'Learning facts is becoming less important: it's time to update the curriculum for the information age'

25th August 2016 at 13:08
curriculum, teachers, students, subjects, information age
'Standardized tests and a crowded curriculum are stopping teachers from updating what they teach'

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Employers complain that graduates are not ready for work. Students who drop out cite boredom and lack of motivation as their major reasons for leaving school. Stanford University studies indicate students are overloaded and underprepared.

Charles Fadel, a visiting practioner at Harvard’s graduate school of education and founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR), wants the curriculum to be overhauled to give students a new set of skills and character qualities he believes are needed for the 21st century.

So, what should we teach young people in an age where Google has an answer for everything? Here is part two in a series of conversations with Fadel, first published by the Global Search for Education series. For part one click here.

Charles, during the 1800’s, curriculum was transformed to catch up with the industrial revolution. How do we insert subjects relevant to the Information Age in our current over-crowded system?

It is difficult. Ambitious innovation becomes nearly impossible under such constraints. In most cases, new goals and content additions are tacked onto an already overburdened curriculum. With the pressure of preparing for standardized tests, relatively few educators are able to consistently provide the time needed to effectively integrate new learning goals into the curriculum.

Teachers complain curriculum load leaves little time to teach new skills. Stanford University studies claim students are both overloaded and underprepared. Why aren’t we doing more to update curriculum?

So far, it has not been perceived necessary to focus content into its essential themes and concepts. There is an assumption that deeper and more complex understanding will naturally emerge out of the accumulation of lower level knowledge, which is incorrect – that emergence requires deliberate effort, and low-level assessments push the system in the opposite direction.

And while some experts are convinced that the deeper understanding cannot take place without comprehensive lower level knowledge, factual knowledge is actually becoming less important (to a point), while deep understanding is as key as ever.

Young people have access to software programs which automatically correct grammar, spelling and sentence structure mistakes. Robot journalists are already creating their own stories. What language writing and grammar skills will students need in the future?

The kind of writing least likely to be automated involves skills such as creativity and critical thinking, which involves synthesizing information from a variety of sources, distilling messages, and crafting communication.

Also, creative works that are radically innovative are unlikely to be challenged soon, while mimicking someone’s style is already feasible (musically as well!).

For any learning goal, we must ask “why” we are teaching it; what is the practical, cognitive, and emotional value?

It may be that there are large cognitive benefits to learning these goals when they are developmentally appropriate. For example, the development of symbolic representations, and reasoning with symbols. Or the phonological benefits of learning to spell. After all, in order for the autocorrect to work, we must be able to make a guess that is close enough.

In addition, it is likely that formulating thoughts into sentences helps the thoughts to be more clearly solidified, although this claim needs to be examined empirically. Finally, as the role of media continues to grow, it is important to be able to make convincing arguments, as well as to spot the tools that other arguments are employing.

There are apps that translate foreign languages. Robot translators will soon be conversant in dozens of languages. Should students learn foreign languages in the future?

There are three main reasons for learning a foreign language: Communication, Culture, and Cognitive.

The simpler communication aspects might be “roboticized” (for instance, ordering from a menu), but fluency is not within technological reach for at least another 2-3 decades according to A.I. experts.

Second, there are the global literacy benefits of learning about another culture and its customs, which help develop students’ worldview and awareness. There should therefore be a strong component of connecting the language to its culture and cultural works.

Third, there is mounting evidence that knowing multiple languages has broader benefits for the brain, as for music. And there is of course the aesthetic value of reading influential works in their original language!

Please talk about new knowledge that students need for the jobs that exist now and those that have not yet been invented.

It is difficult to predict jobs 20 years into the future exactly, but it is possible to look at trends. There are both technological and human changes occurring that will change the fabric of daily life.

To adequately prepare students, we need to focus on both breadth and depth of learning. Modern knowledge that is currently being neglected includes Technology and Engineering (e.g. computer science, bioengineering, advanced manufacturing), Media (Journalism, Cinema), Entrepreneurship and Business, Personal Finance, Wellness (both physical and mental) and Social Systems (incl. Sociology, Anthropology, etc.) and so on.

These are the disciplines that have emerged recently but have quickly become crucial to modern discourse. In addition, students will need to be able to think interdisciplinarily across fields to solve the complex problems of the future and to be versatile in an ever-changing world.

There are also important modern themes that should be highlighted throughout both modern and traditional disciplines, including global literacy, environmental literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, systems thinking, and design thinking. These will be useful lenses to apply to a variety of fields as they continue to change and evolve.

So to be perfectly clear: STEM and Humanities and Arts; Knowledge and Competencies.

In Part 3 of our series with Charles Fadel, we will focus on how to develop students’ character.

The original version of this article first appeared in The Global Search for Education series on CMRubinWorld.  Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld


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