Curriculum Development: Issues & Principles – Mindmap

Cliched as it is, one of the best ways to consolidate one’s learning is always to do a mind-map.

The ideas have come on so fast and furious in the past 10 weeks that I had some difficulty putting things together, so I went to a cafe with my little girl one day and drew this up:

This serves as a useful start for myself, though I’m sure I may have oversimplified some of the connections, especially the arrow representing ‘backwash effects’.


Powerful Knowledge vs Content-based Curriculum

One of the more fascination ideologies pertaining to curriculum in my module is Michael Young and his notion of “powerful knowledge” curriculum, developed quite recently in 2013. His views are still hotly debated even now, as evident from a recent public debate hosted by Policy Exchange in UK. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in class discussing him too.

Michael Young argues in his article “Overcoming the crisis in Curriculum Theory: A Knowledge-Based Approach” (2013) that in recent times, there seems to be a fear of knowledge and teachers and even curriculum theorists seem more focused only whether the curriculum is meaningful for students. In recent times, he argues, there has been an “over-psychological approach to identity focusing on the learner as an individual person rather than a social being, or to the romantic politicising of some critical pedagogy”.

In response to this, he argues that the starting point of curriculum should not be the student as learner, but  from a student’s entitlement or access to knowledge. Such a theory of knowledge, he argues, would also help broaden the possibilities of curriculum designers.

He goes on to describe the characteristics of what he calls “powerful knowledge”:

  • It is specialised, in how it is produced and transmitted, i.e. this is not general knowledge. Its specialisation is expressed in the boundaries between disciplines and subjects which define their focus and objects of study
  • It is differentiated from the experiences that pupils bring to school. Such differentiation is expressed in conceptual boundaries between school and everyday knowledge.

In essence, as I personally understand it, “powerful knowledge” is defined as knowledge that has the potential to elevate students beyond their everyday experiences. School subjects therefore need to take strong reference from the disciplines that they come from, i.e. from academia. Academics are believed to be those who have the commitment to goal of searching for the best knowledge within their fields, hence Young argues that students have access to that.

To paint a clearer picture of what a “powerful knowledge” curriculum may look like, it would be useful to illustrate with an example of a school that takes that approach and one of the schools cited in Young (2013)’s paper has the following as its manifesto (available also online here):

  1. Knowledge is worthwhile in itself. Tell children this: never apologize that they need to learn things.
  2. Schools transmit shared and powerful knowledge on behalf of society. We teach what they need to make sense of and improve the world.
  3. Shared and powerful knowledge is verified through learned communities. We need to keep in touch with universities, research and subject associations.
  4. Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world. Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it.
  5. Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience.
  6. Shared and powerful knowledge enables children to grow into useful citizens. As adults they can understand, cooperate and shape the world together.
  7. Shared knowledge is a foundation for a just and sustainable democracy. Citizens educated together share an understanding of the common good.
  8. It is fair and just that all children should have access to this knowledge. Powerful knowledge opens doors: it must be available to all children.
  9. Accepted adult authority is required for shared knowledge transmission. The teacher’s authority to transmit knowledge is given and valued by society.
  10. Pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and its transmission. We need quality professionals to achieve all this for all our children.

Such a purist approach is certainly not adopted by Singapore, even though we do recognise the importance of consulting with academics when developing our curriculum. Young’s views are refreshing in light of the general move of education systems around the world towards 21st Century Competencies and the need to focus more on skills instead of knowledge.

Arising from our discussion of a “powerful knowledge” curriculum in class was an extended discussion of the difference was between a knowledge versus a content-based curriculum. I’d like to capture my tutor’s very useful response here:

