The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries

“If the curriculum were radically simplified, if the teacher’s mission were squarely defined as making everyone master every bit of it, and if children were allowed to learn at their own pace, by repeating if necessary, the vast majority of children would get something from the years they spend in school.”  (Banerjee and Duflo, Poor Economics, 2011).

When watching the video in the last blog post, my curiosity was sparked when I heard about an article that I wanted to further research:

The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries

Is that first quote really possible? Are there really all of these problems by having a curriculum that not only expects teachers to teach the basics, but also so many other skills and concepts?   The authors of this article argue that despite a worldwide increase in education, when we track actual increase in skills, we find shockingly low gains.  Many students around the world spend years of time being instructed (taught) at school, with no progress on the basics.   This article argues that the countries that move slower through their curriculum (and perhaps have ‘less to cover’) are the countries that have much higher cumulative learning.  Could it really be true that learning could go faster if curricula and teachers were to slow down?

Although the article by Pritchett & Beatty was long, a brief scan of the research done in 3 countries was shocking.  They showed that if the curricular pace (the level and material teachers are expected to teach) moves faster than actual student learning, this alone can generate enormous differences in cumulative learning.  This article again brought about that uncomfortable feeling that is so necessary for a teacher.  Over the past year I underwent a performance review (normal procedure in the school where I was), which involved many observations, reflections and meetings with the administration team.  One of the biggest pieces of feedback I received was that I needed to slow down… perhaps not in my actual teaching, but just in how quick I transition and speak in my class.  I am glad to have become aware of this flaw in my teaching, and combined with this articles findings, I now have been given even more reason to slow down and be more conscious of whether my speed as a teacher matches the speed that my students need in order to truly be learning.


Pritchett, L. & Beatty, A. (2012)  The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula in Developing Countries. Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper.

How does assessment fit into the equation?

Over the past school year, the school where I worked in BC was engaged in professional development around the new BCED Plan curriculum.  We started by looking at those 6 core competencies, the specific skills that need to be taught, and puzzling out how these could fit together into units, lessons, etc.  However, it didnt take long for all of us to start asking “but how are we going to assess these things?”  How do we assess a compettency such as personal awareness? or critical thinking?  The BCED plan gave different rubrics, and scales to assess these on.

The below video is well worth your time to watch, as it adds many interesting insights from educators around the world.  Although it does not come to any conclusions about the right way to assess, it does open up a variety of opinions and perspectives.

The assumption in our education systems up til now has been that if we teach math, reading, writing (the ‘core skills’), then those extras like creativity will automatically follow suit.  Of course the kids are learning problem solving while doing math, right?  However, an interesting quote in this video was “people measure what they treasure.”  And, up until now, we only measured math, reading, writing.  We only measured math test marks, reading scores, and writing levels.  If this is really the way we assess, then that must also mean that we only treasure those things (and certainly don’t treasure creativity, critical thinking, innovation).  Assessment then needs to be both broad and specific.  It needs to give clear feedback to parents and students about how they are doing, and ways to improve.  It should be a balanced approach where we not only TEACH reading, writing, math, but also creativity, personal identity, and problem solving skills.  Not only taught, but practiced. And not only practiced, but assessed (using Assessment FOR, AS, and OF Learning).   There needs to be alignment between curriculum, parental support, the ability of children to build on what was taught in the years prior, and assessment that guides and assists these.

Within this video one of the participants mentioned an article that closely connects with the topic of assessment: “The Negative Consequences of over-ambitious curriculum.”  Stay posted to read a review of that article!

Innovation & Creativity in the News

It appears I am not the only teacher who is spending their summer holidays thinking about innovation and creativity. While reading the news, an article popped up that led me to think more about my own guiding question. Why, as teachers, DO we spend so much of our summer thinking, pondering, reflecting and looking forward?  Very few teachers I know are able to truly ‘shut off’ in the summer, and think only about their families, hobbies, holidays, or whatever else they may be busy with.  Teachers, whether they officially are studying or not, are instead always thinking ahead to the next year, asking themselves how they could improve, what they could do to help the students, and wondering about the new characters that will enter their doors in a few short weeks.


Back to the guiding question: how do we encourage creativity and innovation?  More than 250 principals and teachers from across Hamilton Country got together this week to learn innovative ways to engage students… and their answer to the above question is “we engage kids by engaging teachers.”  And how true this is.  We cannot simply focus on the kids, but we need to begin with ourselves: how are we innovating and being creative?  The “Fostering Creativity” event was put on by the Hamilton, Tennessee school district, with the goal of fostering a climate that encourages teacher voice and leadership.  Different teachers shared different examples of how they use creativity in their classrom, and Vreeland, the guest speaker, talked about how innovative ideas immediately impact student achievement and outcomes.

