Changing the Curriculum in Abu Dhabi Schools from Standards-Based Curriculum to Content-Based Curriculum

Content-Based Curriculum

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Curriculum Development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 2

Curriculum development efforts by UAE’s Ministry of Education. 3

Efforts by the Ministry of Education to expand the curriculum content. 5

Sustainability in the creation of a content-based curriculum.. 7

Schools of thought in the development of a national curriculum.. 9

Practical advice for revision of curriculum content. 11

The use of a curriculum decomposer tool 11

Content Selection, Evaluation, and Organization. 12

Impact of content-based curriculum on teacher training trends in the UAE. 15

Recommendations and conclusions. 16

References. 18

The term curriculum, in its broadest sense, encompasses the principles, goals, underlying educational philosophy, concrete functioning and content of an instructional program that is used in the classroom. It also encompasses the materials needed in order to offer support to the educational system. As a concept, the curriculum can be broken down into three main components: intended, implemented and attained curriculum.


            The intended curriculum includes all the guiding documents that are produced by the ministry of education and other education authorities. These documents dictate what, how much, and how often the stipulated content should be taught in schools. The implemented curriculum refers to what actually goes on in the classroom, how effective the teachers are in presenting the stipulated curriculum material. It is also about the amount of time spent on a topic as well as the resources that are available for teaching the content. The attained curriculum refers to the achievements made by students, the values they pick up and the content absorbed and retained.

Curriculum Development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

            When formal education was introduced in UAE in 1953, funding was done by different countries, mainly Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The first effort was made when one school was opened in Sharjah. After that, more schools were opened throughout the country. The countries that were funding the schools also staffed them. Additionally, the curricular used were similar to the respective home countries.

            When the UAE was created in 1972, the Ministry of Education, which had been newly established, started consolidating the existing eclectic mix of schools. The curriculum used was borrowed from the neighboring countries despite the formation of a central education authority. Even all secondary school texts were imported from the respective countries.

The National Curriculum Project was launched by the Ministry of Education in 1979. However, it was not until in 1985 that this curriculum came into full use.

            Since 1985, the term ‘curriculum’ in the context of UAE’s education system was used to refer largely in reference to the official textbooks, or in other words, the intended curriculum. The term was rarely used in reference to the skills and standards that students should acquire in a particular subject or grade. The indication is that teachers have tended to be restricted with regard to the content that they can teach. This is because they are bound to the content and activities that are prescribed by textbooks in efforts to ensure that whatever they teach is in tandem with what will be assessed.

            A standards-based curriculum is one whereby there are clearly defined content, operating and performance standards to be followed. In a standards-based curriculum, there is a clear stipulation of what schools, educators and communities require in order to ensure that expectations are achieved.

Curriculum development efforts by UAE’s Ministry of Education

            The curriculum department in UAE’s Ministry of Education has a threefold role. The first role is the provision of a ‘modern curriculum’ that is in line with one of the goals of MOE 2008 – 2010 Strategic Plan. The second role is that of reviewing and approving textbook manuscripts after every five years. These textbooks then become crucial resources for teachers. Lastly, the curriculum department is responsible for preparing and overseeing assessment and examinations. 

            In UAE, there is a lack of an overarching curriculum document that outlines the curriculum standards, goals, or content in a comprehensive manner. Typically, the existing document outlines only the content upon which performance levels are based. Although there are subject syllabi in UAE, teachers do not use them since they are not readily available in schools(O’Sullivana, 2003).

            One of the developments occasioned by the creation of a ‘modern curriculum’ is the launch in 2007 of the Madares Al Ghad, meaning ‘Schools of Tomorrow’. New medium textbooks for Science, English, math, and science have been introduced as a way of changing the way in which the content of these subjects is taught.

            Furthermore, although the student-centered textbooks and materials that were introduced in 2009 are student-centered, there is a lack of corresponding mechanisms in various assessment mechanisms. This forces some teachers to resort to the traditional textbook-driven, teacher-centered methods of teaching.

            One significant measure that the Ministry of Education in UAE implements every five years is a revision and approval of textbooks within every five years. The most significant changes involve the English language textbooks for use by primary school students. In this case, old UAE-produced textbooks have been replaced with another variety of books known as UAE Parade. The UAE Parade texts embrace a communicative approach. They even come with a teacher guide and other resources aimed at helping students learn English in an interacting manner.

