Afghan curriculum development in times of COVID-19

In 2020, just as the spring was beginning in Afghanistan, the curriculum team at UNESCO Kabul was gearing up for a year of action. The last training workshop for the drafting team of the General Directorate of Curriculum (GDC) of the Ministry of Education (MoE) and a selection of curriculum developers, to finalize the subject syllabi was underway in Kabul with national and international curriculum specialists.  The team was happy that the curriculum reform activities under the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) funded “Better Education Systems for Afghanistan's Future” project was progressing at a steady pace. The team was all set for the long journey ahead, of final Quality Assurance of the syllabi and then on to the rigorous process of learning materials development.

But things did not pan out as planned. Due to a security threat and the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic in Kabul, the workshop was disrupted midway through and had to be canceled. The Afghan spring was turning out to be extremely challenging for both the MoE curriculum colleagues and the UNESCO curriculum team. As there was a lot to be done together they agreed on an alternative strategy of on-line work.

As if that was not enough, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the government was forced to institute a lockdown, ushering in a long period of uncertainty.

But as they say “the show must go on”. Organisations around the world were grappling with remote working options as was the UNESCO curriculum team, which embarked on virtual options to keep, connected to the large team of national experts who were involved in drafting the subject syllabi.  The virtual path was not an easy one with many bumps along the way, not least the fragile online infrastructure. Many members of the MoE drafting group did not have laptops and their desktops were in the office, which were not accessible with the lockdown. Only a  number of participants had laptops on which the group jointly worked during the in-person workshops. Mobile phones, exchange of information on emails and the use of WhatsApp instant messaging was the fallback. However, the amount of online work merited a good data pack, which the government could not manage at the time. The first task for the UNESCO curriculum team was to ensure the provision of internet access to the government experts, which was done quickly.  MoE drafting groups slowly and gradually managed to complete the syllabi, perhaps synchronous to the 3G speeds of the internet in Afghanistan. The summer had already arrived by then and the team soon found itself in the middle of it, hoping the constraints imposed by COVID-19 would soon disappear. But as we all know, while it arrived so suddenly and surreptitiously, it continued to linger on, ensuring that we would have to continue remote working for some time.

The next major task was the Quality Assurance (QA) of each syllabus, namely Mathematics, Science, Social Sciences, Islamic Education, English, Dari, and Pashto, to list the main ones. Skype was the app in vogue in Afghanistan as far as internet calls were concerned and the UNESCO curriculum team did not have the courage to try out Zoom or some other platforms and to disrupt what was already in use. The team felt that it would take far too long to train the government stakeholders on the use of a new app, especially when most of them joined the calls on mobile phones. Therefore, the team started with a webinar on Skype wherein the members of different subject groups conducted a self-assessment of their subject syllabi based on identified parameters. Each team member was nervous on how it would go, but fortunately, it went well, with all completing the self-assessments in a timely manner. This instilled confidence in the team and a level of comfort in using technology for an elaborate QA of subject syllabi.

A small team from UNESCO, one technical representative from the GDC, and the national subject specialist got on a series of Skype calls to discuss the syllabus draft one by one, paragraph by paragraph. This involved unpacking the nuances of QA, especially, the fact that syllabi had to reflect the core teaching-learning principles enshrined in the new competency-based curriculum framework. This core team had to ensure that the syllabi were inclusive, related to the day-to-day life of children, and were in line with the life competency framework and cross-cutting themes of peace and citizenship education, entrepreneurship education, and sustainability education. It was interesting to deliberate on the matter of embedding life competencies such as self-management, learning how to learn, creativity and innovation in core subjects like Maths and Science. All this meant quite some work and reworking.

How does the syllabus keep the focus on subject competencies even as it emphasizes cross-curricular life competencies? Many subject competencies overlap with life competencies, how do we draw a line? Do we draw a line? These were a few of the many questions discussed. We came out refreshed and with a deeper understanding from these conversations.

