The new curriculum

By 03/12/2015 Think Tank

How could we rethink our K–12 curriculum for the 21st century, symbiotically combining human strengths with the most powerful technology strengths? We might begin by eliminating as separate classes all the subjects we now teach: math, English, science, social studies. All those subjects have become bloated and outdated and—far more important—are the wrong way to focus our kids’ education in the 21st century.

K–12 study should focus on three crucial areas: Effective Thinking, which would include creative and critical thinking as well as portions of math, science, logic, persuasion, and even storytelling; Effective Action, which would include entrepreneurship, goal setting, planning, persistence, project management, and feedback; and Effective Relationships, which would include emotional intelligence, teamwork, ethics, and more.

The remainder of this curriculum would focus on Effective Accomplishment—what you do with what you’ve learned. That part would be entirely project-based and real-world oriented and would differ for every student. It would include much of what we now call “content,” but only what students would need to accomplish something real.

Subject 1: Effective Thinking

Effective Thinking would start in the early grades with simple mathematical and logical thinking and a focus on obvious flaws (such as assuming something is always true because you’ve seen a few examples). Young kids would use illustrative stories (like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) and well-designed games (like The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis) as a basis for learning strategic and logical thinking. Technology would be introduced from the start as a “thinking extender” through tools like simulation that show students the consequences of their actions in a variety of contexts and circumstances. Even elementary kids would use spreadsheets and other analytics—many of them web-based—as parts of projects.

Students would learn from the earliest grades how to involve world databases, knowledge, sources, and teams in their thinking processes—for example, by creating and analyzing their own surveys of worldwide student opinion on current topics. As the years progress, students would learn about mindfulness; historical elements of human thinking (tool creation, logic, deduction, induction, calculus, and so on); dangerous flaws in human thinking (for example, Daniel Kahneman’s exploration into the irrational ways we make decisions about risk); critical analysis; scientific thinking; mathematical thinking; systematic skills for problem solving; and ways to obtain self-knowledge of one’s strengths and passions. Teachers would teach these skills, with both reading and technology as deep foundations.

How does this differ from what we do today? Instead of today’s focus on pre-established subject matter, with thinking skills presented randomly, haphazardly, and inconsistently, the student and teacher focus wouldalways be on thinking in its various forms and on being an effective thinker, using examples from math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Subject 2: Effective Action

Effective Action would begin by fostering Steven Covey’s seven (now eight) habits of highly effective people—Be proactive, Begin with the end in mind, Put first things first, and so on—from the earliest grades. It would include increasingly complex challenges in persistence, entrepreneurship, and project management and focus on creative ways to break down barriers and get things done.

Students at all grade levels would learn how to start and manage real-life projects—for example, designing a playground, seeking funding, and getting it built; designing and implementing a better way to feed the local homeless population; or designing and implementing a day-care system—whatever the school’s community needs.

Students would start companies, both for-profit (designing websites or devising social media strategies for local businesses) and not-for-profit (meeting a social need), and they would learn the difference between the two. The emphasis would be on continual improvement and on how to do each task more effectively next time. Again, students would use as “mind extenders” all the latest technological tools: simulations, CAD/CAM, and other software, as well as the best writing on project management.

The Effective Action curriculum would focus on getting students to be proactive, to initiate positive actions and programs to improve their communities, their country, and the world. Over the course of their K–12 time, students might explore and undertake such actions as mobilizing citizens for lobbying; building local Internet infrastructure; designing new schools and school additions; and, in places that need it, improving public health and the water supply. Instead of being occasional side projects in subject-oriented classes, learning how to do these types of projects—and actually doing them—would be the main focus of this portion of students’ work.

Subject 3: Effective Relationships

Effective Relationships would foster students’ high-level communication skills: one-on-one, in teams, in peer groups, in communities, and in work groups. It would focus on relationships in both the real and virtual worlds and teach students to negotiate a modern world in which both real and virtual are equally important. This subject would also include ethics, citizenship, and politics.

Over the course of their K–12 experience, students would learn how to maximize their own communication strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. They would learn how to best fit their own personality with all the communication possibilities offered in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Students would learn how to succeed in both the face-to-face world of visual prejudgments and the online world of easy deception.

As a large part of Effective Relationships, students would read and analyze great works of literature that focus on human relations and relationships, study languages and translation, and explore material from the social studies. The focus of this subject would not be on producing people who know more, but on producing people who relate better in a wide variety of situations.

Culminating Work: Effective Accomplishment

Effective Accomplishment, taken every year by all students, would enable each one to establish a growing portfolio of completed individual and group projects. These would range from small projects in earlier years (“I made this app or this website”) to larger projects (“I collaborated with a class in another country to publish a bilingual novel”; “I started a successful company”) to participation in later years in huge, distributed projects around the world (“Using Galaxy Zoo, I discovered a new, habitable planet”). The focus would be on finding and executing real projects that extend the student’s knowledge and capabilities in an area he or she is passionate about—projects that are helpful to the community and world. Thus, in addition to producing educated people, our schools would produce tangible and useful results.

Under this schema, what would become of the content areas that we teach today in linear fashion? Our students would still learn much of this content, but they’d learn it in a far different way: on an individual and “as needed” basis, as it became relevant to a project or to their interests. This would mean, of course, that every student’s content knowledge would differ. Technology facilitates this in ways that were impossible in the past.

What all students would have in common, though, would be a strong, underlying, long-practiced skill set of thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing, which, when they leave K–12, they could bring to more specialized higher education or work. This is a far more useful preparation for our students than the stovepipe system of “common standards” by subject we currently spend so much time creating and implementing. Already today, and certainly tomorrow, all knowledge and work are increasingly interdisciplinary and require a solid grounding, not in current content or standards-based skills, but in the underlying skills of thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing.

Imagine if we evaluated students—and one another—on the basis of how effective each of us was at thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing! Imagine a school structure designed to foster these skills in students instead of considering them as useful by-products of our content-based education and ignoring many of the most-needed ones, such as effective action and relationships.

Previously published on Education Leadership

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Marc Prensky

Founder & Executive Director at The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute
Marc Prensky is an American writer and speaker on learning and education. He is best known as the inventor and popularizer of the terms "Digital Native" and "Digital Immigrant" which he described in a 2001 article in "On the Horizon". He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill 2001), Don't Bother Me Mom – I'm Learning (Paragon House 2006), Teaching Digital Natives (Corwin Press 2010), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning (2012), BRAIN GAIN: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom (2012), and over 60 essays on learning and education. Marc Prensky is also a designer of learning games, and a well-known expert in the use of games in education.