The International Curricula Organization (ICO) Texts: A Comprehensive Approach to Teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies

A new international curriculum for teaching Islamic Studies and Arabic at schools where these subjects are being taught has been making waves in global Islam-learning circles for some time. Presented hereunder is a brief overview of the curriculum by BIJU ABDUL QADIR.

Abdullah bin Mas`ood (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “True knowledge is not measured in relationship to how much you memorize and then narrate, but rather, true knowledge is an expression of piety [taqwa]. Also, study and act upon what you learn.” [Related by Abu Na`eem]

Introduction

Recent advances in research within specialized domains of human endeavor like psychology, sociology and the like, have, among a host of other benefits, brought forth significant changes in the way students are taught at all levels – right through kindergarten, primary school, high school and the pre-university and university years.

Indeed, so dramatic has been this paradigm-shift in the field of education that, quite irrespective of the merits that may, justifiably, be attributed to it, the days of the classical learning-teaching process, where the emphasis was more on the person – and personality – of the teacher, seem all but remote and distant today. To be sure, the focus in contemporary teaching practice is on student-centric learning based on situational activities that mimic real life circumstances.

It is in the context of this progression in educational endeavours worldwide, as also the essential role of schooling in the transmission of a shared set of beliefs, values, norms and methods of instruction – based on the life of Muhammad (saws), the Last Messenger of God and the message of the Qur’an, the Last Revelation from God – that schools based on the Islamic worldview must strive to produce or, at the very least, instruct their students in, a curriculum that caters to the Islamic desiderata in the fields of education and student-training.

International Curricula Organization (ICO)

This acute perception of the need for a proper Islamic curriculum for Muslim schools eventually led to a committee of Muslim scholars, under the aegis of the Riyadh-based International Curricula Organization (ICO), setting out to develop appropriate curricula in Arabic and Islamic Studies that may fruitfully be employed by schools running on the lines of the Islamic programme not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in other countries where schools having Islamic Studies and Arabic as subjects function freely.

The ICO curriculum runs from Grade 1 (age 6-7) all the way through to Grade 12 (age 16-17). Two Student Textbooks (Part 1-2) and two Activity Books (Part 1-2) are provided for each grade. Thus, the separately procurable Teacher’s Manuals excluded, there are four books for each grade or year of study.

The level of detailing and field-research that went into the ICO’s project is evident from the fact that the committee actually set out to study, first-hand, the conduct of Muslim life in a sampling of places around the globe where the community existed in significant numbers. Thus equipped with valuable insights about the social practices and traditions in different parts of the Muslim world, the committee decided upon structuring the proposed instructional design in the following order:

(1) Islamic Doctrine (Aqeedah), (2) The Qur’an and its Sciences, (3) The traditions (Sunnah) and biography (Seerah) of the Prophet, (4) Acts of Worship (Ibaadaat) and Dealings (Muaamalaat), and (5) Morals and Manners (Aa’dab). These five areas of emphasis are detailed at each grade level.

In fact, the committee had originally designed the syllabus as part and parcel of its preliminary efforts towards the development of entire text books that would serve several objectives. Chief among these aims is the lending of a comprehensive pedagogical structure for teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies for schools where the instructional medium is the English language.

Secondly, the syllabus is expected to help Muslim children to actively imbibe the normative practices associated with Islam and, thereby, to educate them in the belief-system based on their religion.

Thirdly, the syllabus is made such that learning Arabic becomes an enjoyable exercise which ensures that the children are, thus, actively involved in understanding the language of the Qur’an.

Lastly, and most importantly, the syllabus would, thus, help the students in acquiring enough knowledge of the sources of Islam to help them maintain, and stay true to, their Muslim identity in a fast-changing world.

Textbook Structure

In structuring the whole curriculum, the design has been such that it is organized according to grade levels. Moreover, every grade is further split into 29 units, with each unit divided into three 40-minute lessons, all to be completed in two semesters.

There is also the spiral approach in setting the five instructional content areas. Through this approach, the students are required to revise and refresh their understanding of the content area covered earlier even while studying the subject in greater depth each year. For instance, in Unit 2 of Grade 1, the student learns about the Islamic testimony of faith (or the Shahaadah). In Unit 2 of Grade 2, they are still learning about the Shahaadah, but in greater depth. This approach goes right through the entirety of the curriculum. To be sure, by learning in this way, the student does not easily forget the concepts that are taught, since everything is covered again, but in more detail, year after year.

This highly beneficial spiral approach in instructional design, coupled with integrated review units provided throughout the text, prove a rigourous combination in getting the students to thoroughly access and revisit almost the entire corpus of content previously taught and studied.

Implementation

While the idea at the ICO is to have three lessons covered on a weekly basis, this would fit in nicely at schools where three lessons in a week is the general teaching quota. At other schools which have a greater number of periods for Islamic studies, the extra periods may very well be used for other related exercises like Qur’an memorization or recitation practice. In fact, the memorization of the 30th portion (or Juz’) of the Qur’an (called the Juz’ Amma), explanations of the chapters (or Surahs) memorized and activities based on those chapters are all part of the syllabus for Grades 1-3.

Each lesson is also provided with extra exercises and activities which – in such schools which have more periods for Islamic Studies – can be fruitfully attempted in the additional periods at hand. Of course, the activities for each grade vary in complexity in direct relation to the grade level. Some of the interesting activities provided include word-searches, painting activities, fill-in-the-blanks exercises, discussions, memorization, copy work, colouring activities, game-making and the like. Moreover, further enrichment activities that can be utilized in these extra periods have also been, very conveniently, provided at the ICO’s website: www.iconetwork.com.

