A curriculum is just that, a curriculum: the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college. In a good teacher’s hands, a bad curriculum can be good and in a bad teacher’s hands, a good curriculum can be bad. It is not the single, most important factor in determining whether or not a student gets a good education.
However, after teaching the South African National Curriculum (CAPS) and then experiencing the Cambridge Curriculum for 2 years, I’ve seen that a curriculum can play such an important role in what a teacher prioritizes. This can have a trickle down effect on everything from lesson plans to student enthusiasm. If I can help it, I will never teach at a ‘CAPS’ curriculum school again. Below are my reasons
**I am comparing CAPS and Cambridge because these are the two curricula I have taught. IB is also excellent from what I have read and heard but until I have taught it, I can’t give my personal take. For the sake of this article, I have focused on comparing Science in the Cambridge and CAPS curricula but many of the observations could be applied to any subject.
An Excerpt from the Grade 4 Cambridge Science Curriculum – on this one page are almost all the objectives for the year
- Amount of Content
As Marina Goetze put it so well in this article, CAPS is packed. Scroll up to the image taken from the CAPS Stage 4 Science document and see for yourself: Content is meticulously laid out in terms of terms and weeks, with very little wiggle room. This leads to a stressful teaching schedule where one is always racing to get through the curriculum.
By comparison, the Cambridge Curriculum document is stripped down and consists of only the essential outcomes. Content can be built on these outcomes at the teacher’s discretion and depending on the current class and context. I.e. A teacher in New York may build their ‘habitats’ unit around an urban context while someone teaching near the Kalahari desert may focus on more natural landscapes.
2. Curriculum document Presentation
The CAPS curriculum document is busy, with tons of unnecessary information. This can cause a sensory overload where teachers, especially new teachers, have no idea what the important bits are.
The Cambridge Document is fairly minimalist. More detailed ‘term curriculum plans’are available but these are intended as a helpful guide if needed. They are by no means mandatory.
3. Structure of the Curriculum Objectives
The objectives in the CAPS curriculum are laid out as ‘content.’ Each topic has a number of very specific things that children need to know i.e. “Air is invisible but real”
In the Cambridge Document, content is laid out as ‘learning objectives.’ This is a subtle difference but an important one. In Cambridge, many of the objectives are not what the children need to know, but what the children need to do i.e “Investigate how different animals are found in different habitats.”
Especially in younger grades, where learning through play and investigation is critical, this leaves much more scope for how a topic can be taught. It encourages more of what I would call brain based- learning: Learning through all kinds of sensory methods to appeal to a range of learners, not just the visual.
There is also the scope and encouragement in Cambridge for a teacher, who observes that a student is not meeting the outcomes for stage 4, to look at the stage 3 outcomes and look at how and why a gap needs to be filled. While I have never experienced it firsthand, I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by CAPS inspectors for deviating from the curriculum for weaker or stronger learners. Within Cambridge, differentiation using outcomes from years above or below the one the student is expected. Naturally, this is all heavily dependent on the leadership structure at your school. CAPS can be stringently or loosely applied and so can Cambridge.
4. Critical thinking/Scientific Inquiry as Objectives
There is a page of the CAPS document, entitled “Major Processes and Design Skills” which encourages critical thinking and scientific investigation. However, there are no explicit outcomes in the different topics for investigation. Below are the Major Processes and Design Skills for the whole of Intermediate Phase Science.
In Cambridge, there are quite specific scientific inquiry outcomes that get progressively more challenging with age.
5. Teaching Freedom
CAPS contains a teaching schedule of sorts. Each topic is allocated a certain number of hours and the content is intended to be taught in the order in which it is laid out.
Within Cambridge, The teacher is free to order the year’s curriculum outcomes however it best suits his/her classes. This leaves plenty of opportunity for integrating learning objectives into school wide events such as Book Week or even term long themes such as The Olympics.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, is Assessment. In the South African system in particular, there is a worrying overemphasis on testing. This is partly because teachers are’t often trained in assessing any other way . However, it is also heavily encouraged by the CAPS document which specifically details the formal assessment that must be given for each subject. Even projects are phrased as tests per se. Teaching within this curriculum, I found Assessment was associated with stress for everyone involved!
Although testing is still expected within Cambridge, the approach is somewhat different. No tests at all are encouraged for Grades 1 and 2 and only minimally from Stage 3, with expectations being progressive. Only one test per year is required: The Progress Test or Checkpoint test at the end of the year. This leaves MUCH more time for teaching and learning.
Within CAPS, there is also similar assessment requirements in all subjects, including Life Skills; a subject where content cannot be easily assessed through a test. This more or less ‘wastes’ a subject where real life skills could be promoted – A subject that could and should be exploratory and, well, ‘fun.’
As I stated at the beginning of this article, a good school will find a way to work with the curriculum and make it fun and functional, if the teachers have the skills and passion to do so. However, as a starting point, Cambridge makes the trek to a fun and engaging lesson far more manageable.