Chapter Two



One of the key questions to be resolved in any redesign of schooling is the issue of content. What should be the focus of learning during a student’s high school education? The answer to this question will play a large part in determining many other aspects of the educational system, including teaching methods, class organization, and school design.

High school education requires a major shift in its focus. Traditionally, the high school curriculum has centred on content, with students expected to learn a prescribed set of facts about an array of specific subjects including sciences, mathematics, and social studies. This approach originated more than a century ago, at a time when governments created “education factories” to train an industrial workforce, and access to information was a primary bottleneck in learning. Students eager to learn had few ways to acquire information apart from their teachers and their school.

The rise of the Internet has radically changed that picture. No longer is there a bottleneck in the delivery of information. Today, knowledge about almost any subject is readily available online to anyone with Internet access – an increasingly large share of the world’s population, though not yet everyone. Educational sites such as the Khan Academy, iTunes University, and YouTube channels such as Minute Physics provide clear explanations presented in an orderly sequence by excellent teachers. Digitization of literature, highly effective search engines, and collaborative content creation has made information easy to access, even when subjects are unfamiliar. Moreover, much of that learning happens outside of school, as learners follow their interests. All of this means that students have less need for schools as knowledge transfer centers.

At the same time, advances in our scientific understanding of the learning process itself have given educators a much stronger picture of how students move from “novice” to “expert” in a subject. Learning is not a linear path of acquiring facts and information, but a messy and dynamic process of constructing knowledge, individually and collectively, through exploration and experience.

Indeed, the most crucial part of students’ education will be learning not just to find, but to evaluate, synthesize, and employ knowledge efficiently. In particular, they should learn how and why to put their understanding into practice, especially in a global, multicultural context. As Andreas Schleicher, at the time of writing, director of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has put it, “the focus is on enabling people to become lifelong learners, to manage complex ways of thinking and complex ways of working.”7

With this in mind, the high school curriculum should move away from its traditional subject-centred design toward one that emphasizes the development of Habits of Mind, skills and competencies that cut across traditional academic disciplines. As discussed in more detail in Chapter 6, this new learning should take place primarily, but not exclusively, through a series of in-depth, student-led projects. Their content will need to be carefully designed by learners in collaboration with the expert, informed guidance of their teachers to ensure that they meet instructional objectives. The difference, however, is that these instructional objectives should centre on habits, skills, and competencies. The actual subject-matter content of the projects need not conform to rigid guidelines, but can follow the interests of students and the needs of their local community (with caveats discussed in more detail below). In effect, these projects will use content as a delivery system for the skills that form the core of what we wish to teach.

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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