Secret Sauce of Speed School: Condensed Curriculum

October 26, 2021

Most observers attribute the Speed School learners’ successful outcomes to a combination of the pedagogy used and the increased support by mothers due to the Self-Help Groups. Geneva Global, though, is convinced that it is less the methods used than the conditions created to use the methods consistently and well. In particular, there is nothing “secret” about the instructional methods, since these are well-known and widely promoted by most education systems. The truly “secret” ingredients of the Speed School sauce are (i) the instructional liberty that comes from using a condensed curriculum and (ii) the program’s holistic approach to training. Still, all four “ingredients” warrant mention. In this article, we will dig deeper into the Speed School program’s condensed curriculum.

In conventional classrooms, most teachers put their heads down at the year’s start and sprint through the curriculum to cover the massive amount of content they contain and that fill the formal textbooks by year’s end. The problem in most classes of the developing world (and often even in the Global North) is that most of the pupils are unable to keep up. Furthermore, the gap gets increasingly difficult to overcome as they miss out on the knowledge and skills needed to learn future lessons. The fact that the largest number of dropouts in many systems occurs during the first year of primary school bespeaks this failure loudly.

Aiming to cover the first three years of primary school in just one, the Speed School classroom is forced to strip down the official government curriculum for the three years to its core learning outcomes and broad themes. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to cover all the information, illustrations, and practice contained in the curriculum and textbooks for the three grades. In a way, this liberates the Speed School facilitators to make their own decisions about how best to design, deliver, and assess their lessons to ensure that their pupils master the curriculum’s core learning outcomes and themes. At the same time, however, the need to make such decisions requires extra effort and skill from the Speed School facilitators. They can’t just parrot what the system supplies them with the full curriculum and texts. Despite the doubts of many in the international education community that most teachers are neither willing nor capable to perform in this way, the Speed School experience continues to show that with proper training and support even untrained novice facilitators are both able and motivated to succeed in this way.

The Speed School facilitators experience what most of us do, that extra effort can actually feel like less work when we have considerable influence over the effort, when we receive the help we require, and when the results are rewarding. The trimmed curriculum permits them to teach more effectively and to yield greater learning from their pupils in four key ways.

Feature activity-based, learner-centered instruction. Relieved of the need to “sprint” through the curriculum, the Speed School facilitator can shift the focus in class from teaching to learning. In other words, the obligation is not simply to communicate the content of the full curriculum but to make sure that all pupils acquire the core learning skills and knowledge. This both frees and requires them to use instructional methods that may take more time but are proven to be much more effective. These are the instructional methods outlined here. As facilitators gradually master these methods, they recognize that their use can actually save time while more pupils learn more of the curriculum. This happens for a few reasons. One, pupils are more interested and attentive, so they learn more quickly. Two, this means less distraction during class, so less time is lost to disciplinary measures. Three, pupils and the teacher are more likely to arrive to class and leave on time. Four, they are more independent learners, so they are more likely and able to study outside of class and to help each other succeed.

Draw on content from the local context. Condensing the curriculum does not mean proceeding at pace and eliminating the parts you don’t reach. Rather, it is a more surgical process of eliminating information, illustrations, and exercises that are either redundant or not essential to pupils’ learning. However, stripping the curriculum of these elements in this way does not mean that content is not important. It is, supremely. Re-introducing content becomes both the burden and an opportunity for the facilitator. It is a burden because it must be done and requires extra effort (though effort that facilitators can share). It is an opportunity because it allows the facilitator to draw upon her/his own interests, networks, resources, and skills to create lessons that both the facilitator and the pupils find more relevant, motivating, and meaningful and that make learning more fun and better.

Use continuous formative assessment to pace lessons. The time gained by eliminating redundant and irrelevant content and from quicker learning with more time on task also gives the facilitator the opportunity to conduct meaningful formative assessment. This means three basic things. One, s/he can determine what parts of a lesson each pupil understands masterfully, moderately, poorly or not at all. Two, s/he can provide feedback to every pupil, helping each identify their level of mastery for a lesson, discern the reasons for any gaps, and understand what the correct response is. Three, s/he can help each pupil close or narrow the gap with remediation, either intervening directly or helping build a strategy to undertake independently or with another resource person. In the Speed School class, continuous formative assessment takes many forms but falls into three main categories: (i) monitoring informally during the course of a lesson; (ii) checking work assigned for completion during or after class; and (iii) engaging pupils in peer assessment. The idea is that every pupil should have several chances per lesson to be assessed, receive feedback, and benefit from remediation. As with the other pedagogic methods, summarized above, the added time spent to perform proper continuous formative assessment results in the end in time gained for more and better learning.

Cultivate personal skills as purposeful learning outcomes. Lastly, the opportunity and requirement facilitators have to put flesh on the bones of the stripped-down condensed curriculum gives them valuable time to cultivate their pupils’ personal skills. This does not happen as additional lessons that treat cooperation, creativity, and the rest as topics of instruction. Rather, pupils learn and cultivate their skills as they complete their learning tasks. They learn to collaborate by completing assignments in their small groups. Their creativity grows as they create songs, skits, posters, and more about the topics of their lessons. They become more resilient and persistent as they struggle with learning, receive encouragement and guidance, and are able to fail but keep trying. Indeed, personal skills are solidly embedded within the many methods of activity-based, learner-centered pedagogy.