As we know, the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum or Adler’s proposal is explicitly based on a social equality agenda – it starts from a recognition that social division in society is a problem and the belief that all that schools can do about this is to at least ensure equality of access to the curriculum. It does not go so far as to facilitate critique of that curriculum or the knowledge at its heart and how and by whom it was constructed.  Careful thought has been given to the selection of the knowledge taught – i.e. it is ‘the best’ knowledge available at the time as identified by specialists in the different subject fields. It is suggested that this knowledge should be available for every single child so that they are in a position to reconceptualise their world and enter into a world in which this ‘powerful knowledge’ is necessary if they are to be ‘successful’ by that world’s criteria. e.g. All girls must study physics if they are to become physicists and engineers. (This physics may be taught co-constructively, but the way it is taught is not the specific concern here).
In contrast, my thought was that a content-based curriculum is not based on such an explicit, and certainly not a social equality or equal access, rationale. Yes there will be an implicit rationale. The rationale may not be clearly thought through or discussed very thoroughly. There may be omissions at the start of the discussion of how the content based curriculum is developed i.e. the discussion may jump straight to the question of what should be included in the syllabus. Often the content based curriculum might be based on the implicit rationale of perennialism/tradition i.e. this is what our syllabus has always included. Possibly it might be based on the idea of intrinsically worthwhile knowledge. e.g. R. S. Peters.
This may seem unimportant and to lead to little differentiation between a content driven and powerful knowledge driven curriculum, and in reality there may be little difference in what is actually taught to SOME groups of children. This last point is the crucial difference – because those starting with a content driven curriculum do not start with equality of access, different children will study a different content and this is vital in any comparison.  Many of the critiques levelled at a content based curriculum made by e.g. Kelly, may be also levelled at the ‘powerful knowledge’ based curriculum. But in addition any discussion of the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum must examine claims relating to equality of access, and ask whether this knowledge actually empowers. 
So, is Singapore’s curriculum a content- or knowledge-based one? This is a question I’m still thinking about. 🙂

Capabilities Approach by Amartya Sen

(Image credits:

The main module I’m taking now is called “Curriculum Development: Issues and Principles”, where we delve into curriculum theories, philosophies as well as broad issues pertaining to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment though curriculum remains the key focus.

Three weeks ago, we had a session facilitated by a PhD student, where she introduced to us the capabilities approach, which she was hoping to use as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum to bring about empowerment. I found this framework rather fascinating and a new way to think about curriculum ‘effectiveness’.

The approach was pioneered by Amartya Sen and then further developed most significantly by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. At the heart of the approach is the belief that (subsequent info drawn from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  1. The freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance
  2. The freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value

The approach makes a distinction between what are functionings and capabilities.

Functionings: ‘Beings and doings’, that is, various states of human beings and activities that a person can undertake. Examples of ‘beings’ include being educated, being depressed etc. Examples of ‘doings’ include travelling, voting, killing etc.

Capabilities: A person’s real freedom or opportunities to achieve those functionings.

To illustrate the relationship between the two, ‘travelling’ is a functioning, but the real opportunity to travel is a capability.

Building on Sen’s capabilities, Nussbaum then identifies core capabilities that should be accepted by all democracies (more details available on Wikipedia)

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily Health.
  3. Bodily Integrity.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought.
  5. Emotions.
  6. Practical Reason.
  7. Affiliation.
  8. Other Species.
  9. Play.
  10. Control over one’s Environment

It’s interesting to note that Sen himself was against identifying a list; nonetheless, Nussbaum’s list is interesting because it includes some important capabilities, like ‘play’ which wouldn’t immediately come to mind.

While the capability approach sounds rather fuzzy, it should be noted that it’s not meant to be used as a stand-alone theory, but rather used as a means to complement the Human Development Index as an alternative way of looking at human development in nations. It should also be noted that the approach has not been utilised in relation to education yet, hence the application of it to education still requires further theoretical exploration.

The PhD student who shared with us found this approach useful, because she saw it as a means of understanding education not just in terms of inputs and outcomes, but also analyses an individual’s capability to convert inputs into valued outcomes.

This poses some interesting questions for me, which I am still seeking the answers to:

  • To what extent do the capabilities match with competencies stated in Singapore’s 21CC framework? The competencies stated in our framework are technically outcomes, whereas the capabilities are supposed to convert inputs into outcomes. However, I see a great amount of overlap and would really need more conceptual clarity on this.
  • Should education aim to inculcate the equality of capabilities or equality of outcomes? We do know that equality of outcomes is too idealistic, given that each child has their own interests and strengths. However, to what extent are capabilities within the realm of education? This is where I believe there needs to be some work done in translating the approach from human development to education to define what they would mean exactly for education. In Nussbaum’s model, for example, life refers to “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely” – this fits in well to evaluate the provision of health in a country, but how about education? How would education contribute to this?
  • Can we use the capability approach as an assessment framework for our national curriculum? Or is it better used for our education system? Would we see the national curriculum namely as the “inputs” into our students?

If anyone has thoughts on this or has done work on this particular in relation to Singapore’s system, would be glad to have a conversation with you!

Restarting this blog

This blog was set up during my days of teacher training to document my reflections as both an educator and a Christian.

It is timely now to restart it during this season of learning as I’ve really been learning so much, yet not having the opportunity to capture my thoughts from each week. Shall start writing more on this blog again!