The curriculum has also been seen to be switching from standards to content as far as the country’s curriculum is concerned. The department’s assessment efforts are always aimed at creating a natural synergy where textbook changes result in changes in the teaching styles. Although the switch from standards to content has been of help to education policy implementers, it has resulted in a heavy focus on textbook memorization. For this reason, it might be seen to be discouraging the embracement of new student-centered teaching approaches.

Efforts by the Ministry of Education to expand the curriculum content

            The Ministry of education has undertaken many efforts to ensure that the existing curriculum content is expanded. Some of these efforts include the provision of more instruction hours and better learning and teaching facilities. However, with regard to subjects such as art and music, more needs to be done so that their importance in the national curriculum can be ascertained. For instance, music is not taught after Grade 6 while art is not taught after Grade 9 except for those few students who choose to pursue these subjects in the form of extracurricular activities. Yet experiences in the visual arts, theater, music, and dancing, according to theories of cognition is an excellent way of creating motivations and capabilities that eventually show up in different non-arts capabilities.

When a cross-country comparison of various subjects and respective instruction time was done, it emerged that UAE’s curriculum places more emphasis on language and math education than all other OECD countries. Despite the allocation of a lot of time to the subjects, students seem to remain less proficient in math and poor in English. This is an indication that simply allocating more time in a given subject is not enough for the realization of test score gains.

            Information and communications technology is a neglected area in the UAE curriculum(Makrakis, 2005). Currently, this exists in the form of a single subject and the computing skills that students learn are outdated while the machines are obsolete. There is a need for this subject to be integrated across the country’s national curriculum so that a digital learning environment is created. In order for this ICT integration to take place, there would be a need for teachers to be exposed to further training on how to use ICT for purposes of instruction and change in the ICT syllabus. Currently, this syllabus does not reflect the needs of the learner in real-life situations(Cloke& Al-Ameri, 2000).

Indeed, the deplorable nature of ICT education may be one of the reasons why the UAE curriculum is considered to be narrow in terms of the subjects covered. In fact, it is narrower than that of the best-performing nations in the world. The schools fail to provide vocational training skills through practical subjects. Additionally, subjects such as environmental science, business studies, and home economics are not offered. 

These weaknesses imply that one of the solutions for dealing with the curriculum content problem is lengthening the school week and diversifying the curriculum offerings. It is estimated that currently, UAE schools have about 22.5 instruction hours per week compared to the international average which is 27 hours per week. Extending the school day is a good way of broadening the curriculum.

            The introduction of a content-based curriculum should be viewed against the assessment factor(Gardner, 1995). Assessment is a crucial element of any curriculum since it encourages independent thinking while improving problem-solving skills. Students should be assessed on the best ways of applying the skills that they have learned in order to solve their real-life problems in new situations. The existing examination and assessment systems do not seem to provide this. Currently, students are required to provide only limited responses, meaning that students’ weaknesses are not addressed clearly. It does not give them enough feedback on their progress.

            The reforms that need to be put in place should be such that the assessment system is more systematic and rigorous. The current approach is decentralized in that each Emirate’s MOE office prepares its own examination(Al-Taneijia & McLeoda, 2008). The only exception is grade 12. This creates a problem because the size of the public school system is rather small(Godwin, 2006).

Through a single examination system, education policymakers would be able to compare the performance of various schools across the country. This would make it possible for those schools with the smallest content level in the curriculum to be determined. It would also facilitate the task of implementing tracking processes by schools in efforts to analyze and understand students’ progress. In areas where students seem to be falling behind, ways of helping them improve their work can be designed with ease.

            Sustainability in the creation of a content-based curriculum

The transition from a standard-based curriculum to a content-based curriculum is a challenging undertaking. Many economic and political consequences have to be considered. The main challenge, though, lies in creating a national body that develops and revises the national curriculum. This body should be comprised of many local education experts with an ability to generate and review proposed curriculum changes.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Ministry of Education have both tended to rely on foreign expertise in spearheading different curriculum development initiatives(Bouslama et al, 2003). In the short term, it seems easy to import consultants who are highly experienced in the field of curriculum and instruction. However, this leads to a situation that is not sustainable in the long term. This is because Emirati nationals and experts are left out of the whole process. When the experts return to their home countries, a vacuum gets created as there is no one to follow up on the curriculum recommendations made.

