Why curriculum reform efforts are likely to remain largely ineffective

Despite the numerous earlier efforts made to customise and vocationalise Uganda’s basic education curriculum, school education has remained too elitist, pedantic, abstract and divorced from the practical needs of its client society.

Annual Uwezo reports have repeatedly made reference to the deplorable quality of teaching and learning in primary schools as reflected in the dismally poor results posted by their children in the yearly literacy and numeracy tests.

Countless research studies have similarly pointed to the continuing paradox of children’s regular school attendance without contextually relevant learning taking place even at the post-primary levels.

Which is what legitimises asking the question; what could be the missing links here? A retrospective analysis of the effectiveness of the country’s curriculum reform process thus far could perhaps help to provide some clues.

To start with, the flagship objective of vocationalizing the basic education curriculum (a yester variant of the modern day “skilling education”) was never fully accomplished during the pre-independence era for several reasons.

First, because the practical subjects offered (carpentry, masonry, tailoring, metal work, etc.) came to be stigmatized by black African parents, students and society as a whole as disciplines that served as dumping grounds for academic failures.

The term “adapted” education which the colonial educators used to describe such a practice-oriented curriculum was interpreted by the intended beneficiaries to mean “inferior” education deliberately designed by the colonial masters to thwart the advancement of the blacks and keep them backward!

Second, the dual nature of the admissions policy that evolved during this formative stage in Uganda’s education development whereby high achievers in national examinations got absorbed in prestigious academically biased secondary schools (e.g. Budo, Kisubi, Gayaza, Namilyango, Ntare, Nabumali, Mwiri, etc.) while the average performers ended up in rural trade schools and some vocationally oriented secondary schools (such as Manjasi, Wairaka, etc.) helped to perpetuate and reinforce a stereotyped idea about the “inferiority” of vocational curricula.

Third, teachers themselves were reluctant to teach the labour demanding and time-consuming practical lessons for no additional pay. Moreover, being products of a theory-based teacher training programme themselves, most teachers did not have the requisite technical expertise and orientation to handle practicum lessons and promote hand-on learning.

Above all, the unit costs of delivering a vocationally-leaning basic education curriculum were prohibitively too high owing to the concomitant need to build workshops or laboratories, install the necessary equipment, continually buy the needed tools and materials, employ specialised auxiliary staff, etc.

All these called for vast financial outlays which neither the mission schools nor the colonial government-aided educational institutions were ready to foot at that time.

It is with the benefit of these hindsight facts that the post-independence governments in Uganda have variously sought to realign the education curriculum to enhance its socio-economic fit and reverse the persistent downturns in children’s learning achievement.

The new lower secondary school curriculum which is poised for implementation in 2018 represents the latest effort in this regard. Unfortunately, this too could become another “still birth”. Why? Among other things, we are yet to fully extricate ourselves from the hangover effects of certain polarised conceptions that continue to subvert the practicality of even such well-intentioned curriculum initiatives.

For example, school education, through examinations, is still being perceived as the key instrument used for screening and selecting a privileged few out of very many competitors for white collar employment; for progression to higher education; or for career advancement in formal sector employment.

Such a pyramidal education structure is a filtration mechanism for excluding all but an academic elite!

The inevitable cut-throat competition for the relatively few slots in the post-primary education system and formal employment sector jobs will necessarily continue to make school, college and university curricula too examination-oriented.

Examination scores in different school subjects will thus continue to determine one’s chances for admission to the next educational cycle or for absorption into the labor market. This also helps to make the education curriculum rigidly content or subject-based.

In turn, the urgency to obtain good grades in designated school subjects promotes the use of rote methods of teaching and learning.

This is exacerbated by the tendency for most examination questions to test more of the learners’ capacity to memorize and recall information and less of their ability to process, relate, synthesize, interpret, critique and apply knowledge to real life situations.

The focus on mastery of a given body of facts/content undermines the learners’ motivation to engage in creative, innovative or critical thinking. It also nullifies their willingness to challenge existent knowledge and opt for alternative explanations.

And, it dissuades them from learning the often non-examinable but valuable life skills or practical skills needed for better livelihood, peaceful co-existence, responsible citizenship and blue collar employment.

Therefore, as long as any curriculum reform endeavors in Uganda are not directly being informed by lessons learnt from its checkered history of education and political economy, it will be business as usual.
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