Negative effects of time bound and over ambitious curricula

In a typical class room today, where a one to many mode of teaching is prevalent, a teacher teaches to the assumed average child in the class. Teachers are under pressure to complete the syllabus. It's interesting that, when everyone is asking 'Are kids learning?', teachers are questioned whether they have completed the syllabus and not whether they have your ensured learning. Teachers typically proceed to next topic when they complete teaching the earlier concept not when they know that students have understood the earlier concept. Presence of a fixed syllabus and fixed time defines the curricular pacing, the pace at which teacher has to teach the concepts. This is irrespective of the nature of the class. This is similar to a gym instructor, having a same exercise regime for everyone and progressing everyone to higher levels at same pace.

Curricular pacing effects children in two ways. One, children who don't follow the concept are left behind permanently in the absence of remedial support. Two, children who are absent for few days can't follow the concepts later and hence fall back into the same trap. Courses are taught in a similar manner in universities too but the difference being, students in universities have capability to self learn based on minimal guidance while students especially in primary grades don't have. This is more pronounced in contexts where students don't have any support after the school to explain these concepts to them.

Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beattman in their paper titled The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries say
we show that all of the observed learning differences between poor performing and OECD countries could be accounted for only by an overly accelerated curriculum in poor countries – even if the countries have exactly the same potential learning.
That is, the observed learning profiles (rates of learning per year of schooling completed) can be flat just because the material being taught to too hard for students as the curriculum has moved ahead, leaving students behind.

Fortunately, solutions to this problem aren't complex and politically toxic. This is one of the low hanging fruits which is easily solvable with little innovation.

One, change the monitoring procedures of teachers. Typical headmaster in a government school judges teachers by their adherence to the syllabus timelines. Inspections by higher officials also involve questioning on the completion of syllabus. We need to replace this with more dynamic forms of monitoring, whether students have achieved required levels of proficiency etc. The discourse of, have you completed the syllabus should be changed to, have you ensured learning.

Two, reduce the syllabus in primary classes. If it is clear that our system as of today isn't being able to equip students with even basic skills, having lengthy syllabus don't make much sense. This should be replaced with relatively simple and achievable goals. There is evidence that when teachers are given simple goals tend to be effective.

Three, ease the criteria for transition between the classes. The concepts taught in primary grades are of utmost importance where 100% proficiency is mandatory. One may say, I know 30% of Quantum Physics but they can't say I know 30% of addition concept. If teachers have to ensure that each student has learnt the basic concepts thoroughly, they might either have to go slow or there might be students who might still have concepts to catch up on. Advancing students to next class without ensuring that they have learnt these concepts only increases their gap in understanding and eventually harms the child. Hence, the rules for transition between classes should be eased to ensure the flexibility and dynamic movement between them.


  1. what about people ahead of the syllabus?.
    personally I think teaching should be focussed on an individual. if he is able to learn maths at a higher rate than his peers, let him be. rather than having a fixed goal of teaching different subjects for all students. is it not better to have a range of m-n level of expertise for different subjects and students are free to learn as much or as low as they want as long as they can maintain a minimum base in every subject.