Although the Emirati Ministry of Education is making efforts to decrease reliance on external expertise, there is a need for national experts to be offered opportunities to improve their expertise. This would increase the potential for these home-grown education experts to gain the required capacity for developing a content-based curriculum. Additionally, local experts understand why there is a need for caution whenever curricular reforms are being borrowed from abroad.

Another concern that is often raised with regard to the use of external curriculum experts, mainly from Australia and the USA is that they not understand local problems. National identity is most clearly defined through the public school curriculum. Foreigners may drastically alter the existing curriculum in a manner that erodes their vision, moral foundations, and goals(Richardson, 2004). This has been illustrated recently when concerns were raised about the shift from Arabic to English as the medium of instruction in Madares Al Ghad Schools. The Federal National Council (FNC) and parents expressed fears that this would cause the students’ command of Arabic to decline.

In 2004, the Ministry of Education set performance targets and implemented a system of measuring, monitoring and recording educational progress. This strategy was based on a course that had been advocated by Fullan (2001). Fullan had advocated for a system whereby the concerned government authority announces the introduction of an initiative and then monitors its level of success or failure. Similar methods have been used in many Western education systems in order to facilitate a switch to content-based curricular. It also increases the countries’ numeracy and literacy levels through monitoring and benchmarking certain levels of education. Today, one of the most obvious omissions with regard to the proposed curriculum changes relates to the lack of provisions for the training and professional development of teachers.

Curriculum reforms can only occur over an extended period of time. During the transformation period, careful consideration must be put in place for students who are exiting the existing system.

Schools of thought in the development of a national curriculum

The main schools of thought that curriculum developers in the UAE should consider include essentialism, perennialism, progressivism, and existentialism. Essentialists argue that all students should be taught the most essential and basic skill s and knowledge. Traditional disciplines such as natural science, foreign language, literature, math, and history were conceived from an essentialist perspective.

Elementary students, according to essentialists, should receive instruction in different skills, including writing, measurement, reading and computer literacy. Students are required to acquire the most basic skills even in subjects such as art and music, where creativity is required for one to succeed. In this regard, students progress from less to more complex knowledge and skills. Promotion to the next grade occurs only when the assessors are satisfied with the development of the students’ skills and proficiency.

            According to perennials, learners should only be taught those things that are of everlasting importance to everyone everywhere. The emphasis here is on the teaching of principles and not facts. Emphasis is on teaching about humans and not techniques and machines. Thus, liberal topics are accorded more importance at the expense of vocational courses.

            Both essentialists and perennials are educationally conservative in terms of the content of the curriculum. Therefore, their approach may not be of much help in UAE’s curriculum development strategies. This is because learners at the lower stages of education may not understand the aims of the content being taught in a conservative manner. Sometimes there is a need for the content to include the applications. In other words, a holistic approach is needed, whereby the focus is put on people, machines and techniques.

            Progressives emphasize the need for individuality, high regard for science and receptivity for change and harmony with the American environment, where it was created. The progressive movement’s main aim was to stimulate schools into broadening their curricula in order to make education more receptive to students’ needs. Its influence has continued to wane since the 1950s. In its place, many schools have emphasized traditional instruction methods that focus on math, foreign languages, science, and defense-related subjects.

Progressives emphasize a curriculum whose content reflects the students’ experiences, abilities, and interests. Teachers tend to plan lessons that can arouse curiosity in students by pushing them to higher levels of knowledge. Apart from reading textbooks, students learn by doing. This brings about the need for students to go out on fieldtrips so that they can interact with and learn more about the environment.

            The existentialist movement bases the development of a content-based curriculum on an intellectual attitude referred to by philosophers as existentialism. An existentialist classroom is characterized by a situation whereby students understand and appreciate themselves, meaning that subject content takes second place.

In existentialism, the role of the teacher is simply helping students define their own essence through exposure to different possible life paths. Emphasis is also put on the creation of an environment whereby learners choose their own preferred paths. In this regard, the feeling cannot be divorced from reason during decision-making processes. Therefore, the curriculum content that is founded on existentialism focuses on the whole person and not just the mind. The implication of this approach in curriculum development is that learners are accorded more freedom and variety with regard to the subjects that they can choose. This improves their creativity and self-expression.

Practical advice for revision of curriculum content

Practical advice for revision of curriculum content is best offered through a series of steps. The first one is seeking the assurance that preliminary conditions for curriculum changes are in place. Without political commitment, it is difficult for effective structures to be set up for purposes of dealing with evaluation issues. Political will facilitates the creation of expert commissions and selection of representatives of different stakeholders in the education sector.

