Curriculum as a Document versus Curriculum in Action

The International Bureau of Education, in its Glossary of Education Terminology, describes “curriculum” as ‘a description of what, why and how well students should learn systematically and intentionally. The curriculum is not an end in itself but rather a means to foster quality learning’ (IBE Glossary of Curriculum Terminology, 2013).

Challenges in Implementing the Curriculum

In essence, “curriculum” is a continuum that encompasses what is (i) prescribed, (ii) taught (iii) learned and (iv) assessed (Marope, Griffin, & Gallagher, 2017), (Marsh & Willis, 2007). However, in many cases, there are multiple gaps at and between each stage of the continuum. As a result, what is prescribed is not taught, and what is taught may not be learned and what is assessed is only a ‘pale shadow’ of what was intended (Marope, Griffin, & Gallagher, 2017).

Multiple reasons are cited for such gaps by both national and international governing bodies, as well as independent researchers. These reasons primarily include the following:

  1. Curricula reform processes are fragmented. Reforms in the development of a prescribed curriculum do not necessarily accompany improvements for its implementation (Marope et al. 2017; Shaheen, 2014; Introduction, Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014).
  2. Teachers do not take ownership of the curriculum as they are often not consulted in its development (Marope et al. 2017; Marsh & Willis, 2007; Mahmood & Aziz, 2018).
  3. Teaching and learning resources are inadequate. Teachers and students rely heavily on a single textbook which may not be efficiently aligned with the curriculum (Ornstein, 1994).
  4. Learners find it difficult to grasp what was being taught. (Marope et al. 2017).
  5. Assessors only assess those parts of the curriculum which are easy to assess, and there is a wash-back effect of the assessment on teaching and learning (Marope et al. 2017; Cheng, 2004).

Curriculum Implementation: Different Approaches

Countries differ in the extent to which they expect their national curriculum to be implemented, the support they provide for its implementation and the means of evaluation. In this regard, the United Kingdom and Finland stand out as extremes: Both introduced their revised national curricula between 2010 and 2014; however, each has a very different approach towards its implementation and evaluation.

UK: The Controlled Approach

The National Curriculum of the UK has often been criticised for being ‘imposed, maintained and reinforced by a system of (centralised) testing, combined with the publication of the results of these tests’ (Kelly, 2010). Further control is imposed through regular inspections by Ofsted[1]. The tight control is widely seen as restrictive and counter-productive (Rosenthal, 2004; Keep, 2006; Thrupp, 1998). However, one comparative analysis of the UK’s educational system with other high-performing education systems in the world concluded that such control ensures coherence and alignment between the national curriculum content, textbooks, teaching content, pedagogy and assessment (Oates, 2010). Hence, the revised curriculum implementation plan gives relatively more freedom to the teachers. It also does so as a result of the confidence provided by the effectiveness of teacher training activities (as determined from the evaluation of its efficacy) and well-defined arrangements for student assessment, and school & teacher evaluation (Department for Education: Reform of the National Curriculum in England (Response by the Wellcome Trust), 2013; National Curriculum and Assessment from September 2014: Information for Schools, 2014).

Finland: Flexibility and Teacher Empowerment

The National Curriculum of Finland, on the other hand, is noted for being very flexible concerning evaluation and assessment (Morgan, 2014). However, a review of the analyses done by independent international bodies, as well as the information provided on the official website of Finnish National Agency for Education, show a more realistic picture of facilitation, assessment and evaluation which supports effective management of curriculum implementation.  The National Curriculum of Finland provides objectives and core content, principles of assessment and educational guidance. It allows the local education providers, including schools, the freedom to draw up their own curricula based on the framework of the national core curriculum (Basic Education). Teachers are in charge of the curriculum and assessment; however, teacher evaluation and quality assurance are done by local authorities to ensure accountability where needed (Hatch, 2014; Finnish Education, in a Nutshell, 2017). This has worked in favour of education in Finland, with the country being one of the highest performers on international benchmarks (Morgan, 2014). However, researchers often caution against direct borrowing of educational policy from Finland as it is best suited for the local context but may not replicate so effectively elsewhere (Chung, 2010).

The approaches of the UK and Finland are very different and cater to their different contexts regarding needs, educational culture and available resource (Hatch, 2014; Oates, 2010). However, some daily lessons can be derived from these approaches. These include the importance of a systematic approach to curriculum implementation, provision of support concerning resources and training where needed, and a system of evaluation, whether that is through examinations, teacher evaluations or other means.

