculum and schooling and how this could be achieved. These are important questions that require a critical conversation as opinions differ on their answers.

The reasons for the widespread interest on the issue of quality in educational discourse are not difficult to locate. It would be nave to suggest, for instance, that this concern is unconnected with the widespread concern that is felt in each country's economic advancement, growth or lack of it, and regional or international economic self sufficiency and competitiveness. This economic factor is often explained as a product of the education enterprise. In the same vein, there is also the emphasis placed on improving access to educational provisions and increasing involvement and retention rates within these educational provisions.

A survey of the literature reveal that there is no simple uni-dimensional measure of the concept of quality (Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991; Harbison and Hanushek, 1992). The concept of 'quality' has probably been over-used in recent years, and does not attract a precise definition. This difficulty has been realised within publications of some international organisations such as the OECD Reports, which avoid any precise definition of the 'quality of schooling'. The concept of 'quality' can be a descriptive rather than a normative term. At one level it can refer simply to a trait or attribute. A pupil, teacher, or school - can have a number of features or characteristics. For instance, we may talk of somebody possessing the quality of courage or the qualities of a teacher. It is in this context that one may talk of the quality of whatever is being referred to, such as the quality of school or classroom. The fact that these meanings can be described as descriptive, is debatable since different people may have different defining characteristics. This is where the source of the problem is centred in our general use of the concept.

In the educational context, the concept of quality may include a number of defining characteristics, including its political significance. The dictionary will include such definitions of the word as 'degree of excellence' or relative nature or kind. When the concept of quality means 'degree of excellence' there are two significant aspects that are encompassed. The first one is the issue of judgements of worth and that of position on an implied scale of good and bad. To judge the quality of a school as poor or excellent, it means more than what you see. First, it can mean applying a certain notion of merit and secondly, identifying where that school is located in relation to other schools.

At another level, quality may implicitly mean 'the good or the excellent' as in the case of the quality of the school or the quality of the teacher or education system. In practical terms, it may be difficult to separate the qualitative and quantitative aspect of an educational system. Judgements of this kind are made daily in education and by the popular media. One can go to a school and get a feel for the place and can actually tell whether it is a good school or not or whether the teachers are any good or bad. This indicate the multi faceted nature of the concept and may often be used in a subjective manner.

In the context of the various uses of the concept of quality, it is hardly surprising that assertions about quality in education are often controversial. This is seen in the fact that individuals and different interest groups differ substantially on what they judge to be good or bad. In a number of countries, the field of education is becoming over politicised in recent years and there seem to be no consensus on national goals. This is the case in Swaziland and I am sure in a number of countries in our region. I would argue that this situation may be the reason why this national and international concern on quality in education has become a major issue and its resolution becoming problematic.

Despite all the talk about improving the quality of education in a number of countries, the educational literature is full of failed organisational reform. The evidence suggests that restructuring structures and organisations does not guarantee an improvement in education outcomes. Why does such organisational reforms fail? Teachers may argue that the things they really want to change in the classroom are not closely related to organisation or structure. Teachers may also assert that despite the concern for quality, what actually happens in their classrooms, have remained relatively unchanged over the last several years. My own research with experienced history teachers (Mazibuko, 1989;1996) indicate that teacher exposition still dominates history lessons in many classrooms, despite the fact that teachers may suggest in their preparation books that they use constructivist teaching techniques.

The literature indicates that education practices remain stable over time despite repeated reforms. The recitation continue to dominate classroom interactions. A study by Goodlad (1984) reports that of 150 minutes of classroom talk, an average of seven minutes only is initiated by students themselves. Other findings from studies in the US, Sweden, Belgium, Australia, including some African studies arrive at the same conclusion and suggest that this pattern has been typical over at least the last half century if not longer than that.

