Why we need a curriculum based on what is ‘useful’

Academic knowledge is only part of the puzzle, says researcher

Jon Severs

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“We need to make our learning authentic, we need to be able to see how it is applicable to real life, and in curriculum all around the world we are failing to do that,” argues Cecilia KY Chan, head of professional development and an associate professor in the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Hong Kong.

Chan is the guest on this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast and she discusses curriculum choices at length: what we are teaching now, why we make those choices and what impact those choices have on the happiness and future prospects of the current crop of school-age children.

She says that the world is looking to East Asia for educational inspiration without realising how unhappy that education approach is making young people. And it starts from the very youngest ages, she says.

Tests for school

“Chinese culture is very driven by grades and assessment and academic knowledge,” she explains. “There were three interviews and tests for my daughter to get into school. She is four years old. A lot of parents will put their children through interview prep classes at that age that cost hundreds of pounds.

“Then if you look at OECD, we are top for many subjects, but we are also very low for the happiness of our students. We also have a very high suicide rate for teenagers. The approach is not making our pupils happy.”

She says there are close similarities between the Hong Kong system and that of England, most noticeably the huge amount of content that secondary students have to get through.

Overloaded students

“There is too much content,” she argues. “And the exams are then based on that content, not on the processes behind learning that content. Because there is so much content, it is also dictating the pedagogy because the only way of getting through it is in a lecture style. This all has knock-on effects. In Ireland and the UK, there are more and more tutorial centres, this shadow education. And parents are going for it.

“Are we giving children surface learning? Are they memorising it and getting through the exam successfully and then never use or recall it again? What is the purpose of that, then?”

Chan says the future prospects of current pupils require a different type of curriculum, one where content is put on the syllabus depending on how ‘useful’ it is.

“We need a curriculum that is based on usefulness – and that can be academic knowledge but it can be skills and character and other aspects, too,” she argues. “We need to make our learning authentic, we need to be able to see how it is applicable to real life. In some ways everything we are currently teaching may well be useful, but we are teaching it in such a way that the usefulness of it cannot be seen, we do not apply it and make it authentic. We can’t just teach them content: we need to do better.

“There is, of course, a basic content list everyone will need to know. Times tables, for example, you need to learn that off by heart because it is really useful for so many aspects of life.

“I think we need to balance the academic, to shift the culture, so we are addressing 21st Century skills. It is not just about employment, but how we develop and live as a person.”

21st Century skills

Of course, 21st Century skills are highly controversial, as many argue that such skills are a myth, that we need the same basic skillset as we always have done. Chan agrees the skills are not ‘new’ but argues that the emphasis on what skills are needed to contribute to society as an adult have shifted.

“I agree that the core skills might be the same. But the world has changed and we need to adapt to that. It would be naïve to say the skills we need now are the same as they always have been, in terms of how much we need those skills. It is not that they are new, it is the increased role those skills will play when our pupils reach adulthood"

In the podcast, she goes on to discuss why change is so difficult in education and how parental choice and objectives are so often discounted in school systems.

To listen to the podcast in full, search for "Tes the education podcast" on your podcast platform or click the player below.


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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is the commissioning editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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