The textbooks are printed in colour and the Islamic knowledge delivered therein is written to a level wherein the students can actually read it on their own. This is additionally beneficial inasmuch as the child practices literacy skills and is also encouraged towards independent study.

Another interesting aside to the curriculum is the level of extension possible into other subject areas which would be linked to the main curriculum. For instance, in Grade 1, the Unit on ‘Pillars of Islam’ is taught with a picture of a tree wherein the tree is shown as representative of the House of Islam and its branches as representing the five Pillars. Adding on to this basic idea a little creatively, the instructor – or, more possibly, the parent – could then go on and get the child to do a science lesson or project on trees, photosynthesis etc. Another example can be seen in the Unit on ‘Allah’s Creation’ which actually covers the creations of Allah by discussing living and non-living things. Here, again, there seems to be ample scope for creative digression and for thus spending some time covering this science topic.

Activity Book

Student involvement in relevant educational situations conducive to learning and evaluation is, in today’s student-centric system, an undeniable requirement of good educational practice. It is towards this end that the ICO curriculum provides for an Activity Book in addition to the regular Student’s Textbook.

This Activity Book, which is an attractive assortment of supplementary learning and assessment activities that enhance the material in the Student’s Textbook, is very much an integral component of the whole curriculum, and a definite value-addition for both the student as well as the teacher.

One distinct advantage about the way the Activity Book is arranged is that the activities are organized according to the lessons in the textbook, and not necessarily by topic. Each activity is based on the Islamic concepts that are being taught and the activities are fun and simple for the child to complete independently. While all the core learning areas are covered by the Activity Textbook in this way, the review lessons have not been included, if only to avoid repetitions and save time to cover new areas.

However, a cursory glance gives the impression that the earlier grades are a little too easy for the students at that level. Looking through Grade 2, for example, one comes away with the feeling that younger students, too, can complete the activities provided. But, again, this depends on the ability and level of each child. To be fair, however, and in view of the results of recent research in the field of education, the activities provided seem structured such that they meet the learning styles and preferences of most, if not all, students.

Nevertheless, going through the textbooks for Grades 2 and 3, there is this feeling that a sudden escalation has been effected in the level of activities provided. For instance, in Unit 1 of Grade 2, the student is required to find a specific verse (or Ayah) in the Qur’an and copy it in Arabic and English. There are also more comprehension-based activities. In the activity book for Grade 2, the activities are well-designed and encourage the students to reflect deeply on what they have learned. For example, students are asked, in the Grade 2 Activity Book, to imagine that it is the Day of Judgement. They are then asked to discuss their feelings with the rest of the group. In fact, this might even be an activity to be conducted in the form of a larger and elderly gathering.

In Grade 3, students move to writing reports and essay-style answers to questions, but the activities are still designed in a way that is absorbing and enjoyable for them. Some examples of these activities are as follows: imitating a Qur’an reciter (or a Qaari) to improve in recitation (or Tilaawah), a presentation about the first man to accept Islam, drawing a map of Makkah-al-Mukarramah and Jabal-an-Noor – marking the distance, working out how long it would take to climb the mountain etc.

As can be seen from the above, there is a definite upgradation in the activities and learning provided at each level. The activities in Grade 3, which marks a significant transition in the curriculum, are engaging, thorough and challenging for the students with respect to their literacy skills. At the same time, they are subjected to tests of their Islamic knowledge, understanding and, most importantly, of their application of the same in everyday life. The children are thus encouraged to implement what they learn whether at home, in private, or outside, in public. This is such an important requirement in the Islamic scheme of knowledge, and its acquisition, that Abdullah bin Masood, the famous companion of the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, is reported to have said:

“True knowledge is not measured in relationship to how much you memorize and then narrate, but rather, true knowledge is an expression of piety [taqwa]. Also, study and act upon what you learn.”

Moreover, and in order to foster peer support, group activities, too, have been included within the ambit of the Activity Book. But irrespective of whether the activities are individual or group oriented, most of these are based on real-life, authentic, situations that enable the student to experience and participate in a broader learning process not normally available with other textbooks that focus on predetermined content taught in an out-of-place manner.

While the attractive and colourful illustrations provided throughout the textbook and activity book make the whole learning process an exciting and interesting one for the students, the explicit use of human imagery could have been avoided more so because the curriculum is designed based on the core principles of Islam.

Teacher’s Manual

Another important component of the whole curriculum is the Teacher’s Manual which has been designed to augment, support and enrich the work of the instructor. The Teacher’s Manual has been divided into two parts: one, a student section that consists of teaching tips and solutions related to the student’s textbook and, two, an activity section that contains information and solutions for content related to the Activity Book.

The curriculum is sold according to individual grade or it can be bought in four batches: Grades 1-3, Grades 4-6, Grades 7-9, and Grades 10-12. There is, of course, the other option of buying the entire curriculum as well.

Notwithstanding the passing impression that font-type/ size selection and text-spacing – at least in certain pages – can definitely be improved upon in the ICO curriculum texts, the Teacher’s Manual, taken together with the Student’s Textbook and Activity Book, form a comprehensive package that offers a near-optimum blend of educational content that goes a long way in the effective teaching of Arabic and Islamic Studies.