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.

21st Century Skills

A consensus is rapidly emerging in international opinion about the skills and competencies that a 21st century education should provide to students. Organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in the United States, C21 Canada, and the OECD’s New Millennium Learners programme are converging on the view that education needs to develop skills such as collaboration, synthesis, innovation, and reasoning.8,9,10 Such skills prepare graduates to work together in tackling the serious challenges the world is likely to face in coming decades.

Employers, too, increasingly appear to value a particular set of skills when hiring graduates. A 2012 survey of North American employers by Millennium Branding, for example, found that 98% of prospective employers thought communication skills were important or very important in their choice of job applicants.11 A positive attitude (97%), adaptability to change (92%), and teamwork ability (92%) rated nearly as highly.

Employers also often cite the value of employees who are adept at gathering information, evaluating it, making connections between different pieces of information, and then working out a plan of action.

The Millennium survey found that these are the skills employers have the hardest time finding in prospective employees today. A recent OECD study also indicates a rapidly growing demand for complex skills involving communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.12 These skills are more than just preparation for jobs, though. They are also better preparation for life in general, and valuable tools for those entering post-secondary education.

One of the motives for us in redesigning high school education is to address this gap. A well-rounded student will need to acquire this broad set of basic skills and attitudes that form the spine of our curriculum:

1. Self-understanding – self-awareness, self-analysis, self-evaluation; knowledge of one’s own biases; independence and individuality; willingness to take an active role in learning;

2. Systems and design thinking – obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information; applying knowledge and understanding; pattern recognition; making connections; constructing explanations from evidence; using conceptual and physical models; planning and carrying out investigations; creative and integrative thinking;

3. Collaboration – empathy; listening skills; valuing other perspectives; readiness to communicate; understanding group dynamics;

4. Learning as a process – learning how to learn; memory and recall; synthesis, conclusions, and evaluation;

5. Attitude – risk-taking; resilience; flexibility; comfort with ambiguity; resourcefulness;

6. Difference-making – citizenship; enterprise; practical community applications; understanding of social change and innovation;

7. Informed decision-making – readiness to research; flexibility; open-mindedness; willingness to question;

8. Logical reasoning – mathematical and computational thinking; scientific method; analyzing and interpreting data; problem-solving;

9. Translating thought into action – citizenship; initiative and drive; willingness to act as an agent of social change; entrepreneurial spirit; practical community applications.

These nine interlocking sets of skills cover much the same ground as other iterations of 21st century skills, including those cited above, one by the province of Alberta, Canada, and the six C’s identified by Michael Fullan as the key 21st century skills that should be at the core of the education system in the province of Ontario, Canada: Character Education, Citizenship, Communication, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Creativity and Imagination.13,14 These lists and our own represent complementary views from different vantage points of a complex landscape, each view revealing different aspects of the topography. The underlying structure remains the same, however, these skills, together with the “Habits of Mind” we have highlighted in Chapter 4, are the real goal of a successful high school education.

Taken together, these habits and skills give our learners depth of ability which they can apply to whatever tasks and challenges they will face in the rest of their lives. By emphasizing tools rather than particular items of knowledge, our curriculum gives high school graduates the confidence and experience to learn and act in any sphere, even one where they initially lack knowledge. This flexibility is essential in coping with today’s rapidly changing world, and it will be even more crucial in the future.

The Role of Knowledge

The most fundamental goal of a new curriculum should be to allow learners to develop the underlying character traits known as “Habits of Mind.” These traits form the foundation of the education needed to prepare learners for a rapidly changing world. Students who display them will, we feel, be able to respond with confidence, vigour, and resiliency to an uncertain future.

It is worth noting that all of the employer preferences in the Millennium Survey mentioned above were for general skills, not for particular content knowledge. Of course, employers also continue to value literacy and numeracy – but these tend to be regarded as prerequisites for entry into the job field, rather than actual criteria for hiring.15 More extensive content knowledge is often specific to particular jobs and may need to be taught in apprenticeships or specialized employee training. In contrast, the broader skills that are at the heart of our concept of high school education can be applied across most, if not all, contexts.

This does not mean that knowledge is unimportant, however. Even at the high school level, educators can only teach the habits and skills at the core of the curriculum by applying them to particular knowledge. Students must learn something if they are to learn how to learn, how to process information, and how to work together to achieve a goal. However, the precise details of what students learn are not the point. It is far more important that whatever they learn, they do so with depth, rigour, and context. Educational opportunities are lost every time a teacher cuts short a fruitful discussion, project, or other learning activity in order to “get through the material.”

Over the course of their schooling, students must also achieve some breadth of knowledge. By building awareness of what kinds of knowledge are out there in the world, students will develop a sense of what categories of knowledge they may wish to pursue in the future, and construct an intellectual framework on which to hang what they learn. We envision our ideal high school graduate as a “T-Shaped” learner, combining the depth of intellectual skills laid out above together with a breadth of subject knowledge.

By the time a learner completes high school, ideally, he or she should have attained core knowledge and a set of competencies that extends more broadly and flexibly than most school curricula today, particularly in areas such as communication, media and information, and finance. These core competencies – the actual knowledge content of our curriculum – are deliberately specified in a very general way, because the particulars of each are likely to vary depending on cultural and social context.

Each country will wish to emphasize its own history, literature, and cultures. However, different cultural contexts are likely to value different knowledge in other areas, as well. For example, “finance” may involve discussion of investment portfolios and retirement planning in North America and Europe, while schools in rural Uganda might place more emphasis on understanding microloans and how to access them. Similarly, technologies for providing clean water and cooking fuel may be a less relevant part of the environmental curriculum in more economically developed regions than in those that lack ubiquitous central utilities.


This approach to the high school curriculum is a logical extension of educational reforms already underway throughout the world. In the US, for example, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Center for Curriculum Redesign advocate for an expansion of curriculum beyond traditional subjects to include newer subjects such as environmental awareness, globalization, and entrepreneurship, in addition to broader skills such as life skills, critical thinking, and collaboration.16,17 The European Union also identifies key competencies that include communication, learning to learn, and social and civic competences.18 The UK science curriculum, too, now seeks to develop skills such as teamwork, problem- solving, and information technology, in addition to traditional subject matter.19

These changes to curriculum will only be successful in producing the high school graduates we seek if we also make parallel changes in the way we teach, the way we test, the way we train teachers, and the way we design our schools. The next few chapters outline our vision of these changes. We stress once again that these reforms are all part of a single package.


7. Pearson Foundation, “Five Things I’ve Learned”

8. Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008. “21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide.” 

9. C21 Canada, 2012. “Shifting Minds.”

10. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – New Millennium Learners

11. Schawbel, D. 2012 “Millennial Branding Student Employment Gap Study.”

12. OECD Education ministerial meeting, 2010. “Investing in Human and Social Capital: New Challenges.” 

13. Alberta Education. “Competencies for 21st Century Learning.”

14. Fullan, M, 2013. “Great to Excellent: Launching the Next Phase of Ontario’s Education Agenda.”

15. Cisco, 2008. “Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century.”

16. Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

17. Fadel, C, 2011. “Redesigning the Curriculum White Paper.” Center for Curriculum Redesign:

18. European Commission, Education & Culture. 

19. National Curriculum of the UK.

“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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