The Contextual Curriculum™ – 1. Design Philosophy

The Idea Source School – Contextual Curriculum™ Design Philosophy

Most people think they know what a school is, and what a teacher does, and how a student should respond and must behave. In the 21st century, they don’t.

‘School’ is a personal and individual experience of learning and depends upon what you know and think about it as much as what you engage in it for – that is the outcomes of that educational experience. That is the learning outcomes and the relevance of them to prepare you for life, work or further study. The world is different today than it was when ‘school’ was developed. Whereas the subject categories – i.e. Maths, Language, Science – will remain, the subject knowledge constantly moves on. Also the manner in which children can learn and the means by which they can learn also moves on, just s the manner in which people work and organise is constantly moving on. This is why we have designed a new curriculum which teaches important subject knowledge but does it in a new manner which suits the nature of industry, commerce and the global society of tomorrow.

For instance, teachers often teach the way they were taught. If school lessons and discipline were hard work for them then this is what they feel is right to impose. If the teacher was corrupt and took payment for passes or good marks, then they will have also learnt this practice. If they only coveted the diploma certificate more than the learning ten they will pass this on too. A Cambodian saying goes: “Those that look back will only see their own shadow.” Similarly, if a student only studies because it is expected of them and not because they want to, then results will degrade.

Janus: ancient Roman  god of passage, of doorways (januae), archways (jani), and of beginnings and endings

Janus: ancient Roman god of passage, of doorways (januae), archways (jani), and of beginnings and endings

Schools have differences and similarities all over the world. For instance in the U.S. and U.K some parents pay more to prepare their kids for the top universities than they’d pay for top university tuition. Successful schools are those which open the most options for children. This may come as preparing them to succeed on international exams such as International Baccalaureate (IB), SAT or ACT, ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels, or winning scholarships for study, or gaining admission to prestigious universities abroad. Some may even start their own businesses or work for transnational organisations and companies straight from school.

Some schools are outward looking whilst some promote vague, and sometimes stunting, national and cultural interests. An American journalist by the name of Sydney J. Harris once wrote that, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” This is worth thinking about as today, it would be foolish to ignore that the world and other cultures and opportunities to work and do business are far away and distant and not important. They are closer than we think and they are very important to all of us. Just open your eyes and see the society and business, the activities in the local community, and judge how they relate to the globalising world.

This is especially true in Cambodia since its educational system was levelled by the Khmer Rouge. This historical fact and why it happened, are subjects worthy of intense study, but hardly feature in the national centralised school curriculum.

Education has been in distress in Cambodia for a long time. A “school” is much more than the teachers, curriculum, classrooms and administrators. It involves thinking through many aspects of the life of a school: educational objectives; choice of curriculum; rewarding and developing faculty; assessment systems; the culture of a school; school calendar; schedule; and hundreds of other decisions, each affecting one another. It means considering all the ‘touchpoints’ where a child or student comes to interact with the syllabus material, resources, building and personnel, including each other. our curriculum is holistic in its treatment of these touchpoints.

What is perplexing for those starting a new school is that the education systems in many countries are under constant reform in an effort to constantly evolve and cater for new needs, new techniques, new technologies, and new socio-political, cultural and economic realities. None can stand still and can rest only on tradition at the risk of being redundant. But from many reform experiments, and international benchmarking of student abilities such as the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), some best-practices are emerging. Also there very significant new knowledge being produced in cognitive and brain sciences which can also guide us regarding which direction we should move in. Idea Source will use these findings to produce a distinctive high quality curriculum.

Starting from scratch

Starting a new school in a developing country is always a challenge, but it is a great opportunity for those who with resources and wishing to model the best. school designers in developing countries would love to buy a package off the shelf from Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, US or UK. We would love to have a readymade business and learning solution in the same way as the various mobile phone companies once put forward the capital to purchase all the components of a mobile phone system, installing it and making money with a few minor changes in the home location in a new building.

