Imagine the following conversation as one taking place between a thoughtful educator, the questioner (Q), who wishes to start a new school, and an experienced teacher-administrator (T), who responds from her experience of working at an alternative school.

Q: We are starting a school for children in our neighbourhood. We would really like to make their education meaningful, make a space for them to learn and grow with affection rather than fear and standardized expectations. We are not planning to adopt the curriculum of any existing board, at least until the school-leaving examinations stage. Could we discuss how we can come up with our ‘own curriculum’?

T: This is exciting, to have the freedom to design your own curriculum for a school. But could we first look into why you would want to start from scratch? And what does ‘curriculum’ mean to you?

Q: Curriculum is, I think, how the scope and progression of learning is organized in a school. Generally, we receive curricula as lists of topics to be covered and textbooks that should be studied. This seems very unsatisfactory to us. It makes for a standardized approach, whereas we want something suitable to our context, our surroundings. Also, in our experience, the established curricula tend to be too content-heavy. Should a curriculum be so full of information to be learned and memorised? We don’t feel so.

T: I completely agree with you on these points! A curriculum should be flexible, not an ossified thing that we repeat each year. Teachers should be able to breathe new life into a curriculum every year. So in a very real sense, this is never a once-and-for-all exercise; it will have to be re-visited regularly.

One starting point might be to ask—what are the backgrounds and experiences of your children? How can they connect the experiences they have in their homes and neighbourhoods with the learning in school? They should not experience a sharp home-school divide from the beginning. So do find out what skills and attitudes they are coming with. Because, as you know, a great deal is imbibed from home and community, and you will need to take that into account. What will you want to draw upon and reinforce, and what might you want them to be able to question, even if at a later stage? Of course, all this has to be informed by your overall aims for education.

Q: I see the importance of sensitivity to where the children are and what they bring with them. In terms of our overall aims, we feel that to live in the world, children need a set of contemporary competencies and skills and many kinds of awareness. Beyond basic numeracy and literacy, I would include things like the ability to articulate clearly, work with others, spatial understanding, a sense of the past and how it is shaping the present, and a sense of local and global issues. Also an understanding of materials and objects, the technology of everyday life, and the way technology impacts our lives...the list goes on! But if we include everything we want to, won’t the curriculum get heavy—the very thing we wanted to avoid in the first place?

T: Quite right, you need to avoid the temptation to pack in everything that a group of adults have found interesting over their combined lifetimes! Can you think more in terms of core skills and learning dispositions, than in terms of content? Learning to think clearly and to love learning could do more for lifelong learning than any number of subjects. The educator WW Sawyer put it so well in his book, The Mathematician’s Delight... here, let me read it to you:

If a child left school at ten, knowing nothing of detailed information, but knowing the pleasure that comes from agreeable music, from reading, from making things, from finding things out, it would be better off than a man who left university at twenty-two, full of facts but without any desire to enquire further into such dry domains.

Your other point is good, too. A curriculum needs to be in alignment with the needs of contemporary life and society, and a rapidly changing world at that, in which your children are growing. So, all that you listed could form the elements of such a curriculum. You will need to articulate your aims and the broad contours of a curriculum that reflects these aims, and also outline how it might progress over the school-going years of the child. This could give you a sound launching pad.

Q: We have also been thinking about a deeper level of curriculum. I’ve heard it called ‘the hidden curriculum’, a subtler learning that happens by imbibing the culture of a school. Now we do not know if this can be put down into words, although we sense that it could be of even greater importance than the formal teaching that we will do!

T: Yes, there is definitely a need for schools to be keenly aware of the culture they are creating. This is one thing that cannot be simply ‘written and handed down’ by those who establish and run the school. A culture is created by the quality of daily interactions and relationships among all the participants in a school. The administrators and teachers have to be especially interested in the part they play in creating the culture, in the nature of the hidden curriculum and the quality of emotional climate in the school. This requires an on-going nurturing of various human qualities.

