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Reinventing the Right Curriculum Is Impossible — But Necessary!

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Welcome to 21st Century Skills

"…grade school teaching techniques continued to move away from recitation, rote memorization, seat work. A new ‘project-problem’ method was introduced to teach pupils to reason and to ‘socialize and develop power in oral exposition,’ instead of just repeating answers. A generalized statement was given to a student to prove. This required using various sources, determining relevant parts of the proof, and organizing a convincing talk."

The first words in the paragraph above were "In 1911-1912." Bryce Nelson’s 1988 book Good Schools: The Seattle Public School System, 1901-1930 describes a remarkable system that lasted 20 years. In The Right to Learn, Linda Darling-Hammond documents subsequent ‘21st century skills’ movements in the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. "Each decade another set of fads emerges (often recycled ideas with new names).” There were successes, but they faded away. Why?

Some say that secondary schools cannot fix problems that are entrenched before students arrive, so we must first attend to primary, pre-school and pre-natal education, and address poverty, health care and community involvement. Children in countries that offer such benefits do better. But we won’t right these ills soon, and Darling-Hammond described city schools that succeeded despite such challenges.

A more radical approach is to also replace the standard curriculum content. Critics such as Andrew "The math myth" Hacker and Roger "Education Outrage" Schank advocate the elimination of requirements for higher math, science, foreign languages and other core topics. Why shouldn’t students “learn to learn” while focusing on useful subjects of stronger interest, rather than material their parents don’t know and that they will quickly forget, such as trigonometry, state capitals and the Franco-Prussian wars?

Of course, everyone should have some knowledge of literature, history, government, mathematics and science. But making kids grind through them year after year isn’t working well, and there are potentially more engaging and important ways for students to learn to learn.

A recent World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs, forecasts that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. Looking around, I see myriad jobs that didn’t exist twenty ago. I also see higher education majors that didn’t exist: bachelor’s degrees in greenhouse operation, resort management, ecogastronomy, meeting and event planning, theme park engineering and scores of others. Not long ago, majors were more uniformly aligned with the secondary school curriculum.

If high schools do not acquaint students with the range of career options, students may not select a university that offers a good match, or they may not find that match when pressed to quickly declare a major. Parents can’t tell them about jobs that didn’t exist several years ago. For example, beer-making (or fermentation science — excellent job prospects for graduates!) is a major in two dozen colleges and universities. A student who doesn’t apply to one of them or discover the major could miss her calling.

I can prove that two years of high school is wasted for "normal" students. In my state, high school juniors and seniors can take a 10-week community college English (or math, science, etc.) course and earn credit for a full year of high school and university credit that can be transferred to other universities. A student with some discipline can finish high school with an associate degree and enter university as a junior, skipping two full years. By foregoing AP classes, they preclude applying to elite universities, but many get respectable bachelor’s degrees at ages 19-21 and are no worse off for it.

It was different

If you are skeptical, thinking "How could curriculum content introduced 175 years ago not be the cat’s pajamas?" then you should be willing to read some history. If you feel an urge to skip the following history lesson, then at least sympathize with the poor high school student who will have years of history lessons she can’t skip.

American public secondary schools appeared after the first industrial revolution, starting in 1821. Only a few percent of 14-17-year-olds attended; most farmed or learned apprenticeship trades. By 1850, some in the small American middle class clamored for an alternative to the prevailing curriculum of Greek, Latin and the classics. That traditional curriculum focused heavily on rhetoric and logic (communication and critical thinking, 21st century skills!) to train future clergy, lawyers, doctors, professors and administrators. The alternative, called the "modern curriculum," generally comprised the familiar English, math, history and government, science and modern languages.

The modern curriculum was taught then as it is today, as academic and not vocational training for mental work. However, jobs then in high demand, such as surveyor, navigator and builder, made use of algebra and geometry. Much knowledge came untranslated from Europe, so foreign languages were useful. Students with even one year of high school were highly employable. Today, few students will again use algebra and geometry. The primary goal of high school now is to get students accepted into college or university.

Technology could help reform

In the 1970s, a "career education" effort initiated by the U.S. Secretary of Education focused on field trips and guest speakers, but failed to engage students or teachers. Today, we could do much more. A tsunami of online content enables independent exploration, or in-depth preparation for trips and speakers. Virtual and augmented reality beckon. A teacher as coach can stay ahead of students working on engaging projects that span disciplines. A handful of students making a docudrama of the discovery of DNA by Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin could learn some science, history, drama, writing, media analysis and production, and gender relations, while other students do unrelated projects.

Why new curriculum content is impossible

The modern curriculum is embedded in state laws and teacher training. It is an effective filtering system for elite universities that determine national policy and prepare for post-graduate training the fewer than 1 percent of higher education students that they admit, with their other graduates finding employment through status and social networks.

Few teachers have time for dramatic shifts in pedagogy. Darling-Hammond’s schools that succeeded in the mid-1990s with at-risk students obtained waivers from state requirements and measured success in the traditional disciplines. Great teachers managed to interest students in material few would ever again use. The effort this required could explain why such endeavors eventually fade.

How it plays out

Pressure is building. Change is visible around the edges. Homeschooling, no longer constrained to fringe movements, produces strong students accommodated by higher education. Alternative public high schools for students who "don’t thrive in traditional learning settings" are losing their stigma. Some charters and public schools experiment despite anxieties over how students will fare on college entrance exams. Community colleges, which focus on teaching and are less hampered by tradition, are inexpensive places for students to look around. Through early credit and transfer programs, community colleges have strong links to high schools and universities. (See New Alliance Works to Bring College into High School.)

The new world may not be the one that we would design if we could start afresh, but change is coming.

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