Considering the long list of subjects, this process took away most of our summer, but the team was glad that it was making progress even as all team members worked from home or rather homes…as some were sitting in the outskirts of Kabul, while others in the middle. Some were in Asia while some others were in North America, for some it was morning, and for others night. For some, it was a quiet room in one corner of the house and for others, it was a room where kids would barge in every now and then - leading to some laughter on the calls. And with bouts of ‘I can’t hear you…can you hear me?’ Initially, it was challenging to juggle who talked first and second and so on but as time progressed everyone became more adept and the virtual interactions assumed a seamless rhythm. The translation was required on calls when some local specialists, who could only speak the local language, joined. For some experts, it was an opportunity to learn some new words in the local language. Sometimes funnily, one would continue to speak, while on mute, until a colleague reminded that one was indeed on mute. With those internet speeds in Afghanistan, most calls lapsed into audio [Grab your reader’s attention with a great quote from the document or use this space to emphasize a key point. To place this text box anywhere on the page, just drag it.] calls to minimize disconnections. Despite that, “Sorry! You were breaking in-between”. “Could you repeat what you said”, were the oft-repeated lines.

It worked like a power nap or rather a ‘power gap’. Soon, it was called the Vahidi break, in honour of its inventor.

It took us almost 7-8 calls of 2.5 hours long duration to finish the QA of one subject syllabus. Call after call, week after week, subject after subject…the team finally reached the end of the tunnel - not to rest - but to again pull up their socks and get set for learning materials development.

Now, while doing the subject syllabi QA, the entire subject group was not required on the call but only the leader. For the learning materials development part, the number of people to be engaged would be more (as there would be multiple writers for the development of textbooks and teacher guides) and it had to be a series of webinars. With the team’s experience on Skype, everybody thought they would somehow manage it as they had become experts in handling things online.

But little did they know that they had hardly been using technology to the best. While Zoom came up as an option several times, everybody thought it would be difficult to implement it, as most local Afghan writers were used to Skype and had it installed on their phones. After some deliberations and inspiration from the Head of Education Unit of UNESCO Kabul, it was decided to take the risk of Zoom, primarily, as the team knew that learning materials development was a long journey and that a much more efficient platform than skype would be required. This might as well train the Afghan users on a new platform.

To better plan for this, it was decided that the first webinar would be all about familiarizing people with Zoom, setting up rules of speaking, raising hands, etc. A training needs analysis of the writers was also done. To the surprise of the team members, the writers were very comfortable with Zoom. So, the team shifted gears and planned the first technical webinar on writing learning objectives, exposing the writers to the best of technology tools available to make online learning engaging. The team tried everything they knew - setting people into breakout rooms on Zoom, using Mentimeter for live surveys, and getting writers to jot down their thoughts on platforms like Padlet.  A screenshot of the Mentimeter survey shared here:


The team did not realise they had already entered winter by now, and luckily there was a bit of office presence approved. Finally, the team got the opportunity to meet the people whom they were listening to online, for months. For those who had not met before, people even had imagined the faces of people, but many a time it turned to be somewhat different from the picture in their minds.

Now, the team looks back at the journey on how much they had learned online. How they once thought that Skype calls would be difficult in Afghanistan to the present where they are using tools like Padlet and Mentimeter. The team is glad that the ‘show went on as it enjoyed the interesting journey of curriculum development in times of COVID-19.

In this new year, even as the world gets tired and bored of an overload of webinars, the curriculum team looks forward to an exciting and innovative journey of curriculum development in Afghanistan, living with COVID-19.


The Curriculum Reform activities organized by UNESCO Kabul Office are parts of the “Better Education Systems for Afghanistan's Future” (BESAF) project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The project is providing capacity development and technical support to the Ministry of Education (MoE) of Afghanistan, especially the General Directorate of Curriculum (GDC) in the development of curriculum framework, subject syllabi, and learning resources like Textbooks, Teacher Guides, and Parent Guides.