Such technology transfer will not work for education in the same manner. There are inertias, costs and energy needed to change, and resistance to change is only human. Teachers, parents, students may be resistant to change. The long tradition of temple-based learning was usurped by the French bringing their curriculum and teachers to Cambodia in the19th century.The curriculum was aimed at creating an elite of French speaking Cambodians who would work in the service of colonial administration. This legacy and tradition haunted even post-independence Cambodia right up until the Khmer Rouge period:

“In Cambodia only two reason exist for graduation from elementary school: (1) to satisfy secondary school admission requirements and (2) to qualify for employment in the nation’s civil service. Since the sole reason for attending secondary school is is also preparation for government employment, the two reasons become one … Since 1863, when Cambodia became a French Protectorate, to be a government employee has been the highest ambition of Cambodian youth. As far as they and their parents are concerned, no other reason for education exists. To wear a necktie and shoes and occasionally a white suit reveals that one is a success. They are evidence that one does not have to labor in the rice fields, work as a coolie, or have the dirty hands of an artisan. Even though the skilled work may earn a higher wage, his social position is much below that of the civil servant. Hence, every ambitious and intelligent young man aspires to government employment.” (Frederick, J. Hollister, Education in Cambodia, 1958; pp.209-210).

Although there were attempts made in the 1960s to Khmerize curriculum, the actual coursework, material, and the structure and teaching style of the course remained French and had the hallmark with its own tradition of rote learning. David Ayer (2000) notes that attempts to orientate the curriculum away from education seen as a route to the civil service and towards the land, and fisheries, was resisted by those attending classes.Higher education lagged well behind primary and secondary education, until the late 1950s. The only facility in the country for higher education before the 1960s was the National Institute of Legal, Political, and Economic Studies, which trained civil servants. In the late 1950s, it had about 250 students. The rapid growth in educational institutions by Prince Sihanouk led to the idea that education of any kind was considered an “absolute good” by all Cambodians. This attitude eventually created a large group of unemployed or underemployed graduates by the late 1960s (9000 at various higher education institutes) and their angst at lack of jobs or opportunities contributed greatly to the civil unrest of the time.

Who likes change?

We would like things to stay the same, but they do not. We would all like to return to a ‘golden age’ but we cannot. If we do not change things, or respond and adapt to change then we will be changed by forces well outside our agency. And this may come back to haunt us one day even as violent repercussions. The best preparation for positive change is deep and wide education. Consider the following:

If you had a chance to create the perfect K-12 educational institution from scratch – and if money was no object – how would you do it? You’d probably start by hand-selecting some of the smartest and most talented educators in the world to develop the vision for the school. Then, you’d ask them to implement a radically new global curriculum that ensures that graduates would become leaders on the future world stage. To make this a reality, you’d make sure that the student body had ready access to the finest educational, artistic and athletic resources in the world. For good measure, you’d bring in a world-class architectural firm to design a stunning building and situate the educational institution in the center of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Dominic Basulto, Classroom Supermen: A Global Vision for the Future of Education

Why would we model the worst, or at best, model only that which is mediocre? No, beyond modelling one’s efforts on the best, it is perhaps best to model any educational outcomes on the students’ own aspiration for his or her future, what their parents also wish for, what they and we as an institution know as reality beyond the classroom, located in the streets, the commerce of markets, ports, factories, fisheries and fields, out there in terms of continuing educational and career opportunities. And what students and staff must come together and share and understand, is a vision of what precisely is relevant and timely for local community, nation, region and world.

Curriculum design, then, is not a one-time process. It must be constantly fine-tuned, constantly improved, iterated and added to. We should remember the etymology or origin of the word ‘curriculum’ It drives from the ancient Greek word for ‘river’. And that is how it must be, flowing, steady, fluid, penetrating, and powerful.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The world that is coming to Cambodia is the ASEAN regional integration in 2015. This will place regional pressure and the conditions of an ever more global economy and community. Cambodia simply cannot remain mired in the past with a centralised curriculum which will not let its students adequately take their place against those from Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Singapore.

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