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What should be learnt?

During my inaugural I asked participants to rank how important they thought a number of different possible 'learning outcomes' would be in 2033. The results are shown in Figure 1 below. As you can see the highest ranked item was'learning to learn'. Handwriting was identified as the least important of the twelve offered options.

Chart showing how 59 participants ranked the importance of a range of possible learning outcomes in 2033
Figure 1 - ranking of importance of possible 'learning outcomes' in 2033 (n=59)

Of course we cannot know what the most important things will be for young people to learn to prepare them for life in 2033 because we cannot know what life will be like then.

Looking back to 2005 illustrates the magnitude of change in the last 14 years (see Figure 2). In 2005 Kodak was still the dominant force in photography. The first video was uploaded to YouTube in April 2005. The domain wasn't bought until August 2005. Netflix was still sending out films by post. The first true smartphone (the iPhone) hadn't been invented, and Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and Snapchat didn't exist.

Icons/Images for Kodak, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, the iPhone and various apps
Figure 2 - Highlighting the scale of change between 2005 and 2019

Given that the rate of change in digital technology continues to increase it is impossible to predict what the world will be like in 2033 (14 years in the future). However, we can identify a number of technological challenges which are likely to exist (see Figure 3). For example:

  • surveillance capitalism and issues around privacy and data ownership;
  • biotechnology and genetic engineering - should we be allowed to manipulate genes to eradicate 'undesirable' elements, and who should decide what is 'undesirable'?
  • Robotics, AI and cyborg engineering - what does it mean to be human if computers can do the things we traditionally labelled as intelligent and if we can augment our physical capabilities?
Images representing surveillance capitalism, biotechnology and genetic engineering, and robotics, AI and cyborg engineering
Figure 3 - some of the technological challenges that we face

Digital technology also threatens to change our relationship with paid employment (See Figure 4). Some argue that automation will replace many jobs but that new jobs will be invented. Others counter this, claiming that these new jobs will also be automated.

Images and quotes representing different views of the impact of automation on employment
Figure 4 - Challenges posed by automation

If a large proportion of the population is unemployed who will buy the goods and services being provided by automation? This could undermine the capitalist system on which most of us currently depend. At the very least automation is likely to increase the equity gulf between the very rich and everyone else.

Furthermore, we face a range of demographic and environmental challenges (see Figure 5), such as:

  • Population growth and an increase in the percentage of the population who are over 65 (i.e. are currently considered 'unproductive')
  • finite resources running out, alongside increasing pollution and global warming
  • negative attitudes towards migration

All of these things increase the dangers of civil strife and conflict.

Images representing challenges such as population growth and changing demographics; resources sustainability, pollution and global warming; and negative attitudes towards migration
Figure 5 - Demographic and environmental challenges

I believe that schools should be preparing young people not only to be able to tackle these challenges, but also to influence how they evolve. Schools should be equipping young people with the knowledge, skills and attributes that they are going to need in our rapidly changing and increasingly challenging world.

The curriculum should align with our vision for education - it should lead to individual fulfilment and universal well being (see the top centre of Figure 6)

On the left hand side of Figure 6 it indicates that in order to develop individual fulfilment you need to focus on Identity (who we are and our place in the world), and what makes our lives fulfilling (our purposes and passions). We all need to succeed and be recognised for that success. However, life is challenging, so we need to develop flexibility, resilience and persistence.

On the right hand side of Figure 6 it indicates that in order to develop universal wellbeing you need to focus on participation in society. That involves thinking about values, and valuing diversity (because we are all different). It requires intercultural understanding, and the ability to empathise with other people's views even if you don't share them. It requires that we treat people equitably - which may mean treating them differently in order to compensate for disadvantage. It necessitates thinking about rights, not just of people but of the earth and all its inhabitants (e.g. rhinos). Finally, it requires that we focus on sustainability - because ultimately our very survival depends upon it.

Shows the Yin-Yang vision plus the related curriculum elements
Figure 6 - The Yin-Yang vision and curriculum

The middle column in Figure 6 indicates the curriculum areas that act as the glue that unite individual fulfilment and universal wellbeing. The skills and attributes that we all need, such as problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, multi-modal communication, numeracy, digital literacy, philosophy and ethics (remember the biotechnology and genetic engineering challenges). Perhaps most importantly of all we need to be able to continually adapt as the world changes - so learning to learn is probably the most important element of the curriculum.

Of course, you cannot develop skills and attributes without focussing on some content (see Figure 7). Following on from Holmes et al (2019) and the Center for Curriculum Redesign I believe that this content should exemplify 'key concepts' - key tools for looking at and analysing the world. Big ideas, such as systems, which are relevant in multiple contexts (e.g. organ systems, financial systems, legal systems, eco systems).

Same as Figure 6 with CONTENT added
Figure 7

We need a curriculum that prepares young people to live fulfilling lives and to contribute to our universal wellbeing. This requires a shift in thinking about the curriculum, away from current arguments about whether we need to develop 'content or skills' - we clearly need to help young people develop both knowledge and skills, alongside a range of other attributes.

This blog post summarises part of my OU inaugural lecture, which was delivered at the Open University in Milton Keynes on the 25th June 2019. Other posts from this lecture include:  Is school the problem? and How should we teach?

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