Outside of Arenberg, Germany
Almost every week I hear about yet another of my most talented friends moving into the world of education. They work as teachers and principals, reformers and policymakers, advisors and administrators. They, along with legions of teachers and administrators around the country, do amazing work and have deep insight into the challenges our education system faces.
As I don’t have the legitimacy or perspective of an insider, I want to use my outside-in point of view to surface a question that’s been bothering me: What if our efforts to reform the education system are missing the boat? What if the problem is not the format of delivery, the design of our school day, or the quality of our teachers? While still legitimate concerns, what if all these are secondary to a much larger challenge?
To effectively equip our children for life and to progress as a society, I believe we need to radically redefine the content of curriculum. I’m not talking about modest tweaks around the edges – “What type of math should a fourth grader be able to do?” “How much art and music do we need to develop full people?” or “Should ninth-graders or tenth-graders take World History?” I’m talking about a fundamental rethinking of the corpus of primary education. In short, we need to reframe education around the skills needed to develop exceptional human beings, instead of the content which we have historically considered important.
It’s not that we have not sought to impart important life lessons in schools. For example, we do teach students the ability to meet deadlines and the value of working in a team. Yet these lessons have always inhabited a ‘shadow curriculum’ parallel to the primary thrust of reading, writing, and arithmetic. What if we radically up-ended the curriculum? What if we put the skills that children need to be exceptional human beings at the core of our curriculum, instead of hoping that they stumble upon these lessons along the way?
A rethought approach would focus on helping students investigate questions that are core to our human existence for themselves. Unlike other alternative education approaches, it would not be entirely freeform, allowing children to pick and choose where they focus. Instead, it would make an assertion from our collective experience that there are certain factors which contribute to human thriving and that these are worth knowing.
This new curriculum might contain topics like:
Knowing and expressing yourself
- Who am I? (philosophy, self-reflection, religion/spirituality)
- How do I know what I know? (cognitive science, philosophy, self-reflection)
- What are emotions and how do I relate to them? (science, psychology, self-reflection, mindfulness)
- How can I express myself? (writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, dance, fashion, sociology)
Relating to others
- How can I communicate so that others understand me clearly? (writing, public speaking, grammar, influence techniques, foreign language)
- How can I build healthy relationships? (science, psychology, self-reflection, group work)
- How can I work effectively with others? (psychology, organizational behavior, self-reflection, group work)
- How can I learn through – and resolve – conflict? (conflict resolution)
Understanding our world
- How are people different and why is that important? What are the implications of these differences? (geography, social studies, history, political science)
- How does the physical world work? How can I use these forces to my benefit? (chemistry, mechanics, physics, electronics, computer science)
- How does the natural world work? What is my relationship with it? (biology, literature, outdoor education, self-reflection)
- What approaches can I take for thinking about problems? (linear thinking, lateral thinking, systems thinking)
- What is the role of analytics and data in problem solving? (math, research skills, data interpretation)
Taking care of ourselves
- How does my body work? (health, science)
- How can I keep my body working effectively? (health, basic medicine, first aid)
- What foods are most nourishing to me? (nutrition, gardening, home economics, self-experimentation)
- How do I manage stress? (science, physical education, mindfulness, self-experimentation)
- What’s the role of exercise in good health? (physical education, self-experimentation)
- What’s the role of sleep in good health? (science, naptime for the younger ones, self-experimentation)
Functioning in society
- How does our government function and what is my role in it? (government, political science, history, community engagement)
- What alternative forms of government exist? Why would you choose one over another?
- What is money, how does it function, and how can I best negotiate my relationship with it? (history, math, economics, financial analysis, self-reflection, sociology)
- How do the items I depend upon everyday (e.g. water systems, cell phones) work? (mechanics, home repairs, chemistry, physics, politics, computer science)
Finding joy and fulfillment
- What is happiness? How do I define happiness for myself? (literature, philosophy, psychology, self-reflection)
- How do I pursue happiness? (psychology of goal-setting, self-reflection, self-experimentation)
- What is spirituality and what role does it play in my life? (philosophy, religion/spirituality, self-reflection)
- How do I improve myself over time? (journaling, reflective exercises)
This list is necessarily imperfect, but it represents a start – a start of thinking about how education can be freed from the strictures of five or six core subjects. It is an approach which is inquisitive in nature, personal in its application, and pragmatic in its takeaways. It seeks to give students systemic understanding of the world, tools to apply to future challenges, and an overarching framework of how to be exceptional as humans.
Here’s the next question: If we changed the content, how would that change the rest of the system? How would our students start behaving? What types of teachers would want to impart this learning? And how would the norms of what it means to be in a teacher-student environment need to shift to accommodate these discussions?
When I look forward, I am increasingly convinced that the greatest leverage on changing our collective experience of humanity lies in the education of our children. And if I was to push for one change to that system, it would be the core of what we impart.
What do you think about the curriculum of primary education? What is missing? What is extraneous?
Meredith- you are hitting on a fundamental concept taught at my school, inquiry based education. While we are still trying to put round pegs in square holes at least most of the teachers in my building understand and try to continue the curiosity and basic inquisitive nature of students. Large scale projects like Science Fair and History Day lend a hand in helping offer choice and innovative research for students. However government influences, common core, teacher evaluations, standardize testing, and other policy make it hard for staff members to stray from tradition or evaluate new methodologies like what you are suggesting. I might becoming more and more disillusioned the longer I work in Education, however I do hope that we can make sweeping systematic changes. I would love to see an education system that stops boxing students into age categories rather than skill based needs and assessments that value practical real world applications. Check out the work of Wiggins and McTighe. Thanks for the blog…
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As a parent, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of adults try to “spoon-feed” kids rather than let them figure things out. I was at the aquarium with my 4 year old a while back, and someone mentioned that there was a unicorn fish in the tank. My son asked where it was. The adults started to point to it, but, fortunately, my son was looking at me. I asked him what a unicorn has that makes it a unicorn. A horn, of course. So, I asked him, which fish might they call a unicorn fish? He figured it out and he was proud of himself. We played similar games with other fish. He made up creative names for the ones with “boring” names. And, months later, he still knows what a unicorn fish looks like. I wonder what would have happened if I’d just said, “It’s that one,” like everyone else was doing. It would have been a very different experience, and I’m betting he would have forgotten about unicorn fish by now.
My job as a parent, in my opinion, is to make my kids think, make them want to try things, let them take risks, and stoke their curiosity. And hopefully they will encounter teachers who will do the same.
I agree with all of the thoughts are articulated above, Meredith. In many ways, the creation of “exceptional human beings” was once the job of parents, grandparents/elders, religious institutions, and community. Mythology were not something studied with regard to ancient cultures long deceased, but parables that were relevant now, capable of activating deep, in-lying questions and possibilities within our souls. What I love is your curriculum takes this on paired with the best in modern science (e.g., happiness research).
You talk about spirituality on life, values, and happiness in the curriculum. This implies education having a point of view, taking a position, connecting with emotion and the soul. Right now, education is emotionally and spiritually detached, the love and humanity almost antiseptically wiped out of it, a left-brain experience (perhaps outside of well-taught art class and music). If anything, this has become more the case nowadays. As a solid C student through the fourth grade, it was meaningless jibberish to me — and it was only through the love and care of ONE teacher, who saw me as a young man with potential, that I turned around.
I would love the post-bacc/exec ed version of your curriculum! I bet engaged parents of many of these children would, too. What if some of the life skills & philosophy course were taught to parents (say 1 night per week + 1 weekend day per month) alongside their children’s education? I think that’s what you really need for systems-level change.