Although our summers are busy (travelling! family! relaxing! reading! catching up on yard work!), it is also the best time to improve on our skills as a teacher.

  • A course like could be a great place to start.  I like how this not only focuses on creativity and innovation, but also on leadership (which can then be used to further the first two).
  • I use the summer to read.  Two books on my pile currently: “Creating Thinking Classrooms: Leading educational change for a 21st century world” written by Roland Case & Garfield Gini-Newman (The Critical Thinking Consortium), and “Student Diversity: Classroom strategies to meet the learning needs of all students.” by Faye Brownlie, Catherine Feniak & Leyton Schnellert.   Books are the perfect way to not only relax, but also to give new ideas and life for the coming school year.

  • For me personally, I need lots and lots of outdoor time in the summer.  For part of July I took afternoons off, with the sole goal of being outside… swimming, doing yard work, going for walks through the forest, etc.  Although this did not always seem productive (I’m a doer!), it means that now my brain has space and lots of new ideas are percolating.  Don’t forget to take the time that you need over the summer to think and be creative.


The Bias against Creativity

When I think back to my years of teaching, I can think of several students who stand out in my mind because of their creativity.  While at times there was appreciation for their ideas in the classroom, at other times (eg. during a focused discussion) their ideas were so far out of the norm that they were looked at strangely by their peers.  As a teacher of course I value creativity… but do I really?

When reading “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas,” by Mueller, Melwani & Goncalo, I was forced to confront my own bias of the subject.  This seems to be a contradiction: teachers KNOW that creativity is an important educational goal, but yet research shows that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity adn creative thinking.  Creativity is something that is novel and useful.  The useful part seems to be fairly easy to judge as a teacher (does it relate to the topic? does it somewhat answer the question?  is it somewhat focused?), but the novelty aspect is more difficult to discern.  Research shows that practical ideas are more valued, and if it is too ‘novel’, or outside-the-box, then it is more uncertain.  This uncertainty is what Ken Robinson spoke of on his video (see last post), which then leads to a diminished rate of creativity in your classroom.  As teachers we are not explicityly judging this, but I think if we are honest there is some judgement in all of us.  The results of this study show that regardless of the degree to which people are open-minded, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty, they may experience more negative associations with creativity, which results in lower evaluations of a creative idea.  This uncertainty also makes people less able to recognize creativity, when they perhaps need it most.

Reading this article gave me a bit of an uncomfortable feeling… which then reminded me of another article I read.  Falkenberg writes about teaching as a moral endeavor, for the betterment of others, and so the teachers decisions, actions, and behaviors are central to this.  The teacher must be then aware of their inner thoughts (in this case my inner thought is that I perhaps have a slight bias against creative students), and then this must manifest itself in outward actions (I stay conscious of this, and when a situation comes up that my bias may show I remember my end goal and work to be more open minded). By being more aware of how we react, we can begin pondering alternative better reactions to creative ideas that may have had us respond negatively in the past, so that our new reaction can be more positive and appropriate (remembering that we WANT our students to be creative, even if this sometimes means having the wrong idea).

If our goal of teaching is to encourage creative and critical thinking, then we as teachers need to be creative in our approaches, innovative in the ideas that we teach, and become a learner using these same ideas ourselves (Christou & Bullock).  But then this idea then leads us RIGHT back to the beginning… how can I, as the TEACHER, encourage creativity and innovation?  Or perhaps the better question here is… how can I become more creative and innovative?

Thoughts to ponder as I head into this long weekend.


Christou, T.M., & Bullock, S. M. (2012).  The case for philosophical mindedness. Paideusis, 20(1), 14-23.

Falkenberg, T. (2012).  Teaching as contemplative professional practice. Paideusis, 20(2), 25-35.

Mueller, J., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J. (2012).  The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desier but Reject Creative Ideas.  Association for Psychological Science.  23(1), 13-17.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?


Although you likely have already watched this video, it is worth watching again for the sheer reminder of how badly we need to bring creativity back.  Creativity is immense, especially because we have no idea about what the future holds.  Children all have immense capabilities for creativity, and Ken Robinson theorizes that by putting them through an education we are squandering and squashing all of it.

When children are young they are willing to take risks, even if it means being wrong.  They arent afraid of being wrong, of making mistakes.  It is only by MAKING mistakes that we are able to come up with something original.  However, school makes children afraid of making mistakes, and so we are educating people OUT of their creativity.

The original purpose of education was to meet the needs of the industrial revolution: we need to be able to get a job, and we need to be ready for university.  However, technology and progress have changed all of this. Degrees aren’t worth anything.  Robots are taking over manual tasks.  People are unemployed.  We no longer need school to ‘get a job,’ but we now need creativity to change the future.

