What should we teach students in school? Given the realities of globalization, constantly evolving technologies, rapidly shifting job opportunities, and a planet in peril from climate change, it’s important to re-evaluate the body of knowledge and skillsets that we require children to obtain.
It helps to come to this task with a beginner’s eyes, unfettered by attachments to traditional subjects, content areas, and skill development, and to ask ourselves this question: With limited hours in the day, and in a world where information about virtually anything and everything is readily available, what essential knowledge and skills should students acquire and why?
The answer to this question should change over time. Skillsets that were once valuable may not be essential in today’s world, while other skill sets are now vital. Content knowledge that is important today may be eclipsed by other content knowledge in the coming decades. This is why transferable skills, understandings, and habits of mind are so critical, and why memorizing specific facts has become largely outdated.
A thought experiment quickly reinforces the problem of primarily focusing on content at all. Consider which of the following you believe are subjects that all children should study in the U.S., recognizing, of course, that the myriad subtopics under these general subject headings should evoke the same question:
Biology; chemistry; physics; ecology and environmental science; geology; botany; nutrition; mycology; astronomy; neuroscience; ethology and zoology; oceanography and marine science; climate science and climate change; engineering; computer science and technologies; ancient history; U.S. history, governance, and civics; history of other continents, regions, and nations; history of colonization; history of indigenous peoples; history of war, peace, and nonviolent movements; history of caste, slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other manifestations of prejudice and oppression; heroic leaders and change agents throughout history; inventions that changed history; overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present; art history; geography and its impacts on cultures; world religions; geometry; algebra; calculus and trigonometry; statistics and probability; anthropology; archeology; psychology; sociology; money and economics; social entrepreneurship; American and English literature; drama; mythology; visual arts; poetry; music; world languages; world literature in translation; the classics; philosophy; logic and epistemology; movements for justice and rights; media, disinformation, and conspiracy theories; physical and mental health; the true cost of our product, food, and clothing choices; sustainable and ethical living in a globalized world.
What did you find yourself thinking and feeling as you read this list? My hope is that you felt confused and uncertain, perhaps overwhelmed, and that this long (and by no means exhaustive) list called into question the basic subject categories that we currently teach in U.S. schools. I also hope you found yourself wondering why we teach what we teach.
I believe that mandatory school subjects ought to vary based on where one lives in the world and available opportunities, and that students should learn a little about many subjects. But far more important than specific content are the skills we teach students. Knowing how to carefully research, evaluate, and interrelate various disciplines matters more than choosing limited, specific subjects for study.
There are many essential cognitive processes and skills that enable our children to succeed in life, solve problems, and continually learn. With the development of these skills and abilities, our children can learn about anything on the list above as well as other topics of interest and importance to them. As Steve Pearlman writes in his book America’s Critical Thinking Crisis, “No subject matters one lick if students lack the capacity to think about it.”
Below are 12 essential skills and cognitive abilities that I believe children need in today’s world. Students must be able to:
- Read, write, and communicate effectively.
- Understand mathematical concepts and statistics and do basic arithmetic.
- Understand and employ the scientific method.
- Conduct effective research, evaluate it for accuracy, and analyze data.
- Think critically, strategically, logically, analytically, scientifically, and creatively.
- Understand systems and recognize the many intertwining, systemic causes of problems.
- Develop and implement solutions to interconnected problems without producing unintended negative consequences.
- Evaluate multiple perspectives and be able to employ methods for solving conflicts without hostility or violence.
- Use technology effectively and understand how various algorithms and platforms work in ways that manipulate and silo people, promulgate misinformation, and lead to uncritical thinking.
- Work both independently and collaboratively.
- Self-reflect, self-manage, and self-assess.
- Act with compassion and determine and embrace choices that do the most good and least harm to themselves and others, including other species and the environment.
With identification of the skills and cognitive capacities young people most need in today’s world, we can then develop appropriate curricula. We can begin by reexamining what is currently taught, cultivated, and assessed within traditional curricula since we cannot simply add on to an already full plate. Ultimately, it’s in the best interests of our children, our societies, and our world to develop curricula, pedagogical approaches, and school cultures that simultaneously:
- Foster qualities such as compassion, wonder, responsibility, and integrity.
- Ensure students obtain core skills and thinking capacities that will help them navigate, succeed in, and contribute to the world they live in.
- Ensure knowledge acquisition about subjects that most agree are essential.
- Provide an introduction to numerous subjects so students have exposure to the breadth of worthwhile topics and are poised to think in interdisciplinary ways.
- Ensure students have the ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one discipline to another.
- Create space and time to personalize the curriculum and pedagogy so all children have the ability in school to pursue their own interests, concerns, and talents.
- Enable students to express and cultivate their creativity and develop and maintain physical and mental health.
- Cultivate the ability to think and act in a solutionary manner.
With these skills in mind, let’s return to the content areas mentioned in my long list above. Since the acquisition of skills enables students to learn about any subjects of importance or interest, what content rises to the surface as essential for U.S. students to know? For me, at this moment in time, the following seem especially important:
- An overview of the history of humankind
- U.S. history, governance, and civics
- History of caste, slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other manifestations of prejudice and oppression and movements for justice and rights
- Climate science and climate change
- Ecology, biology, and psychology
- Media, disinformation, and conspiracy theories
- Sustainable and ethical living in a globalized world
- Logic and epistemology
- Physical and mental health and nutrition
- Money and economics
- Statistics and probability
- Exposure and access to various arts (poetry, music, drama, dance, visual arts, etc.)
What rises to the top for you?
This post is excerpted from the new edition of The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries