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Narrow Conceptions of Curriculum in Saudi Arabia


Generally, in curriculum studies, as in other educational contexts, researchers define curriculum as a document that describes the content of a subject area and, in varying degrees of detail, the teaching strategies to be used to facilitate student learning and performance in that area. This limited view of the curriculum is problematic because it constrains teachers and learners to define content and ways of teaching. A broader and more inclusive understanding of curriculum sets the stage for understanding teaching and learning more deeply. In the Saudi Arabian educational context, the curriculum has largely been understood as narrow and structured. Therefore, more complex theories of the curriculum are underrepresented in the region. This is in part due to the political, top-down organization that dictates that traditional approaches be used.

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The narrow conception of curriculum revolves around four main elements: the identification of learning needs and the type of training needed to meet those needs, the planning of the training process to ensure that learning occurs, the delivery of training, and the evaluation and modification of training to improve learning outcomes (Freire, 2000). As outlined below, curriculum development is a process, not a single event, and it involves several steps (Kelly, 2004). The steps are design, development, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and review.

Curriculum development.
Figure 1. Curriculum development (Source: Wiles, 2008).

The above steps in their interaction all play a vital and reflexive role in the process of curriculum development. On this view, curriculum development lacks a defined starting or ending point; instead, it follows a predetermined cycle (Freire, 2000). The rigidity of the curriculum process has prompted some scholars to say that most curriculum developers have a narrow understanding of the learning process (Wiles, 2008).

Freire (2000) argues that most traditional curriculum development is based on a narrow understanding of the learning process (Freire, 2000). Schön (1983) has also exposed the weaknesses of curriculum development in its traditional form. He argues that it is incoherent for practitioners to rely on current strategies and techniques in curriculum studies, hoping for a different outcome, even when the current strategies do not provide them with a deeper understanding of their teaching practice. Schön (1983) therefore proposes the adoption of reflective practices to guide practitioners in curriculum development so that they can adopt a new framing system that will help them to understand better their teaching styles. Therefore, given that there is a call for improved student learning in the Saudi Arabian context, there is a need to reform curriculum development to reflect the complexities and contexts in which teaching and learning take place, that is to move the understanding of curriculum beyond “the document.” Indeed, since student learning depends on effective teaching (Dewey, 2010), it is critical to examine the current comprehension of the curriculum and investigate how to develop new understandings that include the assessment that improved teaching is required for improving student learning.

Broader Conceptions of Curriculum

Researchers in the area of curriculum studies investigate questions about educational experience and its content, context, and the ways teachers enact curriculum in the classroom. Freire (2000) admits that many people understand curriculum studies as an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. However, the broader context of this literature review shows curriculum studies as an orientation of educational experiences to understand the way teachers create meaning in their practice). The complex network of perspectives in curriculum studies makes it challenging to create a definition of curriculum that is consistent with the diverse range of understandings (Freire, 2000).

Indeed, since the curriculum is highly adaptive, the broader understanding of curriculum positions curriculum theories and educational experiences along the periphery of society and culture because societal values and cultures guide decisions about curriculum development (where educational experiences manifest most) (Wiles, 2008). This is part of the reason curriculum development can be a very exciting and interesting process. A broader conception of curriculum, therefore, involves the interplay of evolving and interacting sets of ideas. This perspective contrasts with the conception that curriculum is an end to a process, as opposed to the process itself. The curriculum on this view is a praxis (translating an idea into action) rather than a goal.

Some educators have used the broader conception of curriculum to improve learning processes. For example, according to Wiles (2008), EFL learning in Saudi Arabia pays close attention to the background, culture, and social changes of the region. For example, the influence of religion, social norms, and global events have an enormous effect on curriculum implementation in Saudi Arabia. This approach of curriculum implementation outlines the situational approach of curriculum implementation because the context and needs of society are the main drivers of curriculum implementation.

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Above all, the adoption of a situational analysis approach to curriculum implementation is a positive step because it enables educators to include, for example, local Saudi issues in the EFL Saudi curriculum, to encourage active learning among the students as they can easily relate to the learning contents (Moskovsky & Alrabai, 2009). If we integrate a broader understanding of curriculum into the Saudi context, school administrators will need to understand the contextual factors that might affect the curriculum implementation process, in particular social and political factors. This will require an understanding of curriculum development in the Saudi context and how it aligns with other policies in the education sector.

Curriculum development is therefore an ongoing process that depends heavily on the input of curriculum practitioners (instructors) based on their reflections (Moskovsky & Alrabai, 2009). In an ideal situation, the learning environment would encompass meaning and professional development by including reflective practice as a critical process for enriching curriculum development. Therefore, curriculum development involves the interplay of theoretical concepts and professional contributions in a wider context of reflective practice.