            Next, the planning process commences whereby objectives, resources and methodology issues are clearly spelled out. In order for these aspects to be handled in the right manner, various methods of collecting information should be used. These methods may include focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, analysis of documents and classroom observations.

            Analysis of information should be carried out against criteria that have been previously determined. The crucial areas to focus on in this regard include learning theories, sequencing, consistency, balance, and relevance. These areas are critical for the purposes of drawing conclusions as well as selecting the best types of changes to be implemented. Emphasis should be on increasing relevance and avoiding repetition.

The use of a curriculum decomposer tool

AnABEGS –GASERC Seminar Report released in 2004 suggested the creation of a curriculum decomposer and stressed the prerequisite for its application. One of the areas where such a tool would be of tremendous use is the development of categories and typologies for the analysis of syllabi. The decomposition process takes place through the use of a database that facilitates the production of different types of analysis. Only those items that specifically relate to the items in question are selected. This brings about flexibility because it can be applied to teaching materials, syllabi, and even textbooks.

            The curriculum development tool can also be used as a visual instrument where the users’ capacity to explore different connections and create focused reports is enhanced. This way, it becomes easy to reveal the shortcomings of a curriculum on the basis of content. The types of categories used during the decomposition process differ depending on the objectives set and changes to be introduced. In case the aim is only to reduce overload, content elements are classified as irrelevant, less relevant, important and essential, in that order(Troudia & Alwan, 2010). In case the focus is only to rewrite the curriculum on the basis of competencies, the categories set should be helpful in the process of identifying skills, facts, and values.


            The success of the curriculum development tool proposed in the ABEGS –GASERC Seminar Report (2004) depends on its ability to exhaust all categories. The categories should not overlap. The existing documents should be analyzed and decomposed. Elements in the database that is created should be recombined and then mixed with other input in order for new documents to be designed easily.

            The next step in the curriculum development involves design. During the design step, the previous sets of categories are developed. The design categories should be in such a way that any needed component is not missed. Additionally, interrelations between different parts can be suggested. It would also be useful for different categories to be discussed with the stakeholder in order for consensus to be achieved with regard to the introduction of new curriculum content.

Content Selection, Evaluation and Organization

            The idea of curriculum integration may be a welcome suggestion in EAE, considering that it is difficult to phase out a standards-based curriculum completely. Blending the standards-based curriculum with the content-based one would facilitate the process of improving both the teaching practices and learning results.

            There is a need for a balance between specialization and the quest for a connection between action and knowledge. During the ABEGS –GASERC Seminar, the participants were informed about the international trends, where there is a transition from knowledge-centered curricula to competencies-based curricular. Today, competencies are viewed as a new, way of organizing the curriculum, which is a much more fruitful way of organizing the curriculum. This is because learning experiences are selected and organized in a more holistic manner, phenomena are approached in a holistic manner, and all possible perspectives are considered. The arising connections allow students to make a better sense of whatever is taught.

            In the UAE’s curriculum, as it is today, there is a lack of linkages between skills and knowledge in different subjects in order for a common goal to be reached. Therefore, the content changes introduced in the curriculum should hint on the need to introduce concepts from other fields of knowledge. Through integration, the content that is provided to the learner can be reduced drastically in order to avoid duplication and repetition.

Additionally, emerging knowledge areas deserve special mention in the UAE’s curriculum development process. For this reason, there is a need for an ambitious attempt at the reorganization of the curriculum to be made. One of the measures that need to be taken is the broadening of the curriculum or learning areas. The corresponding impact on the number of teachers needed would automatically raise human resource implications. Additionally, a rebalance of time allocation and grading system would be necessary.

            A thematic approach may work well in integrating new learning areas such as environmental education into existing ones. Organizing learning around interesting themes, rather than just subjects could be an attractive approach to both learners and teachers. This may make content management an easy undertaking at the primary level in UAE, with or without the use of database-based curriculum development tools.

            In UAE high schools, two main approaches are used: competences-based and problem-based approaches(Benavot, 2006). In the current disciplinary setting in UAE, it is difficult to introduce content-based curricular without offsetting the existing balance between these two approaches. This is because, whereas competence-based approaches organize learning based on outputs, problem-based approaches organize learning around investigation and resolution of real-life problems. The good thing with the latter approach is that ultimately, it often leads to development of competencies.