Local Context: Curriculum Implementation Frameworks from Pakistan

The National Curriculum of Pakistan was last revised between 2006 and 2010 in a move to shift from an objectives-based curriculum to a competency-based curriculum. Syllabi of twenty-three core subjects were released by 2007 for implementation in 2008. Revision of the curricula of other subjects continued until 2010. These curricula specified the knowledge, skills, and attitudes as well as competencies, standards, and student learning outcomes. However, the structure, organisation and amount of detail provided differed from subject to subject (Shaheen, 2014; Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014). These curricula were accompanied by the Textbook and Learning Material Policy and Action Plan (2007) and the National Education Policy (2009). The new curriculum and policies introduced many effective and contemporary teaching and learning practices including inquiry-based learning in science, development of all four language skills in languages (Balochistan Education Sector Plan 2013-2018, 2013) and shift in teaching and assessment from singular textbook to curriculum-based over the long run (Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014). These practices, if implemented, are likely to impact students’ learning positively.

Despite sincere efforts to implement the National Curriculum of 2006 in its entirety, there were considerable delays in doing so due to lack of clarity regarding the role and responsibilities of critical implementers of the curriculum, as well as political uncertainty (Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014; Introduction, Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014; Shaheen, 2014). In 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan was passed, which decentralised education in general and curriculum in particular. Provincial governments were empowered to find contextually relevant methods for implementing the curriculum and to develop provincial curricula and other resources where needed. This led to the development of provincial curriculum implementation frameworks in 2013-14 which are at various stages of enactment.

Hence, even though the curriculum was considerably improved as a result of a revision in 2006, the implementation as reflected in teaching, learning and assessment practices is yet to be effectively actualised (Sindh Curriculum Implementation Framework, 2014; Shaheen, 2014). This can be attributed to gaps in implementation.

Completing the Cycle through a Holistic Approach: Suggestions for Pakistan

As a developing country, the challenges faced by Pakistan in curriculum implementation and improving its educational landscape are very different from those of countries like the UK and Finland. In particular, there is a need for further development of quality resources and improving teachers’ capacity for effective curriculum implementation.

However, what is shared amongst all contexts, ranging from the UK to Finland to any other country like Pakistan, is that successful implementation of the curriculum required a holistic approach. A holistic approach recognises that the curriculum is “a dynamic and continuously evolving entity” which needs time, effort and a systematic approach for both, development and implementation. This approach requires the engagement of all stakeholders, including curriculum developers, textbook developers, assessment bodies, teacher developers as well as the direct users of the curriculum, such as teachers (Kelly, 2010).

Hence, based on the lessons learned from successful curriculum implementation in the UK and Finland, and keeping in view Pakistan’s educational landscape, a holistic approach which can facilitate effective implementation of the national curriculum should include the following steps:

  1. Curricula reforms need to be systematic and comprehensive. The development of the curriculum documents should be accompanied by concrete, realistic plans for their implementation regarding teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation.
  2. All crucial stakeholders should be involved during curriculum planning and implementation. This will not only add value to the curriculum, but it will also encourage the stakeholders to own the curriculum and hence be committed to its application.
  3. Development and review of learning resources should be monitored to ensure that they are aligned with the curriculum. Where teachers are encouraged to use multiple resources, they should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and resources to be able to do so effectively.
  4. Effective methods of monitoring and evaluation should be in place to ensure that teaching and learning are aligned with the curriculum. These methods can vary, and multiple methods can be used simultaneously including observations, surveys, meetings, and student assessments, depending on the needs and the available resources.
  5. Assessments should be aligned with the curriculum. Here, the need for specific and measurable learning outcomes, useful exam specification and capacity development of exam developers cannot be overstated.

These given suggestions can only be enacted if the various departments and institutions involved in the process develop a strong sense of coordination and work together. In the context of a national curriculum, these institutions would include policymakers, curriculum development authorities, teacher training institutions, examination boards, and schools. Moreover, the planning for curriculum implementation should be based on research and evidence. Monitoring would also have to be collected at each step of the application to ensure that the learning resources, teaching, and learning, as well as assessments, are aligned with the curriculum. Needless to say, such an implementation requires serious comment and effective use of time, effort and monitoring resources.