The successful implementation of the broader concept of the curriculum depends on the contribution of teachers. In teacher learning in the broader concept of curriculum, teachers will use their personal understanding of the curriculum to establish what works best for their students (Freire, 2000). The contributions of teachers in the curriculum implementation process surface as an important addition to curriculum development in the broader sense. The importance of teachers in this process is grounded on the fact that they understand the students better than the other education stakeholders do (Freire, 2000). Therefore, while the state may outline the skills and competencies required of teachers implementing school curriculums, teachers provide significant insight into what resources they need for implementing the curriculum. Indeed, through the contribution of teachers to the curriculum implementation process, it may be easier to understand how a specific teaching activity fits in. Teachers may also provide an insight into whether the curriculum will engage the students or not.

Teacher learning and teaching under broader conceptions of curriculum

Freire (2000) says reflection entails the willingness of instructors to reflect on their actions, beliefs, and values, through experimentation with new knowledge and new practices (reflection gives rise to many complexities and demands beyond what is entailed by a superficial understanding of the process). Although reflection may seem to be a personal and idiosyncratic process, the implications of adopting it throughout a school’s curriculum may have many implications for the way instructors understand their teaching objectives (Guskey, 2000).

However, leaving the process out of the school system ensures that it does not play any significant role in the curriculum implementation process. Through this dilemma, the main responsibility of any tertiary institution is to focus on providing instructors with the right conditions for reflection. However, this process should be undertaken in an implicit (as opposed to explicit) fashion because incorporating reflection as part of the process for school curriculum implementation involves personal risk as it exposes teachers to intense scrutiny of their beliefs and values (Freire, 2000). Such an exercise may be of great sensitivity. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that reflection requires a deep comprehension of the teaching practice as well as a sufficient understanding of personal philosophies (Blaz, 2002).

Despite the existence of significant challenges in establishing reflection as a critical curriculum implementation model, it is still crucial to appreciate how this can contribute to EFL instructors’ learning (Blaz, 2002). For example, reflection may help EFL instructors to establish the most appropriate course of action to pursue in situations where they meet EFL challenges and where there is a great discrepancy between EFL theories and EFL practice (Al-Ahaydib, 1986). Similarly, the reflection process may be an important tool for motivating EFL instructors to improve their practices in the classroom.

Critical reflection plays an instrumental role in shaping instructors’ practices. Moreover, since instructors guide the critical reflection process, this is a bold attempt to emphasize the centrality of the instructor in EFL teaching (Iwasiw, 2009). Furthermore, since curriculum development embodies instructor and student contributions, the uniqueness of instructors and their students in the learning process is pivotal to the understanding of the curriculum. Curriculum development, therefore, has the potential to empower both students and teachers, but more specifically, to empower teachers by allowing them to grow professionally and build greater respect. These benefits materialize through the reflection process because reflection helps instructors to evaluate their contributions to the curriculum and assess their individual growth (Iwasiw, 2009).

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The appreciations of teaching and reflective practices as key components of curriculum have several implications for the human educational experience. Most of these implications add value to curriculum development and its goal of enriching the learning experience. For example, through the appreciation that reflective practice forms an integral part of curriculum development, it is easier to understand the benefits of the beliefs and values teachers bring to the curriculum. This occurs when school administrators negotiate ways to include the uniqueness of each teacher in the enrichment of the curriculum (Freire, 2000).

The ethical consequence of curriculum development on student learning is an issue that affects the decision to encourage the adoption of reflection among teachers. This understanding stems from the focus of this research, which proposes that with the adoption of reflection, there is no single and right approach for curriculum development because reshaping and constructing past and current experiences provide the best approach for improving curriculum. School administrators should encourage reflection in their teachers (Dewey, 2010). Based on these assertions, reflection proves to be an important model for improving instructors’ learning, and by extension, the overall quality of EFL learning.

Reflection and Reflective Practice in Research and Theory

Schön (1983) has contributed immensely to our understanding of reflection and reflective practice in education. Indeed, he has positioned reflective practice as an important component of professional development. Schön (1983) describes the examination of experiences and the reconnection with feelings, as the main components of reflective practice. Dewey (2010) articulates the concept of reflective thinking through his account of how human thought processes work. According to Dewey (2010), thoughts come in different forms, including beliefs and imaginations.

Many educators equate reflective thinking (as explained above) with the inquiry. In fact, many educators claim that curriculum implementation is inquisitive because teachers and students often explore the implications of curriculum implementation, relative to their teaching and learning experiences (Schön, 1983). While many educators find Dewey’s work on reflection to be ambiguous, Rodgers (2002) describes four criteria for reflection that Dewey (2010) articulates. The first criterion suggests that reflection is a process aimed at deriving meaning from teaching. This process helps learners to transition from one experience to another through a deep understanding of the connections between them. This transition helps to ease the continuity of the learning process, and pursue personal growth. The second criterion for Dewey’s concept of reflection stems from the belief that reflection is a systematic, rigorous, and disciplined way of thinking (characteristics that it shares with scientific inquiry) (Griffin, 2008). The third criterion is that reflection is a process that occurs in a community context through interaction with other people. The last criterion for reflection, according to Dewey (2010), is that it involves an appreciation for individual and group growth.

