Innovative curricula – or: What learnings are of most worth?

In one of the discussion groups of the site of the twelve schools that participate in Microsoft’s Innovative Schools Program, Allison More placed the question below and I answered with the text that comes after the question… EC

>From: Allison Moore
>Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2008 7:02 PM
>Subject: Issue 2: Innovative Curricula

>People from across the world—educators, business leaders, and other thought leaders—have expressed concern that our schools are not preparing students as best they might for the demands of the 21st century. There have been calls for changes to curricula, teaching practices and assessments that will personalize student learning, better teach students to problem solve, think critically, communicate effectively and work in teams, and will help ensure that they acquire the skills to adapt to new innovations, innovate themselves, and learn effectively in the future. <

>QUESTION: From your perspective, what innovations in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment have you made or do you think are important to make, and why? Share your current thoughts on best practices and exemplary curricula and assessment practices. What benefits and challenges have you experienced (or do you anticipate experiencing) in the process of implementing these innovations? <

Let me try my hand at answering this thought-provoking question…

Curricula are attempts to define what must be learned in a given context. Methodologies are attempts to to define how best to learn what must be learned. Evaluation is the attempt to assess whether what was to be learned was in fact learned.

It seems to me that the main issue in relation to curricula – including innovative curricula – is philosophical, not scientific, and so not approachable from a “research-based” perspective, at least if “research” is understood as “empirical research” (as it commonly is, especially in the United States). The main issue is:

What learnings are of most worth today in 21st-century post-industrial societies?

This issue is not scientific – it is not answerable by any of the academic disciplines or by a survey of specialists, for instance. This issue is clearly philosophical, since it involves an important discussion of values.

To be historically fair, this is basically the same question that Herbert Spencer asked more than 150 years ago (in 1854), when he asked “What knowledge is of most worth?” I chose to replace “knowledge” by “learnings”, because the word “knowledge” is frequently identified with typical academic – or even scientific – learning. The word “learnings” is more general, and therefore better suited to my purpose, even if it looks and sounds a bit odd in the plural.

Spencer said: “before there can be a rational curriculum, we must settle which things it most concerns us to know; . . . we must determine the relative values of knowledges" [Herbert Spencer, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (New York: Appleton and Co., 1909), p. 11]. Please observe that the word “knowledges”, in the plural, is also a bit odd…

I would like to change Spencer’s question and ask:

“Before there can be innovative curricula, we must settle which things it most concerns us to learn; . . . we must determine the relative values of distinct learnings."

Spencer’s question, and its paraphrased counterpart, make it clear that we are dealing with values, here. And, I add, values are not the sort of issues that one handles through scientific methodology or “research-based” approaches.

This being said, we are ready to suggest the lines along which we ought to look for answers to this question:

What learnings are of most worth today in 21st-century post-industrial societies?

The first thing to emphasize is the last part of the question: “today in 21st-century post-industrial societies”. Unless we intend to arrive at very general answers, applicable universally (anytime, anywhere), such as “the true, the good and the beautiful” (that which traditional philosophy called the “transcendentalia”), our search for the most worth learnings must be contextualized – in time and space.

The most worth learnings in Western Medieval society are certainly not the most worth learnings in 21st-century post-industrial societies or knowledge-based economies. To begin with, science and technology, as we know it, did not exist in the Middle Ages. To take just another example, reading and writing were a rather specialized kind of learning in the Middle Ages, best left to monks in monasteries (in the monasteries dedicated to the preservation of culture, to be more precise: there were monastic orders dedicated, for instance, to agriculture or even to war). So, changes in time do make a great difference here, even if we maintain the variable space intact.

My friend Rubem Alves, one the greatest living Brazilian educators, never tires of saying that the variable space is also very important in education. The learnings that are of most worth to a child living in a Middle Eastern desert village will not be identical to those of an indian living in the heart of the Amazon forest – even in the 21st century… To stay within the confines of the West, the learnings that are of most worth to a child living at the top of the austrian Alps will not be identical to those of a child living along the Mediterranean sea: in Monte Carlo or Marseille, or in the Algarve, in Southern Portugal – or in the Harlem, in New York… So, changes in space do make a great difference here, even if we maintain the variable time intact.

The second thing to emphasize, especially given the emphases of traditional schooling, is that there are at least two important kinds of learning, which must not be made to appear as only one kind: there is “learning that…” something is the case and there is “learning how…” to do something.

Traditional schooling has emphasized the first: that is why the academic disciplines are so central in traditional curricula. Most of the learnings that the traditional school considers of most worth are “learnings that…” something is the case. Even in my area, philosophy, if I may take it as a typical example, the traditional school tries to get the students to learn that Plato thought this or that, that Descartes is the father of modern philosophy, that Kant was influenced by the rise and the incredible early success of newtonian science, that existentialism is a revolt against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, etc. All “learnings that…”

Contemporary technology has made it quite unnecessary for the school to “deliver” this sort of “content” to the students: a quick search of the Internet answers all of these questions, or at least brings up texts and media clips that allow one to easily find the answer. “Learning that…” is basically equivalent to “finding out”, “come across a given piece of information”.

I am convinced that the learnings that are of most worth today, in the West, are “learnings how…”. To learn how to do something one did not not know
how to do before is to acquire a skill – or, if the “learning how…” is to mobilize and integrate lower-order skills to perform a higher function, it is to develop a competency. These learnings are typically transdisciplinary. It is not the case that they are multidisciplinary (involve more than one academic discipline) or interdisciplinary (integrate different academic disciplines): they transcend the disciplinary model or paradigm. Most of what we call “21st-century skills” today (some of which are listed in the question) are nothing but complex competencies that mobilize and integrate lower-order skills.

To use philosophy again as an example, what students need today is to learn how to philosophize – rather than learn that this or that philosopher thought this or that over two thousand years ago.

So, to finish, one of the basic requirements for innovative curricula is that they be based on competencies and centered on the development of competencies.

At Lumiar, in São Paulo, that is the kind of curriculum that we endeavor to implement. If you are interested in these ideas, check the space

–Eduardo Chaves
International Advisory Board
Partners in Learning

Microsoft Corporation

In Campinas, on the 17th of February, 2008

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