For instance, in our school we value the human capacities to observe, to listen, to hold attention, to be sensitive to one’s surroundings, to be reflective. Without all this, I feel we cannot be in contact with our world, learn to see it as it is, and respond with resilience and emotional maturity to people and changing life situations. This of course applies to teachers as much as the students. Like the children, they too come with their own background experiences, and they need to understand the importance of questioning their own patterns of behaviour, assumptions, biases, and nurture the abilities to observe and listen and learn afresh. Some time and opportunity needs to be provided for this type of inquiry.

Q: I can see that this is going to be quite a challenge, finding teachers who are committed to their work and who are willing to learn and grow with the children!

T: Yes, in order to create the type of school you are talking about, you will need to look for teachers who, no matter what background they come from, will find it worthwhile to think together about themselves, their work, and the overall set of learning experiences for their students. If there is a culture of talking and thinking together, it can be invigorating. Your school could become a place which attracts and retains teachers who see the value of this. Differences and conflicts will arise, but as long as there is an interest in how we all think, the process need not wear us down!

Q: Now could we go into something more specific. How could we frame the curricula for specific subjects over the years? I am assuming we won’t rely heavily on ‘prescribed textbooks’. We would like to use multiple and diverse resources, including the internet. So how should we choose our teaching-learning material and evolve our pedagogy?

T: Let’s begin by asking, what is the essential way of thinking that characterises each subject? For example, in history, based on evidence and sources, narratives are constructed about the past. We have to remain aware of the source of historical information. The narrative can always be interpreted from different points of view, and we have to understand how to weigh these. Students should learn how to look at the present as a product of the past, and also that all of our underlying human emotions and tendencies play out in larger historical events. Such considerations would give you a way of approaching the teaching of history. Further, what are the skills and abilities that students can develop through this subject? For example, in history, the basic skills of reading, listening or watching something with comprehension are very important. Reading between the lines is also very important. Also they must learn to place events in a broad chronology (I don’t mean memorising dates!). They must learn to see causal links among events and developments, in such a way as to not oversimplify things into single narratives. This is a very subtle skill, perhaps you could call it a deeper value—to always seek nuanced understandings, and not get caught in one-sided narratives that construct narrow, divisive identities. You will need to look for materials that reflect such an understanding of the purpose of teaching history, and encourage teachers to collect or devise materials as well as ways in which these purposes can be brought into to their interactions with students.

Q: There are of course values embedded within every area of knowledge. I can see that as teachers, it will be important to bring out these values and perspectives, as well as the possibilities and limits of each subject. Can we try this same exercise with mathematics?

T: Since math is my subject area, see if this makes sense. We normally see math as being about a practical manipulation of numbers and spatial relations for conducting daily life—how much change, how many square feet of carpeting. But we should convey that math goes far beyond this. In the first place, it is a language that uncannily describes and predicts regularities in the natural world—for example, the constant pi keeps popping up in many unexpected equations, relationships and situations. And at another level, mathematics is its own consistent world, a world of relationships, patterns that need not have any real world correlates. So in teaching this subject, I would choose material that emphasises pattern recognition and problem solving as much as arithmetic and algorithms. Another fallacy about the subject is that it is only about logical proof. But I would emphasise the role of creativity, imagination and beauty in a mathematics curriculum. Such perspective and the required abilities and skills can be drawn out from an early age, and one will need to find developmentally appropriate tasks and activities from the wide range of resources that are available today.

Q: This is very good to know! Teachers too need to re-think their pre-existing ideas about what mathematics is and how to teach it. If one provides them the space to approach the subject as both learners and teachers of the subject, I can imagine many rich discussions among teachers, and a more lively approach to its curriculum and teaching.

T: Along with all this, do keep in mind that you have to make choices, to create balance between breadth of exposure and depth of understanding. Going back to history, for example, don’t begin by predefining the whole scope of knowledge that children ‘must have’. Actually, any small part studied well could be said to reflect the whole of the discipline. At one time, you may want to highlight something that is locally relevant, at another, the intimate influence of a narrative from very far away. At the same time, there has to be a growing sense in the children of a time-line, a chronology of causal patterns stretching across time.

Q: Recently there has been a lot of talk about ‘inter-disciplinarity’. How do you see that finding a place in a school curriculum?