To make another example, research shows that there are differences in teacher time and attention devoted to boys on the one hand, and to girls, on the other. Even those teachers who are determined to treat the sexes equally find it hard to change. More generally, whatever the institutional organisation of schools, established patterns of differentiation stubbornly persist, either overtly through streaming or covertly through the hidden curriculum. A report by the OECD state explicitly that:

It might be inferred that a sharp polarisation exists between societies that have opted to retain selection and those that have opted for the common school. Infact, the crux is how much differentiation occurs within individual schools and when it begins. In practice, common schools vary considerably in the way they distribute pupils and groups and apply the curriculum (1985:66)

The purpose of raising these examples in this paper is not to discuss why some pedagogical practices are so rooted, or what forms differentiation ought to take. Of major significance, the paper suggest that a major reason for interest in the quality of schooling derives from the necessity of delving more profoundly into what Goodlad (1984) has called 'A place called school'.

3. Quality of teaching and learning questioned

Improving teaching and learning in schools is a key topic in contemporary educational discourse. In Australia, Britain and the United States for instance, a number of national policy statements and government reports have been published indicating that in each country, interest in improving the quality of schooling is at a high level (Ramsden, 1988). The major driving force is the perceived connection between the quality of education and each country's economic competence, growth and power, self sufficiency and competitiveness in the world's market places. Critics see schools as centres of the inefficiency in the education system on the one hand, and the focus for the reform efforts on the other. This perspective dominates the political arenas and frames most of the proposals for improvement in the quality of education.

Kennedy (1993) argues that in the United States, reports such as 'A Nation of Risk' (1983) and 'Making the Grade' (1983) have called for excellence and equity in education provisions because of the increasing concern of the public and policy makers that students are not receiving adequate grounding in academic subjects. Following the publication of these reports, different states responded by developing high cost reform strategies and supportive research to improve teaching and learning in schools. Despite all these efforts, there is still a major concern that students lack deep understanding of the subjects they study.

Teaching for understanding aims to enhance the success of students at tasks described as problem solving, critical analysis, higher order of thinking, or flexible understanding of subject matter or students engaged in learning for understanding will aim not only to master 'facts' conventionally conceived but also to explore, imagine, reason, formulate and solve problems (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993)

In Britain, the 1988 Education Reform Act was introduced by the government to improve the quality of the curriculum. The political urge that came with the Act was for more central control of the curriculum as a way of focusing teaching and assessment in schools. The introduction of the National Curriculum, including national assessment, was an effort to reform the education system as recommended by the 1988 Education Reform Act. Commenting on the developments since the introduction of the Act, Stuart (1994) argues:

A National Curriculum supported by a national assessment system is a new order of things. It is a sharp break with the past in two important respects: for the first time we have a simple set of expectations about what pupils should know and should be able to do and for the first time we have arrangements for national testing against those expectations at regular intervals through compulsory schooling (p.11)

Reports from international assessments of student progress suggests that students are learning basic skills but not acquiring deep understanding of subject matter; nor are they learning how to reason and analyse ideas. Studies of classrooms worldwide show that students are being taught mainly lists of facts, unrelated to each other and consequently lacking in meaning for students (Ramsden, 1988). In the US, Lockhead (1985) found that about ninety percent of students did not understand sixth grade mathematics, despite being able to manipulate symbols and meet standard behavioural objectives. McDermott (1984) found that in science, students who did well in examinations were incapable of demonstrating qualitative understanding of some of the important concepts in the subject.

In the humanities and social sciences, the literature indicates that there are instances of gross misconceptions by students of important concepts, though these areas have not been as closely researched as in the sciences (Ramsden, 1988). In History, Hallden (1986) identified significant misunderstandings by secondary school and university students concerning what the subject of history is about, and highlighted corresponding weaknesses in their written work. This research illustrates the fact that the students did not achieve what was intended in their schooling. The message from these studies is clear: students have inadequate understanding of the subject matter. This is largely attributed by researchers and critics to the way in which these subjects are taught in schools.

Fairly or unfairly, responsibility for the quality in education has been placed at the feet of the teachers. A number of HMI reports in Britain over recent years have provided official perspective about what constitutes good and poor teaching practices. In a study reported in Hargreaves (1988), the Inspectorate noted that secondary teachers made wide use of heavily directed teaching, a preponderance of dictated or copied notes with emphasis placed on the giving and recall of information with little room or time for inquiry and explanation. As Goodlad (1984) commented some years earlier with respect to schools in the US, such teaching continues to be a consistent feature of schooling. Studies in our region have yielded the same conclusions.