One of the ways for efficient and effective implementation of the national curriculum is to derive a specific syllabus from it and use it as a tool acquired to facilitate planning, collaboration and monitoring. This has frequently been the approach taken by examination boards (, (, (, ( This syllabus needs to be specific, implementable and measurable. It needs to be common for all stakeholders to serve as a “contract” that facilitates the alignment of teaching, learning, and assessment (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). A syllabus that fulfils this purpose should include the following:

  • Content and its suggested sequence of study
  • Specific and measurable learning objectives or outcomes
  • Exam specifications

This syllabus may also include guidance on selection of teaching and learning resources, teaching strategies and any other material deemed necessary for implementation (Slattery & Carlson, 2005; IBE Glossary of Curriculum Terminology, 2013).

A useful syllabus document would help align teaching, learning, and assessment by serving as a standard document for everyone involved in curriculum implementation. Moreover, it can be used to evaluate whether the curriculum has indeed been delivered and assessed effectively.

This approach has been used for effective curriculum implementation in Pakistan by the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB). AKU-EB started implementing the National Curriculum of 2006 in the year 2009 and has since enhanced the scope of its implementation twice through revision of its syllabi, initially in 2012 and, more recently, in 2016. The AKU-EB outlines include student learning outcomes that are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant. In addition to this, they also include exam specifications that specify the weight of each component of the syllabus in the examination papers developed by AKU-EB. The latter helps align the curriculum with the examinations. Syllabi support documents specify the learning resources which can best facilitate its teaching and learning. This is further complemented with teacher support mechanisms. Finally, conducting examinations based on these syllabi and provision of annual school performance reports to each school completes the cycle of implementation.

For efficiency, AKU-EB uses a collaborative approach whereby its various units, i.e. Curriculum Development, Examination Development, Assessment, Teacher Support, Operations, and Communications, actively coordinate and work with each other. Furthermore, AKU-EB keeps the channel of communication open for its affiliated schools and systematically engages students, teachers and school administrators to help identify and address their needs for effective implementation of the national curriculum.

Hence, by bridging the gaps in curriculum implementation highlighted earlier in the article, AKU-EB has been able to achieve many of the aspirations set by National Curriculum of Pakistan, improved user satisfaction and, most importantly, ensured high school students’ preparedness for university education (Hirani, Yousuf, & Jeeva, 2018).

This is one of the many ways of bridging the gap between the curriculum and the syllabus which can be adapted for different contexts, provided that we see curriculum holistically as a guide, which not only governs teaching, learning and assessment but is itself impacted by the quality of these fields.

About the Author: 

  1. Raabia Hirani

Ms Raabia Hirani leads the curriculum development team at AKU-EB in all curriculum and syllabi-related activities including development, review and revision of syllabi and learning resources. She was instrumental in designing and implementing an efficient and standardised syllabus revision process at AKU-EB which ensures engagement of stakeholders and development of student-centred syllabi which equips students with skills and content required for higher education and beyond.

  1. Dr Naveed Yousuf

Dr Naveed Yousuf

Dr Naveed Yousuf is Associate Director, Assessment & Research and Assistant Professor, Educational Development at the Examination Board and Faculty of Health Sciences, Aga Khan University. His PhD thesis focused on psychometrics and standard setting in assessment. Dr Yousuf is responsible for the psychometric quality of national-level assessments and for psychometric research projects at AKU. He also serves as thesis supervisor and faculty member for the Master of Health Professions Education Programme. He is an Editorial Board Member for Education in Medicine Journal.

  1. Dr Shehzad Jeeva

Dr Shehzad Jeeva

Dr Shehzad Jeeva was appointed as the Director, Aga Khan University Examination Board in October 2014 and also holds a joint appointment as an Assistant Professor of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, AKU. He has transformed the institution from a startup to a robust organisation through his enthusiastic leadership. He has also re-defined the institution’s vision and mission to make AKU-EB a model of excellence and innovation in education for Pakistan and the developing countries. Under his leadership, the Examination Board has been providing support to the Government of Balochistan through UNICEF/EU funded project to develop capacity in Assessment. He also gave consultancy to the Asian Development Bank and design a plan for the Government of Sindh to improve secondary education in Sindh. Dr Jeeva has been appointed as a member of the Sindh Curriculum Council, member of Inter Board Chairmen Committee (IBCC), chair of Group-BCC and chair of several government sub-committees. He is also a founding member of the International Association for Educational Assessment’s Recognition Committee (UK) to develop international standards for examinations across the world. Dr Jeeva received several scholarships including the Aga Khan Foundation Scholarship to complete his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge, where he won the Toby Jackman Prize for the most outstanding PhD thesis in any subject.


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[1] Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. They inspect and regulate services that care for children and young people, and services, providing education and skills for learners of all ages.

1 Comment

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  1. Jack Fernandes 4 years ago

    When was this articles published?


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