Reflective practice is relevant to curriculum studies because curriculum studies outline a praxis whereby instructors can contribute to teacher education programs, that is transformative curricula (Schön, 1983). Reflection, therefore, draws on teachers’ practices, while teachers’ practices define the set of principles that curriculum depends on. Through an understanding of curriculum as a process, rather than an end in itself, the importance of reflective practice manifests here because it is key to the improvement of curriculum (Boxill, 1997). Indeed, once we understand that curriculum is a process, it is easier to incorporate flexibilities and improvements into the curriculum. These improvements and flexibilities, which are often generated through reflective practice, should empower teachers and students alike (Dewey, 2010).

Reflection, and its role in instructor learning, are at the center of curriculum development. In this regard, instructors gain experience in the curriculum implementation process through the design and delivery of their training courses. Similarly, through the reflection process, instructors may ask themselves pertinent questions regarding the curriculum implementation process such as what the process means to them, what experiences they have had with the process, what lessons have they learned from it, and what students and school administrators have learned from the same process (Schön, 1983). These questions help to bridge the gap between reflection and curriculum implementation. The same questions also help to situate the reflection process in the wider scope of curriculum implementation. However, reflection in instructor learning is part of a wider process for improving teacher competence, and by extension, the learning process. As shown in the illustration below, teachers improve by identifying the focus for development, reflecting, and scrutinizing feedback.

Instructor learning
Figure 2. Instructor learning (Source: Hussain, 2011).

The described process increases the confidence and competence of instructors. By extension, these outcomes are likely to improve teacher morale, in not only the EFL learning context but also in the wider educational context.

The literature on the use of reflective models in the learning process is extensive (Kolb, 2000). Certainly, educators have used these models not only in EFL learning but in other higher learning activities as well (Kolb, 2000). Some researchers propose a learning cycle that includes the learning objectives conceptualized by instructors and students (Kolb, 2000). These researchers say that instructors achieve reflection goals by merging their personal experience and their pedagogical knowledge (Kolb, 2000). Therefore, the main contribution of this research stems from its focus on the importance of learning from and through experience (Kolb, 2000).

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Nonetheless, EFL learning depends on the efficacy of the curriculum implementation process (Hussain, 2011). Thus, there is a need for a strong conceptual understanding of that process (Hussain, 2011). However, this realization is relatively recent. During the 1960s and 1970s, educators assumed that introducing a new curriculum and distributing it to institutions of learning would guarantee its effective implementation (Hussain, 2011). This turned out to be untrue. Findings have shown that there was a significant gap between the implementation of new curricula and the achievement of desired learning outcomes because of the failure of educators to appreciate the role of reflection in curriculum implementation (Yeo, 2013). This is in spite of the fact that most instructors have their personal understanding of curriculum, based on their own reflections, and many of them are bound to express the same reflections in the learning process (McDonald, 2003).

Instructors have developed new knowledge and skill in the area of curriculum implementation by conceptualizing the methodologies and outcomes of the process (Guskey, 2000). Occasionally, some educational stakeholders coerce instructors into adopting new techniques for teaching EFL (Al-Naqbi, 2011). As a result, some instructors develop a “this too will pass attitude” to the EFL curriculum because they believe that as the curriculum ages authorities above them will again force them to adopt yet another set of techniques (Ministry of Education, 1994). When instructors perceive what they are doing negatively students’ learning outcomes are negatively affected (Guskey, 2000). On the other hand, reflection and reflective practices help practitioners to gain a new understanding of the learning process, which can facilitate improvement of their practices in the classroom. Throughout most spheres of education, educators appreciate the importance of reflection in curriculum implementation (Hussain, 2011). Reflection is part of the wider process of curriculum implementation because it makes it easier for educators to effectively deliver the desired curriculum.


Al-Ahaydib, M. E. (1986). Teaching English as a foreign language in the intermediate and secondary schools of Saudi Arabia: diagnostic study (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Kansas: University of Kansas.

Boxill, I. (1997). Introduction to social research: With applications to the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press University of West Indies.

Kolb, D. (2000). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions, perspectives on cognitive, learning, and thinking styles. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Moskovsky, C., & Alrabai, F. (2009). Intrinsic motivation in Saudi learners of English as a foreign language. The Open Applied Linguistic Journal, 2(1), 1–10.

Ministry of Education. (1994). Teacher’s book. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Ministry of Education.

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