In Australia, the educational system is also under pressure to institute reforms that will improve the quality of teaching and learning in all subject areas. Australian educators are being challenged to do a better job (Beasley, 1993). There is a steady flow of public comment about the quality of Australian education from the public, employers and from academic interest groups in education. These in education and training are being charged with the task of skilling the Nation's Youth, or bringing about a growing convergence of work and learning, and of responding to workplace imperatives (Carmichael, 1993). In the case of Australia, the political concern appears to be more about economic rationalism, and not about deep understanding of academic disciplines. This is shown by the fact that there has been so much focus on work related competencies and so little focus on acquisition of discipline knowledge in schools.

Shulman (1987) argue that teachers need both subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge to teach successfully and effectively. Besides these types of knowledge, successful teaching is also due to personality characteristics such as patience, persistence, the ability to analyse problems and empathise with students. Successful teaching also takes place in a conducive environment. This is one of the areas that require close examination as we discuss the quality issue in education.

4. Quality concerns revisited

The 1985 National Education Review Commission identified a number of areas that required improvement in the education system. Major attempts have been made to address some of these concerns. These include diversifying the secondary school curriculum, improving the college programmes by lengthening the number of years for training, building new schools and upgrading existing ones. These improvements have largely been quantitative in nature, the qualitative aspects still remains to be achieved. This section discusses some of these quality concerns as perceived by some parents, teachers, students, and employers who participated in a survey focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the education system.

One of the major concern that affect the quality of the teaching in schools is overcrowding in classrooms. The system has focused on increasing enrolment in schools without considering the implications. There is pressure upon schools to admit more students, particularly from parents, arguing that their children have a right to get a place even when told that the school cannot admit more. Some teachers pointed out that in some cases they have 60 or more students in class, making it hard to teach effectively. A history teacher in a rural high school said in frustration:

I have seventy kids in my class. You can come and see for yourself. The poor kids are not getting quality education. If I give them a test or classwork, when do you think I can mark their exercise books? When do I help those who require special help? When do I use the sophisticated teaching methods you people always tell us to use? It's not practical. I guess some schools are better than what you find here. The government is to blame. The parents are to blame too.

This problem is common at all levels of the system. A head teacher from a government primary school lamented:

Classrooms have no windows. Kids share chairs and desks. The government tell us that there is no money to finance this. The community here is poor. The parents cannot afford the building fund. Parents don't afford to buy the required books. Teachers work in difficult conditions. The poor kids will write the same public exam with kids in better resourced schools. Where is equity in the provision of education? We haven't addressed the quality issue yet.

Addressing the problem of teaching and learning resources, one parent lamented that schools are charging a lot of money, but teachers and students complain that there are no resources for teaching.

We paid a lot of money at the beginning of the year, but five months later the poor kids have not received their books. Teachers complain that they don't get the teaching materials they need from the office. What happens to all the

money we pay? Do you think our kids are getting an education we can be proud of? Where is our country getting to? These poor kids will never have a good education.

Effective teaching and learning cannot take place without the necessary resources. A number of teachers complained about this problem and most pointed out that the problem normally rests with the headteachers who are reluctant to spend money on teaching resources. A secondary school science teacher said;

We don't have teaching resources here. Each time you ask for teaching resources from the office, you are told that there is no money. How can you teach effectively without the necessary resources? At the end of the year teachers get the blame when the results are bad. No one dare to ask about the causes of that.

In a number of schools surveyed, the only resources available were the chalkboard and the student textbook. In some worse situations the students did not have the prescribed textbook.