Cultivating your Inner Life: Reflections

Edmund Chan’s Writing

I’ve always enjoyed reading Edmund Chan’s books as they contain deep truths, yet expressed so simply and clearly. The chapters of the book may be brief, but the amount of truth expressed is so powerful that you can’t help but take a step back and reflect. What I’ve enjoyed about the book so far is it’s very comprehensive approach to elucidating a topic – first exploring myths surrounding it and then defining the issue. It really illustrates Edmund Chan’s belief that it is hard to pursue what you do not define.

It’s interesting to read across different Christian authors, as they all take a different approach towards God and His word – all biblical, but different in the kind of emotional response elicited and the actions it prompts you. Edmund Chan’s Cultivating your Inner Life stirs in you a hunger to really seek more of Him and to put that as the one pursuit of your life, rather similar to Bill Johnson’s Face to Face, with the key difference being that Bill Johnson also writes significantly about the ‘outer Christian life’ of miracles, transforming the world and arising and shining. Edmund Chan really goes very deep into what it means to seek the Lord, to build the inner life and to ‘form’ the spirit. Both books balance each other really well.

On to my reflections on intimacy with the Lord…

The ONE thing

Reading the book brought new light to my understanding of Psalm 27:4, setting the context right for me – and at the right time too. Currently, I’m facing so much fears and anxieties, because I’ve been put in a challenging role, due to various circumstances. The temptation is always to pray for breakthroughs, pray for wisdom, pray for success – these are not wrong, but they are the blessings that I seek from the Lord! David went through so much worse than me – he was at war, he was persecuted by his enemies. Yes, he did pray for freedom from fear and for protection – but in the midst of it all, the one thing that he sought was the LORD. And it wasn’t just a quiet, passive kind of waiting on the Lord, it was a resolute pursuit – as shown through the phrase this I seek!

Oh – how my priorities have been so misplaced!

The ONE thing – not just ONE of the important things – the only THING that David seeks is to deepen Himself in the Lord’s presence. WOW! That is his one passion.

Does he seek God’s presence to get anything? Does he think that seeking God’s presence will give him the victory and freedom that he needs? NO!

It’s just intimacy with the Lord that is sufficient – which is another point that Edmund Chan makes in his book. It’s a myth to believe that intimacy with the Lord brings blessings – it IS the blessing in itself! “Intimacy with the Lord is not something we add onto our lives” – it is the primary anchor of our lives itself.

Is this anything new?

Nope. I’ve probably heard this message in multiple permutations before and this is not something that mature Christians know.

However, is this something that Christians regularly practise? I would say no – or at least, not for me.

This goes beyond just spending quiet time and having your spiritual disciplines, which in its own isn’t already very easy to do. However, it goes beyond just actions and ‘discipline’, though that is important. A person can pray for hours each day, yet not build a deep inner life, if his/her prayer focus is wrong.

It is what Edmund Chan says about your inner life – your inner compulsions, your inner compass, your passions and your desires. It’s a reorienting of your life. It’s not about fulfilling things on a checklist, reading as many Christian books as you can or listening to many sermons – though those are important – but it’s about what your life is anchored on and what your life flows out of!

An idea that has stuck in my mind for quite a long time after reading Living Life Devotion is this idea of being addicted to Jesus. We’ve all got our own obsessions and compulsions – I’m personally rather addicted to social media, in that I’ll check the feeds ever so often to identify any updates even if it’s just 5 minutes. However, something I’m wondering about is how does one show that he/she is addicted to Jesus? What are the inner/outer actions that exemplify this? Am hoping this book will bring more light to this issue!

Bill Johnson’s “Dreaming with God”

This has been an amazing and timely read, reviving a passion in me for cultural transformation and also giving me some vital tips on strengthening my spiritual life. Thought it’d be a waste if I just finished it and left it as that, without jotting down some key truths that really spoke to me.

1. Friends vs. servants

God called his disciples ‘friends’ in John 15:15. With this change in status, which Bill Johnson calls a ‘promotion’, they were now given access to the secrets of God. While servants are focused on obedience, friends have a higher calling – they are concerned with disappointing God. Other differences:

  • From ‘commandments’ to ‘presence’
  • From Assignment to Relationship
  • From “What I do for Him” to “How do my choices affect Him”

2. God wants to know our dreams

Many of us think of God’s will as being static and us as ‘robots’, trying to find out the instructions for the next move. However, this is what Bill Johnson says:

God actually makes Himself vulnerable to the desires of His people. In fact, it can be said, “If it matters to you, it matters to Him”.”

