stories from our lives in Timor-Leste

Curriculum project

by Curt

I’ve criticized official curricula for as long as I can remember.  I scorned silly memorization in my high school chemistry class.  I raised my eyebrows at the esoteric content of required mathematics courses in college.  And ever since I began teaching science and mathematics in California, I decried the over-stuffed, disconnected, arbitrary nature of the State Content Standards, as well as the collection-of-factoids fashion in which it’s written.

Then, earlier this year, Pam and I were asked to be part of the k-6 curriculum reform team in the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education, she under social science and humanities, me in science and mathematics.  Meant to be a year-long effort, it will result in a new, required syllabus for public schools, as well as unit-organized lesson plans for each week of each year in each of five main disciplines: Tetun and Portuguese (Timor-Leste’s two official languages), social science, mathematics and natural science.  When I took the position, I knew my easy days of off-hand criticism were over.

Here the Minister of Education officially launches the project.

Here the Minister of Education officially launches the project.

We’re heading into our third month at this work and it still seems quite daunting.  It’s a great opportunity to make positive change, change that I’ve dreamed of many times in the past few years of teacher training, when weaknesses in the current curriculum limited the effect of the training.    But to put together the set of concepts that will become required learning for the kids of an entire nation is a serious task.

Naturally, our team is not the first to take a stab at it.  Here’s a brief timeline of the curriculum in Timor-Leste.

  • pre-1975:  The Portuguese colonial administration opened only a few elite schools for upper-class Timorese to receive an education in Portuguese.  Many of today’s leaders spent time in these schools.
  • 1975-1999:  Indonesian occupation.  Schools were built throughout the districts; the Indonesian national curriculum was used.  Due to widespread military terror campaigns, many Timorese had major gaps in their schooling. Most teachers were Indonesian.
  • 1999:  Referendum on Independence.  In post-referendum violence, most schools were destroyed by Indonesian military and pro-Jakarta militias.  Many teachers returned to Indonesia; limited numbers of Timorese teachers remained, largely lacking content knowledge or teacher training.  43% of population were literate.

    Unfortunately, this is not a very photogenic topic. We meet with reference groups, discuss things among ourselves, research various topics and write. This is the science team.

    Unfortunately, this is not a very photogenic project. We meet with reference groups, discuss things among ourselves, research various topics and write. This is the science team.

  • 2000-2002:  A transitional curriculum was introduced with an Indonesian base; Portuguese was introduced as official medium of instruction in years 1 and 2; UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and the World Bank led reconstruction and prioritized infrastructure over quality of education.  In 2001 the rate of school enrollment in the 1st through 6th grades was around 17%.
  • May 20, 2002:  Timor became an independent nation.
  • Oct. 2004:  National primary school curriculum plan, which included a new curriculum was approved. While an improvement, the new curriculum was written outside of Timor by non-Timorese and thus has limited relevance to Timor’s context.
  • 2006-2008: Timor-Leste began implementation of the new curriculum for 1st through 6th grade. Bilingual (Portuguese and Tetum) teachers’ guides and Portuguese language student/teacher books were distributed to schools.
  • 2011-2012:  Despite construction and rehabilitation of more than 570 school buildings, a significant shortage of school buildings remained; most of education budget was still spent on infrastructure. Literacy rate now stands at around 80%.

    Language team is here.

    Language team is here.

The current 1st to 6th  grade curriculum is widely agreed to have serious gaps, both in content and in links to local culture and reality.  In addition, teachers report difficulty understanding it and following the teacher guides.  Textbooks, produced in Portugal, are of reasonable quality, though again the links to life and language in Timor are not as strong as they should be.  (For example, sample mathematics problems count popular flavors of ice-cream, or how to divide up a pizza, two things that most Timorese kids have never seen.)

Our goal is to make Timor-Leste’s curriculum a truly indigenous one, approaching all concepts from a local perspective while at the same time giving access to a global viewpoint.  We also have a goal of making it something that will genuinely support and inspire teachers and students alike.  We’re around 30 people, mostly Timorese together with 8 international specialists.  Each discipline team has reference groups both of local experts and local teachers that meet occasionally to give feedback according to the realities in schools, as well as suggestions and requests.

Here members of several teams work together.

Here members of several teams work together.

We’ve more or less drafted a syllabus of concepts and outcomes we think are important to achieve by grade 6, and now we’re working on a standard model of a lesson plan that will work across disciplines.  We’re working hard to make the curriculum “child-centered”, based on “active learning” and principles of inclusion and positive discipline. We want to give teachers all the resources and information they need to carry out effective education in classrooms throughout this nation.

Education is a basic human right, included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.   As has been laid bare many times in the painful history of Timor-Leste, human rights rely on people demanding, defending and funding them.  We hope this curriculum will facilitate all teachers to provide great education in a sustainable way, and make good on the promise of that right.   We’ll keep you posted on our progress.


5 responses

  1. Don Eggleston

    What an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the world! I’m envious!

    Don Eggleston

    October 14, 2013 at 1:13 am

  2. Janice

    Hi! I read somewhere (I’ll try to find the source) that learning how to write legibly and memorizing facts and longer items (poems, speeches, prose) is actually good for the brain. People are able to do more complex things when those areas of the brain are well-developed. I was really surprised – all those hours practicing cursive and memorizing dates and names – weren’t a complete waste after all. Though I have forgotten 99% of the things I memorized that haven’t been used since… I’m not trying to influence your work (totally awesome!) but your article reminded me of reading this.

    October 14, 2013 at 3:53 am

  3. Wonderful stories, thank you for sharing. You and the curriculum team have a huge task ahead of you, but such an important one. I hope you get to realise the curriculum that you (as a team) know and believe is the right one for the country – TL deserves this careful and painstaking attention and planning. I hope and pray too, that it (the curriculum) will not become a political vehicle, as it has in other parts of the world (witness recent statements by Australia’s newest Minister for Education for examples of this). I love reading your updates, they always inspire.

    October 15, 2013 at 9:07 am

  4. Anonymous

    I’m a US ESL teacher working in Dili. Would love to meet you and learn about your project, as I am trying to put together a presentation for other ESL teachers about education in TL. Please contact me at

    October 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm

  5. Hi Curt,
    I recently found your post while searching the web trying to find some sort of curriculum in TL as I am currently working on an Elearning program. I have been through many avenues and spent a lot of time waiting for some kind of curriculum but I got more a book about the compulsory parts in the schools opposed to what the kids have to learn to pass each year. To that end I wondered if I would be able to make direct contact with you regarding possibly looking at the curriculum you helped to develop in 2013. Thanks and it’s great work your doing in TL.

    January 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

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