Another problem facing the quality of the education system is the shortage of qualified and experienced teachers in a number of subject areas. There is an overproduction of teachers in some areas of the curriculum as opposed to others. In a number of schools surveyed, some teachers teach subjects they were not trained to teach. This has an effect on the quality of teaching the subject. A form V student remarked:

Our Bible Knowledge teacher told us that she did not know Bible Knowledge. She told us she did not even go to church. She told us that she is a history and geography teacher. But since there are enough history teachers at the school, the headteacher asked her to teach Bible Knowledge. She always tell us to read our Bibles. She would then read a newspaper in class or scold us. We are sick and tired of this. The headteacher failed to help us. Some of us don't bother to go to class now. We will strike.

Commenting on a similar concern, a female teacher who had just completed a PGCE course and had just started teaching at the school visited told me:

I am lucky to be teaching here. My friends have not yet found a teaching post. I majored in history and R/K. To get this post I told the headteacher that I can also teach Siswati. I never did Siswati at University, but I passed it at high school. I teach Siswati in Form III and Form V. Everyone can teach Siswati. I guess I am lucky that I am here. But I am not the only one who is doing this (laughing).

The above vignette illustrate the misconception some people have about teaching. The literature indicate clearly that for teachers to teach for conceptual understanding, they need both subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1987).

The above problems affect the quality of teaching that goes in schools and subsequently the quality of the products of the education system. Despite the fact that there has since been quantitative improvements in the results of the public examinations, there has been some criticism from employers of school and University graduates. An employer in a middle sized industry lamented:

I employ a few high school graduates every year. I am not pleased with the quality of the graduates, despite the fact that most of them boasts of a string of credits. Most cannot communicate well and they cannot think for themselves. I think schools need to address this.

The above vignette addresses the question of teaching students to be critical thinkers and to communicate effectively. Schools seem to focus more on preparing students to pass examinations rather than develop skills that will help students function effectively after they have left schools. This is not only a problem some employers find with high school graduates, but also with University graduates. Another large company owner argued convincingly that:

I prefer to employ high school graduates than University graduates. At least they can be trained on the job and they are prepared to learn. I used to employ University graduates but I was disappointed that they were not good enough. You couldn't see the difference that one had a degree. They still want to be followed. They want to be told what to do. They can't make decisions on their own. Something needs to be done. I blame the system of education.

The above discussion and supporting vignettes illustrate the problem of quality in education. Most of the blame for the quality of the curriculum is directed to the school system. The argument is that schools are not doing enough to address the quality issue. The few problems cited in this section are just examples of the quality concerns that emerged from the data. There are a number of other concerns. These affect the quality of the education process and consequently the quality of life of the products of the education system. If the government of Swaziland is serious about improving the quality of life of its people, there is an urgent need to seriously address the core issues that affects the quality.

A comment from one parent points to the direction that can help address the quality concern. The parent argues that the major concern seem to be the fact that our teachers do not behave or act like professionals.

We need schools that will run normally. Schools where teachers will teach effectively. Schools where teachers will prepare for their classes and act as professionals. This is lacking in our schools. There is lack of support for teachers. They have no morals. Some don't deserve to be teachers. We need teachers who will see education not just as a money making activity, but as a calling.

Teaching is a difficult task. Teaching is a profession. Most of the teachers I talked to pointed out that teaching is a demanding job. This is true of teachers everywhere. Despite all the problems teachers faced, it is encouraging that some teachers (though not many) work very hard within the constraints and they provide a better education judged by the conditions under which they operate. "This is the job I want to do. I love kids. I know that I have a great responsibility to the kids and the nation. I want to give the poor kids a better education than the one I got. I go out of my way to get all the resources you see around, you just need to be thoughtful. It's satisfying when the poor kids come back to me to say: thank you maam for your effort", said one female teacher.

5. The way ahead

Despite the pessimism about the effects of structural and organisational change, educational outcomes can be improved, and some things can make a difference. Organisational reform will only lead to improved educational outcomes if it engenders in teachers and schools a commitment to act, and a belief in their own capacity to improve learning outcomes. The key questions are; first, how can we develop among teachers an ownership of their own potency in producing educational outcomes? Second: How can the organisation of the school and the wider system be designed to support that happening.

