Do we really need a new 21st-century curriculum? 

Being educated should be an end in itself, the value of which does not lie in an instrumental goal such as being "future-proofed"

21st century curriculum_editorial

Rowan Atkinson used to perform a comic speech satirising the specious things politicos say. The final tub-thumping line was, “We don't want to end up, do we, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there.”

This springs to mind whenever someone talks about facing the novel challenges of the 21st century. A report last year by Dell Technologies said that 85 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Yet as Mary Bousted, joint secretary of the NEU teaching union, told ATL annual conference delegates in 2016: “Today, teachers need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that haven't arisen before.”

It is because we are living in tumultuous times, when all is in flux right across society, that I’m chairing a debate next weekend at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican, London that takes Bousted’s concerns seriously and seeks to find a way forward. 

The discussion will bring together key figures from the world of commerce, the creative arts, schools and academia to ask: do we need a new 21st-century curriculum? 

I’m involved because I’m a progressive and I'm alarmed by the latest findings by the Royal Society of Arts that say although 84 per cent of young people want to help others, only 52 per cent believe that they can make a positive difference in their communities. 

I have great sympathy with both sides of the question of what, as teachers, we should do to help students navigate the new world. Above all, however, we need to get them to believe they can change it for the better.

Which knowledge and skills should we cultivate in the 21st-century curriculum to achieve this, while avoiding the fool’s errand of blindly scratching around in the dark for things that may not exist?

On the one hand, powerful voices such as Bousted and others are certain that the answer is not the "knowledge-led" curriculum, whose star has been rising for around the last eight years and which holds the Arnoldian aspiration to pass on "the best that has been thought and said".

In an address to the Bryanston Education Summit this summer, Bousted agreed that canonical knowledge is important, but not if it meant the work of dead, white guys. A new curriculum must be freed from the old, elitist power relations, decolonised and based less on academic success in subjects and more rooted in skills such as problem-solving, building character, resilience and communication.

Our failure to adopt this new kind of approach is why the UK is being beaten in the Pisa rankings by countries which are following it, says Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD which compiles the international comparison table. The memorisation of facts is not what they’re concentrating on in China and Singapore, he warns.

Yet on the other hand, in a just-published paperEducating Youth for Nonexistent/Not Yet Existing Professions, the educational researcher Paul A. Kirschner advocates "future-proofed learning" while ditching the term "21st-century skills" because, he says, it is misleading. There is little consensus as to what they are, he explains, and their numbers have quadrupled in the academic literature in just seven years. Almost all of the so-called 21st-century skills are actually repackaged versions of skills that have been just as important in previous generations.

Even this evidence-based approach still seems to miss something: education as inherently purposeless; or rather, being educated as an end in itself, the value of which does not lie in an instrumental goal such as being "future-proofed".

In times of instability, how much does it help to fetishise change, especially among children? Perhaps it's better to seek after something which is worthwhile precisely because it is timeless?

As the educational thinker Martin Robinson blogged recently, the curriculum should not be a journey with a destination. “We are opening up a number of perspectives and narratives through which a child can make the most of their life,” he argues.

Though the danger of utopian naivety remains. Amid economic and technological pressures, will Shakespeare or Plato get you very far? Is the old knowledge enough? At the very least we might stop chasing shadows.

Gareth Sturdy is producing the Battle of Ideas session "Do we need a new curriculum for the 21st Centurywhich is part of the strand "Battle for Education", taking place on Sunday 14 October at the Barbican in London. Tes are the education media partner for the festival, which runs the whole weekend. Tickets can be found here

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