T: There is great value in the ability to see the world as a whole, which perhaps children do have before they begin to learn subjects in compartments. From an early age, they touch, listen to and observe everything around them. In the early years of school we need to nurture their use of the senses, their capacity to experience phenomena in their wholeness. They should also be encouraged to express their responses in multiple ways, including languages, art, craft, music, enactment and so on, without channelling these into subject-wise compartments. One way of doing this is through theme-based learning, in which at least some part of the primary curriculum consists of broad themes, such as ‘water’ or ‘soil’ or ‘celebrations in our lives’. These can be explored from multiple perspectives and become avenues for crosscurricular learning.

As they grow older, however, it is useful to engage with subject disciplines, for this allows teachers and students to focus on a variety of relevant content and teach ways of thinking in different domains of knowledge in our world, including mathematics, the sciences, the humanities and social sciences. In developing such domain-specific understanding, creative and empathetic thinking would be complemented with logical and critical thinking. Side by side, for older students too there should be space provided for individual or group projects that require students to work from, and think across, different disciplines. For example, there could be projects to research, represent, analyse, understand and respond to some real-world issues in their neighbourhood, in the local region, or at a global level. Observations and data gathered from field visits or extended excursions can be an intrinsic part of such projects. Such projects give students an opportunity to develop a wide range of abilities and skills that prepare them for dealing with more complex issues they would meet in their life after school.

Q. What you say certainly presents a wider view of the curriculum and puts in perspective the place of each discipline, along with inter-disciplinarity. Another question at the back of my mind is—how does one get students actively involved in these kinds of learning, and to become more responsible for their own learning and growth?

T: This is not an easy question, for a great deal of what your students do depends on how you and your teachers come to visualize the development and growth of children, as well as the approaches to ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ at different stages of a child’s life in school. Further, the kinds of assessment and feedback that are prevalent, the equations you develop with parents, the nature of parent-teacher-student conversations as well as the modes of ‘reporting’ that you adopt, all of these will also have a bearing on the emotional climate and atmosphere of learning that you generate and sustain in the school. They too contribute to the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ or culture of the school, which encourages students to be either more passive recipients or active learners.

Some questions you could keep in mind are the following: To what extent do students have the freedom to ask questions, plan their own engagements in curricular learning, and propose their own ideas? Is there some flexibility in the curriculum that allows teachers and students to set their goals for learning? What is the balance between promoting individual learning and learning in groups? To what extent is assessment and feedback specifically geared to support each child’s growth? In what ways are students encouraged or expected to monitor their own progress and learning needs, and also support their own peers’ learning?

Q: This suggests to me that from the beginning we have to be very alert about having fuller conversations on these topics among administrators, teachers and parents, and evolve appropriate attitudes, structures and practices in our school. Otherwise we might unwittingly fall once again into standardized ways of doing things, which undercut the basic aims we started out with. What you said also brought into focus the role of parents in this whole endeavour. What could be some ways to strive for the right kind of equation with parents towards supporting our aims and curriculum?

T: You know we have circled around to one of the most critical factors in sustaining a meaningful education. Parents of the children are their first teachers and will remain invested in them for life. Since you must be somewhat aware of the exposure and concerns of parents of children in your surroundings, you probably sense that some parents may implicitly resonate with your concerns, while others may have more standardized expectations from schooling. It will be your responsibility to engage with all parents, from the beginning, in building a common understanding of the aims and basis of your curriculum. As an educator, with some experience of working with different kinds of children, you can surely bring a wider perspective to the parents, whose only experience is limited to their own children. You may need to allay their anxieties and insecurities about how they will cope with the pressures of contemporary life. You will need to show them, in as many concrete ways as you can, how your attempt is to bring a kind of learning that will not only provide their children with the necessary skills to function well in the world, but also enable them to have the sensibilities and tools to grow as creative, happy, self-aware human beings.

Q: Yes, I see what you mean. Setting up a school of this kind does require us to invite the parents to become engaged partners in the process of education of their child. It will not be so easy; but it is surely a challenge worth taking up… There is a lot more one would like to discuss. I am thinking about the following questions: how children with different abilities and special needs can thrive in the school environment? How to help students discover and nurture any special talents they may have? How to ensure that our students are not at a handicap when it comes to taking standardized school-leaving examinations? ... and so on. Perhaps we could take these up another time.