While much of the church is waiting for the next word from God, He is waiting to hear the dreams of His people. He longs for us to take our role, not because He needs us, but because He loves us.


3. We are to pay attention to our desires while we’re enjoying the presence of God.

This aligns with the point above too, that it’s not just any dream that God wants to partner us in. We partner to God to achieve the dreams He plants in our desires as we spend time with Him, not just as a result of receiving and obeying specific commands from Heaven. As we spend time with Him, our minds also become renewed and become open for him to deposit his dreams.

This brought new understanding to – “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4)

4. The balanced Christian life involves us living out God’s call for us to be creative.

Johnson shares that the realm of creativity has been overtaken by unbelievers and many of us, Christians, feel that it is our duty as Christians to ‘kill’ our own desires, dreams and anything ‘we want’. However, Bill Johnson believes that this is a lie and creativity and wisdom are all part of God’s nature and will for us.

The renewed Christian is supposed to make contributions to society, through the creativity from God:

Artistic design, excellence and inventive work are a few characteristics of wisdom… believers who walk in wisdom, making practical contributions to the need of society, who also confront the impossibilities of life through the provisions of the Cross, bringing solutions through supernatural display of miracles, signs and wonders.

5. Wisdom, in God’s definition, involves integrity, creativity and excellence.

Johnson elaborates on the three qualities of ‘wisdom’ as defined in the Bible, which is anchored firstly in God’s character and nature of holiness (‘integrity’), then also in the ability to transcend traditional ideas to create newness (‘creativity’) and finally, in setting high standards for personal achievement because of who we are in God, and who God is in us (‘excellence’).

6. There is no failure in faith.

When we want to dream for God, we are bound to be faced with discouragement and disappointment, failure is part and parcel too of that journey. Yet, there is a higher reality – when we pursue our dreams and fail to see them fulfilled, we prepare the way for others to get the breakthrough they seek. A tragic loss on earth is seen differently in Heaven.

7. Mystery plays an important role in our Christian walk, in ensuring we walk by faith!

Living with mystery is the privilege of our walk with Christ… If I understand all that is going on in my Christian life, I have an inferior Christian life. The walk of faith is to live according to the revelation we have received, in the midst of the mysteries we can’t explain. That’s why Christianity is called the faith.

Although we can question, we must not hold God hostage to our questions. It is alright not to understand, but we cannot restrict our Christian life only to what we understand. A mature Christian shows heart-felt embrace of what [he] does not understand as an essential expression of faith.

8. Use any barrenness to bring forth desperation.

Using the example of Hannah, Johnson encourages all readers not to be discouraged by barrenness. We must use our barrenness to develop a desperate heart. Barrenness is an invitation to excel, because we become more desperate for God to show up.

9. Hearing from God is not a bonus part of our Christian life; it is essential.

Hearing from God is the essential element of the Christian life, for “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt4:4)

10. God often ‘violates’ our limited understandings.

The Scripture is all basis of hearing from God. While God will not violate His word, He often violates our understanding of His word. Remember, God is bigger than His book. The Bible does not contain God; it reveals Him.

11. The Gospel is meant for the marketplace transformation.

The gospel is not just meant for evangelism, it is also meant for us as a tool to ‘disciple the nations’. God has given us authority to move resources of Heaven through creative expression to meet human need. As Christians who are meant to bring God’s power to the marketplace, we must remember this very powerful statement, also illustrated through Jesus:

Royalty is my identity. Servanthood is my assignment. Intimacy with God is my life source. So, before God, I’m an intimate. Before people, I’m a servant. Before the powers of hell, I’m a ruler, with no tolerance for their influence. Wisdom knows which role to fulfill at the proper time.

We should not measure our faithfulness solely by how many souls were saved, though that’s still important. The call of God on our lives is key and valuable – we must be faithful to what God has called us to do. All rewards are given based on our faithfulness to what God has given and called us to be and to do and we must not only honour those in ‘spirtual occupations’.

Our work in the marketplace is what Johnson calls “covert ministry” which is more subtle in nature. This is not direct evangelism and conversion, but it is how we work with the systems of the world to bring about change by “re-establishing the proper norms of thought, beliefs, discipline and relational boundaries”. We work to change the culture and transform society.

He then goes on to share how the gospel can invade the various seven mountains of society, which I’ll not dwell into here, but definitely worth a read.