Ken Robinson has defined creativity as “original ideas that have value”… similar to my definition of creativity as being something that is novel and useful.  However, if we really want children to be creative we need to rethink the fundamental principals of the way we teach.  We need to hold tight to that gift of creativity, and be careful with it. We need to encourage mistakes, and not squash them when they occur.  We need to get every child ready for their future so THEY can make something of it.

Watching this video gives inspiration for change as a teacher, inspiration to keep working forward to find the best way to educate our students for the future.

Strategies to Encourage Creativity & Innovation

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.  Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.”

-Albert Einstein

When we have no idea what tomorrow will look like for our students, it becomes essential that they be able to innovate.  When we return to the original guiding question of this blog, we now are going to ask: “but HOW can we encourage our students to innovate and be creative?”

Designorate gives 10 tips to achieve creativity & innovation:

  1. Encourage children to find the answer: allow students the freedom to find the answers on their own.  By doing this it helps the students to learn how to observe, imagine, judge and reason.
  2. Children learn, teachers observe: give space to the students to learn on their own so that the teacher can observe the progress.  This leaves space for students to develop their own skills and capabilities to innovate.
  3. Sit in round tables rather than desks: This turns the class into an open conference style of interaction, which encourages them to take responsibility adn share their opinions instead of just following the teacher.
  4. Focus on one project instead of multiple projects: rather than splitting up the day into chunks of time, focusing on one project allows students to put the knowledge together in the form of focused questions.  This is closely connected with Project-Based Learning.
  5. Focus on the Concept:  rather than just giving facts, focusing on the concepts helps the students to find solutions through exploring ideas and evaluating the best answers.
  6. Every idea is a patent: innovation is unique and should be treated as a patent.  Treat each new idea as a success and encourage them to continue.
  7. Use design thinking tools and methods: use a variety of thinking methods that encourage creativity and explore innovative solutions.  This could be a group discussion, a brainstorm, problem-solving activity, etc.
  8. Problem-to-Solution vs Solution-to-Problem models: the first model drives the students to find solutions for existing problems (they identify a problem that occurs and try to solve it).  The second method is to find a solution for a problem that does not exist yet or to make life much easier.
  9. Reflect on previous taught lessons and skills:  give time to think through what was learned, and link to the next lesson so that students can think critically.
  10. Acknowledge innovation in rubrics: have a rubric section that allows you to evaluate creative ideas and innovation separately from the rest of the grading criteria. This could be part of a final grade.

By using some of these techniques a teacher will be able to help students think creatively and find innovative solutions for existing and future problems.

10 Tips to Achieve Creativity and Innovation in Education

History of Curriculum

In my last post I discussed the fact that the curriculum that we are all under dictates that we teach creativity and innovation to our students.  However, in this post I would like to discuss the history of curriculum in Canada, so that I can look ahead with a better understanding of what lies behind.

Curriculum is a set of uniform and consistent operational principles guiding what is to be taught and learned in schools. From our earliest history Canadians have began with copying the values and ideas of other surrounding countries: beginning with European nations, and later on the ideas of America. A central idea that I pulled out after reading the article by Tomkins was how although at times Canadians dealt with the challenges and changes of our society by changing the curriculum, many times they simply copied how other countries dealt with these issues.

By copying other nations to create our curriculum, there was not much innovation (especially in earlier times), especially when I look back to my definition of innovation: that changes are made according to the needs of society. One exception to the norm of a lack of innovation in this history, however, came with Egbert Ryerson (the superintendent of Ontario schools). He was very concerned about the breakdown of family and community, especially with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and a high immigrant population. He then brought about a total reform, and dealt with these ‘problems’ in the way that he thought was best: a new curriculum focused on eliminating foreign influence, and promoting Christian values. Because of this, we could say that although we may not agree with Ryersons approach, this was both innovative and creative. His idea was novel (no other country had a system in place like this), and useful (especially when we consider the ‘problems’ that he hoped to fix).
The many changes in society over the history of Canada would inevitably led to changes in the way that teaching and learning occurred: however not much was said about this in the article.

After reading this article I was curious about how how innovative Canadian curriculum and policy makers are today, and how many of their ideas are coming from other countries. With a global society, many of the challenges that face a province, or Canada, are so similar to those happening around the world. In BC they hope to begin teaching a new curriculum this September (K-8), one that is based on 6 core competencies. The reason for this switch was to prepare our learners for a changing society. I wonder how much of this curriculum was also based off of ideas that other countries or provinces have also used…

Tomkins, G. (1981). Foreign influences on curriculum and curriculum policy making in Canada: Some impressions in historical and contemporary perspective. Curriculum Inquiry, 11(2), 157–163.