The literature on organisation reforms (e.g. Kanter, 1985), Peters and Waterman (1982) suggest that there are three factors that are necessary before any improvements are effected in an organisation. Firstly, goals and targets are needed, and these must be clear, unequivocal and shared by all those concerned with the reforms. Secondly, that those responsible for achieving goals (in the context of this paper schools and teachers) should have control over resources and should ensure that effort and resources are being directed to achieving the goals. Thirdly, there should be clear means for those responsible to demonstrate accountability for their achievements.

There is pressure upon schools to do too much, and everyone has diverse and conflicting expectations of schools. Every social, economic, political and personal ill has become a problem for schools. In Swaziland and other countries for instance, the concern in recent years is over aids, drug and substance abuse, the environment, democracy, and teachers are expected to mediate. The resulting effect is that the function of schools becomes unclear. For schools to become purposeful and clear about their functions, they will need to assign priorities to goals. This is an ernomous task in education. Individual schools cannot assign priorities in isolation. The whole notion of schooling as a social, cultural and economic institution which transcends local boundaries becomes a reality.

In many school systems in Africa, resource control have historically been vested in central bureaucracies. Despite the fact that in a number of systems there has been some rhetoric to decentralise some of the work to regions or schools, a number of things are still controlled centrally. The appointment of teachers, for instance, is centrally controlled, and this has caused a number of problems in the education system in Swaziland. Before schools can be expected to meaningfully take full responsibility for quality of education, they must be able to exercise meaningful resource control for themselves. This will help them achieve the goals they set for themselves. In the current Swazi context, there are a number of problems to the extent to which this devolution can proceed, without substantial effort from the system level.

Schools must be accountable for what they do. Giving schools control of resources does not mean that they are able to please only themselves. Schools have a complex and socially important role to play. Mechanisms are required by which schools can check that they are improving educational outcomes. Accountability structures should focus on establishing that schools are improving in doing their job. This is partly due to the fact that if the community is to trust schools, they need reassurance about quality.

There is no simple prescription of the ingredients necessary to achieve high quality education. Perhaps 'quality' is not enough. In some systems we hear of excellence in education. The Hutchinson dictionary defines excellence as superior quality. The paper suggest that high quality education can be achieved by; first, defining the educational purpose in terms of curriculum goals that are clearly understood and accepted by the larger community. Second, that having established that the curriculum goals are acceptable to the community, there is need to develop curriculum documents that will facilitate excellence in teaching by promoting excellence in the knowledge and skills of pupils. Thirdly, that excellence in teaching is a result of effective consultation, organisational practices, supervisory procedures and support services. Finally, that there is need to assist teachers in developing effective assessment practices, and in conducting evaluations of their teaching and learning, through continuous in-service training.

It is argued that the above suggestions will lead to schools and students with high standards of intellectual, aesthetic, social, moral, emotional and physical development.

6. Conclusion

The assessment of quality is handicapped by a lack of data, both quantitative and qualitative. Educational institutions have not been geared to the provision of data on the outcomes of their activities. They have in fact been input oriented and there are gaps in our knowledge of educational outcomes.

Although the term is often used loosely in current educational discourse, the notion of quality is extremely complex. The OECD Report Schools and Quality concedes that questions of quality are very difficulty to define and elucidate (OECD, 1989). Nevertheless, as educators we need to seriously conceptualise the notion of quality because the concept has become something of rhetoric. It is a concept commonly used in education to mean different things in different contexts, but commonly used to indicate whatever the speakers believe to be good for education. The concept takes on specific meaning when it is used in relation to particular referents. In understanding the meaning of quality in current discourse, there is need to ask fundamental questions of quality for what? and quality for whom? (OECD, 1989) and most significantly quality in whose interest? It is apparent that when it comes to understanding the concept, the views that people hold are not constructed in a social or cultural vacuum. They are developed in a particular historical period in a particular context in which educational values and decisions are influenced by a number of interrelated factors such as changes in the economic and political spheres, interests of politicians, policymakers, business as well as teachers and educators.

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