Modern curriculum

What Should Students Be Taught? – Exploring Modern Curriculums

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This is part two of three in a series on Building the ideal education system from scratch’ . The previous entry, on Technology in the future of education’ can be found here. The next entry, on Rethinking how students are taught’ can be found here (these links will appear as the blog posts are released)

When we think of the future of education, what comes to mind is modern classrooms and cutting-edge technology. These are certainly nice, and can enhance the education experience significantly. But the true future of education lies in what is taught, and how this shapes how content is delivered.

Modern problems require modern solutions. And our education must reflect this; how can we carry on teaching the same things in the same ways when the worlds problems and demands have shifted dramatically from what they once were. We no longer need large numbers of competent workers to do rote tasks, but independent thinkers and creatives, equipped with modern skills, and good moral character. 

An education of skills (and understanding)

We must teach dynamic skills, not just idle knowledge

Much of the knowledge taught in school is either forgotten or becomes redundant once you move on. Not so with skills, which are always useful. It is therefore that I propose a more (not entirely) skills oriented education. 

Let us take history for example. Beyond having a broad understanding of the causes, events and effects of the French Revolution, what else must one really learn? The details (dates, names, places, battles) are not so important. What is important is the skills I acquire in the study of history, of argumentation, critical reading, analytical skills, essay writing etc.

I see it as the same for any other subject. Biology for example. Should they not focus on imparting an understanding of how different organisms interact within an ecosystem, or how the parts of the human body are coordinated to maintain homeostasis, instead of honing in on details (names of veins, of bones, lymphatic vessels, muscles, the list goes on and on). Beyond this understanding, is it not more beneficial to teach the skills of biology, logical and analytical?

Primarily, I believe school should seek to impart three skills that are becoming increasingly important:

  1. Adaptation. This is the ability to thrive in the constant flux of our modern world, which includes resilience and learning how to learn.
  2. Focus, being able to identify what is truly important, in the moment and your life as a whole.
  3. Collaboration, as human power lies in our ability to cooperate (more discussed in the blog post)

Skills and understanding are important in the modern world, rather than rote memorization of content. They do not expire as content does, and enrich the student far more than heaps of memorized information do. For this reason I believe skills must be a large component of the modern curriculum.

Inter-subject coordination and cooperation

Often different subjects overlap in topics taught. Both geography and life science might discuss environmental factors affecting biotic components of an ecosystem for example. But no attempt is made to unify this approach, and they end up overlapping clumsily. Better inter-subject coordination has a few marked benefits:

Holistic learning. Students can gain a more complete understanding of subject matter by approaching it from different perspectives. Subjects begin to complement each other to build understanding in the students mind.

Content taught in theoretical subjects can easily be related to the real world. For example while learning about photosynthesis in biology, students could also be looking at the chemical equations and reactions which make it possible in chemistry.

It encourages meaningful connections and therefore creativity. Students begin to see links between what they learn in different subjects. This encourages creativity, which is just the linking of seemingly disparate ideas. Meaningful connections (a quality which arises from novelty or creativity) also encourages long-term learning by strengthening the cues between different bits of information.

This can take the form of group projects, with participants from multiple subjects. For example a research project on how environmental factors have affected an area could involve biology, geography and even physics students.

Such interaction would be of great benefit to the students, and foster the creativity and independent thinking we want. A modern curriculum is a holistic and integrated one.

Modern content

Many of the subjects taught, from my experience, have much outdated content. We will look at English, and see how easily this can be changed.

In English we are taught how to structure and write formal letters. Why? Would students not benefit more from learning how to write business e-mails to potential employers, professors etc. Or maybe how to write essays for university application?

English could also involve more debates and discussions. This develops public speaking, confidence, argumentation and English skills at the same time. Argumentative essays are good, but learning how to speak is better in my opinion.

It is also my belief that teaching contemporary literature would be far more beneficial to students than teaching them musty old novels and plays. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare. But I think the average student will be more engaged in a novel about a teenager, which is relatable and accessible. Getting students interested in reading is paramount, and this requires exploring a variety of more contemporary genres.

Music and the body

why musical training is so powerful, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul, bearing grace in their movements and making the soul graceful - Plato Click To Tweet

Plato wrote much about how we can best prepare our leaders for their (very important) roles. He saw music as an essential aspect of this training.

