One of the major challenges facing society today is the irrelevance of the educational model that is being used in classrooms across the world. At a recent conference on curriculum relevance, hosted by the International School of Geneva, Yao Ydo, the Director of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, spoke of an encounter he had with a minister of education (of a country I shall not name!) where he complained about the history textbooks that children were using with information dating back to the 1950s. The village where the children lived was described in the textbook with references to the colonial prefecture at the time alongside black and white photographs. How are children expected to find any interest in learning from something so outdated? To add insult to injury, this is an environment where the home language is not taught (as is the case in many of the world’s countries) and the language of instruction is a second if not third language for both the instructor and the student.
Some school programmes are more abreast of the realities of the 21st Century, teaching students about inclusion, social justice, environmental sustainability and how to use technology in reactive and ethical ways to accelerate learning and make it more accessible. However, even in these models, the core assessments that students do tend to be far removed from the exigencies of the real world: hand-written assignments, two hour examinations consisting, essentially, of knowledge regurgitation, little in the way of teaching and explicitly assessing competences.
UNESCO’s work on curriculum relevance has brought a number of themes to the fore: the hybridisation of learning, the need for educational systems to integrate learning about peace, inclusion and sustainability; a nuanced and informed application of what neurobiology tells about the psychology and emotions of learning and how this can be used to improve the classroom climate as well as strategies for genuine long term memory strengthening.
In fact, curriculum relevance runs much deeper than the content of what we teach, and it certainly means much more than using technology in the classroom. From teacher training, to assessment, from curriculum design to collaborative planning, the whole ecosystem of educational practice needs to be thought through in such a way that students experiencing the curriculum are being equipped to face the complexities and intricacies of today’s globalised world.
These are three steps I have taken with my colleagues over the last years and I would recommend them to anyone working in schools or universities:
- Decolonising the curriculum
This means looking at the cultural affiliations, references and assumptions that lie scattered across the curriculum, often unconsciously. We can no longer be teaching from the perspective of one continent alone in an era of multiple identities, continual immigration and more sophisticated understandings of the multiplicity of the human condition. If educators do not look at the unconscious bias and cultural assumptions of what they are teaching, these forces will remain invisible to them and send out an antiquated message that is also harmful for the agency and identity building of those who do not fit into such narratives. Read more here
- Widening assessment
Relying on narrow, high stakes assessments that test academic skills is not enough to account for the diverse ways in which someone can be gifted. Assessments should span several competences including interpersonal ones, those related to the environment and the way we use tools and resources such as new technologies. Our work at the coalition to honour all learning is a place to start if you are seeking to broaden assessment.
- Moving the needle on sustainable development
I was happy to sign, on behalf of our school, the Doughnut Economic Action Lab’s open letter for a course in regenerative economics, so as to teach students economic systems and processes that will respond to the number one threat facing us today: climate change. Schools must weave into the curriculum learnings and the nurturing of competences such as environmental custodianship that will empower us to act in a unified fashion for the sake of the planet. Committing to sustainable development in educational institutions means thinking intentionally about energy consumption in the physical design of buildings, the content and form of the curriculum and the behaviours of people in schools and universities.
There are clearly many more steps to take, and these will set us on a journey, so one should not expect to see immediate results for it is not easy to change any curriculum structure. As Woodrow Wilson said “It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum.” However, curriculum relevance is an overarching trope that calls us to action: every step counts. Which will you be taking today?