'Reframing education for better educational outcomes: Part one – what to teach and why'

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By Dennis Sale

THIS is the first in a series of columns about what the future of education (in the next two to five years) may look like, and what challenges will need to be thoughtfully addressed.

Framing beyond such timelines is highly speculative. Certainly, education has long been a creature of fashion, with much reframing of what is to be learned and how. It has always been contented and based on societal valuations and context, especially by dominant political groups and whatever the vogue on educational perspective is at the time; aptly captured by Kelly (1995), who describes curriculum as ‘… the battlefield of many competing influences and ideologies’.

For illustration it is worth reflecting on the following two quotes, one from a 19th-century writer, and the other from a former prime minister of Singapore.

Writing about education in England in 1806, Scottish merchant, statistician and magistrate Patrick Colquhoun said: ‘It is not proposed that the children of the poor should be educated in a manner to elevate their minds above the rank they are destined to fill in society… Utopian schemes for an extensive diffusion of knowledge would be injurious and absurd.’

Elsewhere, a former leader of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, said: ‘We must get away from the idea that it is only the people at the top who should be thinking, and the job of everybody else is to do as told. Instead, we want to bring about a spirit of innovation, of learning by doing, of everybody each at his level all the time asking how he can do his job better.’

Big pillows of change

Firstly, we are living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, which makes predicting what knowledge, skills, and attitudes are most essential for employment and wellbeing an increasingly difficult exercise. Secondly, as us humans are only equipped with a brain nicely suited to a stone age in terms of memory processing, we are increasingly suffering from cognitive overload in a world of exponential knowledge growth. Thirdly, but not the least significant, is the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence, which will create massive changes in all aspects of human life, and the educational landscape will face very specific challenges.

Fundamental to framing a school curriculum are beliefs on what constitutes an educated person and a good society. These constitute what is typically referred to as educational aims, about which Wringe (1988) said: ‘Human beings have the potential for developing in many directions and the problem of educational aims is deciding which kinds of development should be fostered and which discouraged.’

What are relevant 21st century competencies?

At present, there are already concerns about the relevance and usefulness of much of the school curriculum as it is now constituted. For example, there seems to be a global problem of students not seeing meaning in much of what they are learning at school, as Wagner (2010) noted: ‘In countless focus groups, I’ve conducted with high-school students, “boring classes” – which include so-called advanced classes – are among the main complaints about the school.’

Many factors contribute to students not showing interest in school learning, not least the distractions of endless enticing social media activities, as well as a lack of self-regulatory capabilities. However, it is equally arguable that much of the current school curriculum has decreasing currency in the present VUCA world, especially to the experienced reality of many students. For example, in the UK context, The Times Education Commission report 2022 claimed that: ‘Our education system fails on all measures, from giving young people the intellectual and emotional tools they need as an adult to providing businesses with the skills they need.

‘The [UK] curriculum is too rigid and inflexible, with most schools constrained by an outdated rubric imposed by Whitehall that has no room for regional variation and takes little account of employers’ needs.’

In summary, are we teaching stuff that has little practical relevance and interest in the modern context? Also, are there areas of learning which are more relevant, practically useful, and potentially of greater intrinsic interest to youngsters in today’s world?

Neary (2014) nicely frames the current dilemma: ‘The structure and methods of education must help to sustain the traditional values of society, but they must also respond adequately to current cultural, social, industrial, and technological issues, and to future change.’

The Towards Defining 21st Century Competencies, Foundation Document for Discussion, Ontario (2016), emphasised that key criteria for evaluating the worth of 21st-century competencies must have measurable benefits for multiple areas of life and therefore critical for all students. The most prominent 21st-century competencies found in international frameworks that have shown measurable benefits are associated with critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.

From extensive research, I framed ‘Metacognitive Capability’, which is the distinctive human capability be able to self-reflect, think, plan, monitor and evaluate our thinking, feelings, and actions as the superordinate framework for organising and enacting these other 21st-century competencies. MC fuels the process of becoming a self-directed learner in that it develops and facilitates the key functions that are highly beneficial for effective learning and wellbeing – helping learners to:

  • Set key goals for learning, and deciding what needs to be learned for what purpose.

  • Know how to learn and plan a successful learning strategy.

  • Use specific metacognitive, cognitive, and motivational strategies to achieve the learning goals.

  • Maintain positive beliefs and managing emotions to remain calm under pressure.

  • Persist, exercise volition to stay on track in the face of challenges and/or setbacks.

  • Monitor and review one’s progress and modify/change aspects of strategy based on feedback.

Furthermore, it will be skills that will be of most value for employability in a world increasingly shaped by AI technologies. Knowledge will be so readily available, customisable, and personalised by an army of integrated chatbots and other AI facilities, which seem to be emerging almost daily. Of course knowledge is important, but it is the understanding of knowledge (meaning making) in the mind and neural wiring in the brain that is crucial – and this involves high level MC. AI can serve up unlimited knowledge in multiple, even seductive, forms at the click of a mouse, but the essential metacognitive work must be done, and done well. As the old metaphor, ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ depicts, such ability will become even more important in navigating the endless swirl of information that can either be a boon to humankind of immense proportions, or its ultimate nemesis.

In terms of mainstream school subjects, there is a need to reappraise what is useful knowledge; that is focusing the selection of content on the key concepts and principles of a subject field that are fundamental to understanding its key structure. This is not dumbing down content learning, quite the contrary. It is making it relevant to life in the present and future context.

In the next column, I will further identify and evaluate other salient changes in curriculum content that can lead to better educational outcomes – a necessity for living productive lives in a world facing massive systemic change.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher, and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. He is the author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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