The new curriculum has arrived in Syrian schools. Some are equipped to handle it while others are struggling to adapt.
Photos by Carole al-Farah
With its beautifully-decorated, sunny classrooms, movable furniture and equipment for conducting science experiments, attending Sate’a al-Husari public school is the dream of every Syrian student. Located in the centre of Damascus, it is one of the four rehabilitated schools in which Syria’s new curriculum was piloted last year.
Starting this academic year, new curricula were introduced to all public schools in the first, second, third, fourth, seventh and 10th grades. This is the first time since the 1970s that the primary and secondary school curricula have been changed in Syria. Modern and interactive, the new programme seeks to introduce computers and internet to Syrian classes for the first time.
However, insufficient training and equipment in Syrian schools have led many to criticise the ambitious new plans as unrealistic and unachievable.
The Ministry of Education composed the new curriculum by taking into consideration the psychological, intellectual, and behavioural needs of students, Abdul Hakim al-Hamad, the ministry’s manager of curriculum and supervision, said.
While the old curriculum was based on rote learning and spoon-feeding information to students, the new curriculum is based on active learning techniques, such as group work and interactive theatre. New books focus on team-based research activities and self-learning. This makes the new curriculum “not only easier to learn but also more fun,” Samar Sukkar, headmistress of Sate’a al-Husari, said, proudly showing off a magazine designed by her students.
Wafa’a el-Khen, a biology teacher said her job is now easier because she can download short educational videos, extra-curricular worksheets and handouts from the internet on his classroom computer.
Students at Sate’a al-Husari seemed equally excited about the new curriculum which they described as “easy” and “appealing”. Seventh grader Rasis said the interactive teaching methods make it easier to concentrate during class.
“With the new curriculum I have more chances to participate in class,” Rasis said. “I also find working in groups more engaging than working individually.”
While teachers and students at the few rehabilitated schools applauded the new curriculum as “wonderful”, those at the country’s other, old-style schools said it was “hard” and “time consuming”.
For example, while working in groups might seem like a great idea in a school equipped with light, movable chairs and desks, it is “hard to implement” when all you have are lines of “heavy schools desks,” said Marina haj-Mohammad, a mathematics teacher who used to teach at Nazir al-Hafez school in Zamalka. Haj-Mohammad now gives private classes to children who cannot cope with the new curriculum.
“Classes are only 45 minutes long. It’s impossible to have time to form groups and teach the class in such a short period,” haj-Mohammad said. “To do that, we need classes to be at least one-and-a-half hours long.”
Securing the necessary equipment is a challenge, in part because the government is not providing any but is rather relying on charities, such as the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), to donate it piecemeal. According to Mayada Salama, public relations coordinator at the DRC, her organisation has donated new computers to all Syrian schools, but only 31 out of Syria’s 24,000 schools have received mobile furniture from DRC. Reaching the rest of the schools will take more than five years, she said.
Large class sizes are an additional obstacle. With 40 and sometimes even 60 students studying in one class, working in groups is impossible. To save time, haj-Mohammad said teachers in her school only ask the children to work in groups when an inspector visits.
The Ministry of Education disputes the argument that implementing the new curriculum is difficult. Its curriculum manager Hamad argued that official statistics show that the average number of students in classrooms is close to international standards. According to Hamad, only 4 percent of classrooms have more than 40 students, while 96 percent of classrooms have fewer than 40 students.
“There should be no difficulty in applying the new curriculum,” he said. “The more students are in the classroom, the more interactivity and participation we will have. This encourages creativity.”
High technology illiteracy among Syrian teachers hinders the implementation of the new curriculum as well. Training on the new equipment was not included in the five-day course conducted by the Ministry of Education to instruct teachers on the new curriculum.
“Old teachers don’t know how to use modern equipment. This makes it hard for them to teach with the new methods,” haj-Mohammad said.
DRC’s Salama does not believe there is any real impediment for teachers to adopt the new curriculum other than inflexibility by some who are resistant to change.
“The content of the new curriculum is the same as the old one. What has changed is the method of teaching it,” she said. “But some older teachers want to keep on teaching the same way they have been doing for the last 30 years. They don’t want to make any effort to learn the new methods.”
Many families are concerned by the changes to the curriculum. Parents said they worry about their children’s health now that there are more books to carry.
“This curriculum is designed for well-equipped, European-style schools in which students have their own drawers at school to keep their books. We don’t have that,” Um Muhammad, a parent from rural Qudssia, said. “With the new curriculum, my children now have to carry three books for each class. Their bags are too heavy and I am worried it will damage their bodies.”
Parents also complain that the new curriculum is even more demanding on students than the old one. This is making it difficult for teachers to finish the curriculum in time and putting pressure on teachers, students and families.
“My son’s teacher failed to finish teaching the curriculum by the end of the semester. Now parents like me are forced to pay for private classes,” Um Muhammad complained. “But it is too expensive. My elder daughter is helping him with his studies. I don’t know anyone in our neighbourhood who can afford a private teacher.”
To cope with the curriculum, the ministry is planning to makes classes longer. It has also started to teach the curriculum via television and has organised talk shows with teachers and representatives from the Ministry of Education to answer parents’ inquiries.
Every evening, Um Muhammad nervously follows the TV programmes that Syria’s educational public channel broadcasts to introduce the new curriculum.
“In one episode, an official from the education sector said we should be patient because ‘it will take five years to upgrade the infrastructure for the new curriculum to be properly implemented’,” she said. “Why did he decide to sacrifice my children? Why didn’t they wait until Syria has the infrastructure and then implement their new curriculum?”
Syria Today used only first names for students and parents who wished to remain anonymous.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.