'Stop focusing on traditional subjects and give students the skills and character they need to succeed'

11th August 2016 at 16:38
class, teacher, student, curriculum
'Schools spend too much time teaching the same curriculum - and must now re-think their approach'

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As the founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, Charles Fadel is interested in one big question: what should we teach students to prepare them for the 21st century?

Fadel, a visiting practioner at Harvard’s graduate school of education and a best-selling author, believes the school curriculum has struggled to keep pace with revolutions in society and technology.

With constant and dramatic changes affecting our lives, the school curriculum needs to be re-thought if it is to be relevant, says Fadel. Here he explains the problems facing educators.

What elements of curriculum do we need to change?

Traditional disciplines currently take up most of the available time and leave little space for newer subjects, branches and topics.

Because of the vast amount of information that needs to be covered and 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.

We need to redesign curriculum to both broaden and deepen understanding; the current content will need to be re-examined with a fine-toothed comb. That process involves distilling each discipline into its core essential questions, and restructuring the information to highlight these concepts and meta-concepts as well as their processes, methods and tools.

This does not mean cutting out entire subjects by any means. The question is not whether students need to learn math, but which parts of math are no longer useful? For example, perhaps it is no longer useful to spend core curriculum time learning long division, or some algorithms of trigonometry.

Are paradigm shifts difficult in large established systems?

Correct. The inertia is propelled at two levels: the policy level, and the level of human expertise and authority.

At the policy level, most countries must work with an inherent level of instability, with elections and changes of leadership occurring every few years. The frequent changes … often preclude the continuity necessary to reflect on large-scale trends, plan for long-term goals, take calculated risks, or embrace change and innovation.

At the level of human expertise and authority, decisions are often reserved for subject-matter experts. These experts’ opinions are partial and biased in certain predictable ways.

First, experts feel responsible for upholding earlier standards, as they have sometimes been part of creating them and promoting their benefits. Being loyal to their field of study, they also find it difficult to discard parts of the whole cloth of their field’s knowledge, even after those parts have become outdated.

Second, it is also very difficult for experts to add new disciplines to traditional fields of knowledge. For example, algorithmics and game theory are topics that are relevant for current advancements in a variety of fields that use mathematics, but tradition-oriented mathematics experts do not include them in their efforts to reform mathematics curriculum.

Additionally, expert academics often operate in relative isolation from the demands of the real world, sometimes unaware of the ways their discipline is currently being applied in professional settings outside academia.

We’re seeing a growing consensus among employers and world leaders that the curriculum does not adequately prepare students for today’s workforce and world. Thoughts?

In addition to learning content deeply, students will need to apply that knowledge using “21st Century Skills”: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration.

But skills are only one further dimension. In addition to skills, students will need to learn character qualities: how students engage and behave in the world. Policymakers are beginning to see their importance as part of a formal education, although educators and employers have known this for a long time.

In order to deepen and enhance the learning in these three dimensions — Knowledge, Skills, and Character qualities–there is an important additional fourth dimension needed for a fully comprehensive twenty-first century education: Meta-Learning (often called learning to learn).

It is not enough to implicitly include this fourth dimension in all the other dimensions – its significance must be highlighted explicitly, so that we are constantly reminded to incorporate meta-learning strategies into the knowledge, skills, and character portions of our learning experiences, learning how to strive to improve no matter what goals we set for ourselves.

Why do you believe your framework is the best approach?

Our framework is a result of the analysis and synthesis of research on learning sciences, views from futurists and economists, standards around the world, and needs of employers and societies.

By being able to consider all the necessary goals of a 21st century curriculum at one time, policy makers, curriculum designers, teachers, and parents can more effectively make decisions about the future of education.

The framework does not prescribe a particular path forward; rather it lays out the map clearly so that everyone can speak the same language about improvement, even as they create different instantiations of how to get there.

How can successful implementation be realized given the complexity of the issues?

At the policy level, we will need to strive toward a stable consensus among political factions, and clearly articulated vision of the kind of education students now need.

At the level of disciplinary experts, there needs to be continuous involvement of real-world users of the disciplines, in addition to reform-minded academics. We will need to leverage best practices from education systems around the world as well as industry where applicable.

We must carefully re-examine the relevance of what we teach, curate the traditional disciplines, add relevant modern disciplines, and place emphasis on more holistic “whole student” learning–not just knowledge but also skills, character, and meta-learning.

Finally, we will need the courage to innovate, letting go of the comfort of an existing system and working under conditions of uncertainty toward a better one.

Part two with Charles Fadel – examining what new elements should be added to the curriculum – will run at the end of August.

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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