'It's time to ditch the traditional school curriculum and prepare young people for life'

14th July 2016 at 11:02
Classroom,mteaching, lesson, Harvard
Teachers should turn to a topic-based approach to equip students with the skills they need, says Harvard professor

Our world is getting increasingly complex; so how do we know what is worth teaching and learning?

David Perkins, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is interested in how to adapt our curriculums in an ever-changing world. He believes that what is conventionally taught in our schools is not designed to produce the kinds of community members we want and need.

Perkins believes that only by reimagining what we teach our children can we lead students down the road to a more prosperous life.

Here, in a piece that first appreared on the Global Search for Education website, Professor Perkins, whose latest book is Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, discusses what is worth learning.                                                             

What do you think students need to be taught in order to prepare them for life?

This is perhaps the most important question in education for today’s complex world. Let me respond not by declaring a curriculum but exploring how we ought to think about it.

From teachers to school leaders to makers of national policy, we should be asking, “What topics are truly likely to matter in the lives today’s students will live?”

For any topic, I encourage people to tell an “opportunity story.” How might this topic come up later in students’ lives? Traditional curricula are stuffed with topics that resist a good opportunity story, topics just “there because they are there.”

What are examples of topics with a strong opportunity story?

Understanding democracy, not just as an ideal but in its complexities and shortcomings around the world. Or energy, its physics, economics, politics. Or basic statistics and probability, which come up frequently in medical decisions, insurance decisions, and [government] policies .

Also, many powerful works of art, literature, and music that resonate with the human condition.

What steps should schools take to ensure they are constructing a curriculum which prepares their students for the future?

What’s needed here is a rich conversation within and across schools, including school boards, parents, and even students. Much of that conversation involves sketching and critiquing opportunity stories. It’s hard to tell a sound opportunity story solo. One needs the rich critical conversation.

How should schools identify aspects of the curriculum they need to focus on to help students develop?

One place to look is the traditional disciplines – mathematics, history, etc. I grumbled earlier about the clutter of limited topics, but any discipline also contains abundant [opportunities].

Another place to look is outside those disciplines. Based on comparative study of curriculum innovations, I can point out six “beyonds,” where educators are venturing beyond the traditional disciplines, in brief:

  • Beyond content, infusing 21st century skills and competencies
  • Beyond local, embracing global perspectives, problems, and studies
  • Beyond topics, transforming topics into tools of broad understanding
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines, renewing and extending those disciplines
  • Beyond discrete disciplines, embracing interdisciplinary topics and problems
  • Beyond academic engagement, fostering personal significance, commitment and passion.

What are your top 5 strategies for ensuring that topics provide a rich enough opportunity for students to learn? What should we do with topics that fall short?

What to do with topics lacking a good opportunity story is a tough problem for educators. It’s always harder to take something out than put something in. Here are some suggestions for how to do it.

  • Don’t take the topic out. Shrink it! Make it an object of “acquaintance knowledge” so that students have some orientation to it.
  • Don’t take the topic out. Expand it! Many topics are thin only because they are thinly treated, but one can greatly increase their reach by looking for big generalizations and making connections to other areas.
  • Don’t start by planning what to remove but by considering what to get in. With a positive agenda defined, it’s much easier to decide what to.
  • Don’t start by redesigning your whole curriculum. Start with a manageable unit or two. Make the entire transformation a project of two or three years.
  • With all that said, of course sometimes just take the weak topic out!

Based on your research, what strategies would you recommend to teachers to help them nurture the 4 Cs - creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration - in classrooms?

I’d encourage teachers to address the 4 Cs or in fact almost any 21st century skills framework as follows:

  • Approach the Cs through “infusion,” weaving them into the teaching and learning of content.
  • Be explicit about strategies. Research shows that students learn such skills better through making good practices explicit rather than just exercising them tacitly.
  • Take a dispositional approach. Don’t just foster the skill’s development but also enthusiasm, commitment, sensitivity to occasions.
  • Teach for transfer. Declare an expectation for transfer and invite students to consider where else the Cs might apply within and beyond school. Ask students to log stories of application.
  • Coordinate across the subject matters. Use the same approach in multiple subject matters yourself or by coordinating with teachers who teach the other subject matters.

I’m much more hopeful today than I was 20 years ago that we will see some fundamental changes in education. And I’m delighted to be part of the dialogue.

A version of this article first appeared on the Global Search for Education. Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld

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