12. Passion for God gives birth to passion for other things.

It is not wrong to love ‘other things’ in this world as loving God creates a passion and desire for more practical things, which are pursued ‘as unto the Lord’. As we live with true passion for God it creates a passion for other things, yet “While it is possible to value other things above God, it is not possible to value God without valuing other things”. Passion for God cannot just be limited to overtly spiritual activities or ‘Christian disciplines’.

13. Live with a consciousness of Heaven and eternity, that will give you impact on society!

Such consciousness comes through the spirit of revelation. We can only change this world through access to His! Wisdom and revelation need to be passionately pursued, relentlessly.

Revelation helps us to ensure that we go about God’s work with a sense of His purpose. For this, we need to rely on the Holy Spirit, who will “take us into the truths that the Father wants emphasised in a particular season” (or what Peter describes in 2 Peter 1:12 as present truth – truth that is at the forefront of God’s thinking).

“It is a wise man who learns to recognize where the winds of Heaven are blowing. Life and ministry are so much easier when we involve ourselves in what God is already blessing.”

14. Work in God’s “green light” zone.

Using the example of Apostle Paul, what Johnson emphasises is that we should not keep seeking signs from Heaven to convince us to obey the gospel and the Word. However, we need the Holy Spirit to show us what is at God’s mind. The analogy is that it’s easier to steer the car when it’s moving than when it’s standing still. We must not keep ‘waiting’ and holding back, waiting for God to speak; rather we need to adopt a lifestyle of going, so that we can hear the specific directions God has for us. The ‘green light’ zone is the ‘zone’ of his Word and what it calls us to do – as we move within that zone, the Holy Spirit will then speak to us and guide us.

15. Revelation is not for knowledge; it’s for transformation!

This is one of my favourite facts. We always think of revelation as making us more intelligent and smarter. However, that’s not the case in God’s kingdom – God’s revelation is for our personal transformation, that will forever change us!

Revelation comes to enlarge the playing field of our faith. Insight without faith released to have the truth realised through experience keeps truth unproven – only theory… Revelation gives us access to the realm of greater anointing available to us to make that truth a personal experience and lifestyle.

Johnson then shares some important practical suggestions to grow in revelation. The key one that spoke to me was ‘Obey what you know’ – sometimes we like to keep growing in knowledge, but to God, what’s important is our obedience. The willingness to obey actually attracts revelation, because God knows He can trust us with more revelation!

16. The Christian life requires us to take risks!

 Many of us like to keep to Christian rules of tradition, and end up taking a very analytical approach to Christian life which is stable in doctrine and disciplines, but is ‘without personal experience, denies the opportunity for risk and resists emotional expression and passion. Christianity was never known by its disciplines. It’s to be known by its passion; and those without passion are in far more danger than they know.’

17. What is in our heart determines what we see in God’s word.

When we come to God’s word, we will reproduce what we see. We must approach God’s word with the right heart – we must be humble, honest and hungry before the Lord. Our desperation for truth will show us things in the Word that others will miss. Those with evil in their hearts will find confirmation of it in the Bible.

As we read the Word, we must carry our concerns that come from our place of influence and authority on this earth. God will give us specific insight, because His word is ‘living, immediately applicable and unlimited in its scope and power’. It comes to life!

18. Steward your hearts well.

Using the example of Israel, Johnson shows that they were actually wandering in their heart before they started wandering outside. This is the same for us – our internal reality becomes our external reality. Successfully stewarding our heart guaratees us success in other areas of our life.

It is also important to ensure that we do not have the pressure to produce on the outside what doesn’t exist on the inside, resulting in a works-oriented Gospel that obtains favour through labour.

We cannot have worry, jealous, resentment or negativity in our heart – this will cloud us and cause us to be incapable of creativity. Our full potential is only found by carrying what God gave us to carry – my burden is light (Matt 11:30).

19. The Church is not meant to be rescued; it is meant to advance and rescue.

Many have a wrong conception that Jesus is coming to rescue His church from the difficulties of the end times. However, this causes the church to be in a defensive position, instead of positioning ourselves for increase. yet, we must advance and increase, because this is an absolute Kingdom principle!

20. The Church must pull the ‘future’ to the ‘today’.

This chapter title sounded so abstract to me, but what it merely means is that we must be hungry enough for what He has shown us in the Scriptures that we pull into ‘our day something that is reserved for another’, to bring God’s promise to today!

The church must increase and acceleration. We must be hungry and bring about changes in the pace of development. We must strike in the ‘quest for the authentic Gospel that has no walls, no impossibilities, with an absolute surrender to the King and His kingdom’!