From the current research trends, it is clear that the controversy that ranges with regard to curriculum integration in the UAE is means and not ends. In other words, there is an agreement on the need for a progressive approach but the problem is with practical application. For instance, few of UAE teachers have the ability to introduce integration in their daily teaching practices. This is why the country relies on expatriates, in efforts to change the curriculum.

One of the consequences of introducing a content-based curriculum, or at least, an integrated one, is training and retraining of teachers. Teachers can only feel comfortable with teaching new content if they are able to plan adequately in advance. Additionally, teachers may need to be imparted with skills on how to impart the same content in different subjects, but invoking different processes as required in the curriculum.

            Meanwhile, Brown (2005) emphasized the need for curriculum developers to use performance-based procedures. These procedures emphasize not only what the students will know after the instruction, but also, what they will be able to do. This approach emphasizes the fact that given sufficient support and time, students can learn. The primary goal of education, therefore, is the success of the student in real-life situations and not only in examinations.

            However, Brown talks about performance-based approaches only in reference to language proficiency, although to start with, an elaboration of performance-based education is made particularly with regard to its reflection on the role of the teacher. In this approach, it is the responsibility of the teacher to devise instructional procedures for use by students to use in achieving the desired outcomes.

            Many schools in the UAE pay a lot of attention to examination outcomes, meaning that in most cases, students end up memorizing whatever content is presented to them(Burden-Leahy, 2005). In this regard, the classroom activities that they engage in are not realistic and authentic. If a performance-based procedure was used in colleges and universities in the UAE, little attention would be put on fixed time schedules, a number of units the student has completed and scores on tests. Rather, the emphasis would be on what the student is able to do after instruction. In the development of communicative aspects of English, for example, students would be given opportunities to interact with each other in order to build personal learning skills.

Impact of content-based curriculum on teacher training trends in the UAE

            Shaw (1997) notes that the UAE, like many other oil-rich countries, has for a long time neglected the task of building teacher training institutions, instead preferring to import labor from other Arab countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. Once oil began to be exploited in the seven emirates in 1971, there was rapidity in school enrolment, meaning that the demand for teachers increased significantly. During the 1980s, owing to economic difficulties, state schools had to be closed for many ‘foreign families’, meaning that they had to resort to private education, whose demand started increasing. After interviewing 80 teachers and administrators in six schools in 1997, Shaw noted that only 31 had professional training of any kind. This is an indication that apart from the subtle difficulties of devising the best means of transitioning into the content-based curriculum, there are many training-related challenges even in the existing curriculum.

            A coherent approach needs to be adopted in order to solve the existing training challenges. Emphasis should be on devising new ways of training existing workforce such that when new curriculum approaches are implemented, the untrained teachers do not feel left out. After, all, their presence and input in the profession are critical for the realization of the country’s education vision, objective, and goals.

Recommendations and conclusions

            There are many challenges that await curriculum developers in the UAE as they work hard to change the standards-based curriculum into a content-based one. The underlying problem is the lack of adequate training among many teachers and the lack of proper policy mechanisms to address the problem. First, ICT components should be introduced into the curriculum. The obsolete computing skills taught today should be replaced with the latest skills that are of use in real-life situations. The first step towards solving this problem is simply upgrading the computers used in schools. Additionally, arts and music should be taught up to higher levels of learning since they are of importance in a learner’s professional development.


            Although external professionals from Arab countries, Australia and are the USA are of help to the country’s curriculum development, local experts also need to be involved. Local experts understand the vision of the UAE’s education efforts more than outsiders. The task of generating a curriculum that will provide innovative and skilled professionals in the UAE cannot be left entirely in the hands of external curriculum development experts.

            Towards this end, the content-based curriculum needs to be conceptualized in holistic terms; it should involve what should be taught and how it should be taught. Without such an approach, curriculum development will continue to be thought of solely in terms of textbook standards. Continued focus on content entails the widening of view of the curriculum. In such a context, the focus can be put on issues such as the expansion of curriculum content, implementation of efficient evaluation strategies and constructive teacher training.

            In order for competencies to be developed, a competency-based approach is needed. In theoretical terms, a progressive approach is desirable except that problems arise when it comes to the issue of choosing then implementation processes. Today, these problems manifest themselves through training- examination and assessment-related challenges. Similar challenges are experienced during the implementation of performance-based procedures, especially in language learning.


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