Music molds character, restores mental health, is cathartic, brings refinement, grace and gentleness. Maybe compulsory musical training, especially at a young age, isn’t the worst idea.

Further, Plato wrote that an education must start in the body. Indolence and indulgence stem from weakness of the body. By ensuring someone is fit and healthy we allow him to be independent, from medicines and other people, and encourage a proactive and spriteful mindset. Certainly then physical education should be integral to a childs schooling, more than it is now.

To further demonstrate this point let us consider why John Locke advocated for dancing to be taught: In dancing you move with purpose, intent and accuracy. You learn to bear yourself properly and perform in front of others. These are valuable skills that should be taught, but are sorely lacking.

Musical and an expansion of existing physical education would greatly benefit children and contribute to a more balanced, holistic education; an enrichment of the childs mind, body and spirit. We must not overlook music and physical education in our modern curriculum.

An education of the heart

Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.–Martin Luther King, Jr. Click To Tweet

We need not only to impart skills and knowledge, but also good character. But why? First of all, Martin Luther King said we should (just kidding). But seriously, an intelligent man with poor character is far more dangerous than a stupid one with good character. Second is the fact that most of our modern problems stem from poor character. We have enough food, yet some countries hoard it. There are green technologies, but corporations are afraid of cutting bottom lines. Now more than ever we need an education of the heart, to cultivate those who can responsibly guide our burgeoning power. Knowledge must be tempered by wisdom.

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart. – Blaise Pascal

The heart has a certain wisdom to it, that Blaise Pascal (a mathematician of all things!) spoke about. Only through educating the heart and the mind will we be able to find direction, and truly make progress.

What I am not suggesting is a form of brainwashing, telling people what is right and wrong. What I am saying is that education can stimulate thought about morality, by asking questions, and putting students in situations that require reflection. Through this we may strengthen and solidify a students moral framework, while gently guiding them.

Too many of our problems come from poor moral character dealing with great power. To deal with modern problems, the modern curriculum must strengthen the moral character of its students.

A social education

How to teach your child teamwork | TheSchoolRun

The future of education is collaborative. The rise of cohort-based courses in online learning clearly demonstrates this point.

Let us then be bold, and imagine an alternate way of learning. What if, instead of individuals competing fiercely for the top mark, classes acted as collaborative units, learning together, maybe competing against other classes? What I am proposing is unifying the class through large projects and common incentives, and marking based off participation and collaboration. This will help build a stronger community, which in turn promotes accountability and academic relationships, which make school meaningful. 

This is an exciting new way of learning. The modern curriculum is one that facilitates collaborative assessments and learning.

Preserving Culture

Keeping with our theme of ‘holistic education’, it would do poorly to leave out culture. It is vital that our students are rounded out culturally for three reasons:

  1. We must not only preserve biodiversity in ecosystems, but also ‘human biodiversity’: unique approaches, creativity and different ways of thinking about things.
  2. Preserving heritage and culture is important in creating strong local communities, by preserving something they can collectively identify with. With the prominence of a global culture, people lose touch with their heritage, and smaller community structures are eroded. However, these systems are integral to the development of students, and must be preserved.
  3. The identity of individuals is increasingly at risk due to globalisation. Strong ties with heritage and tradition can help counteract this, and help young people develop stronger identities.

But how do we do this? My answer is history. I see it as the perfect medium for a cultural education.

It is the necessary and important role of education to embed students in a strong cultural context, and through them preserve tradition.

Learning how to learn (and think)

Perhaps the most important of all. But this cannot be taught by traditional methods; we cannot teach a student creativity and independent thinking. What we can do is foster an environment where the these qualities are allowed to grow. We must not stifle their independence by telling students what to think, rather letting them figure it out for themselves.

This is why an education of curiosity is so important, and virtual environments are so powerful.

The question of what we should teach students is an essential one, that all should participate in. What are your thoughts? Do you disagree with anything on my list? What do you think should be taught in a modern curriculum? Please leave your ideas in the comments below, and I will be happy to respond.

If you are having trouble visualizing the modern curriculum in application, I recommend you check out my creative writing essay on the life of Mark, a student who attends the fictional school of Starscape, which is a realization of all the elements I have discussed. (this link will appear once the blog post is released)


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Brian Scoles
21 days ago

I am very impressed by this post. It amazes me that you are at still in high school.