Okay, it’s complete out-of-the-box thinking time.

Why do schools teach what they do? 

Really, that’s what I’m asking…what’s it good for?

How is the content curriculum that we teach kids helping them?

(And I am not accepting any version of “it prepares them for the next level of school.”)

By Bast

In older posts on this blog, I’ve written that school curriculum NEEDS a major shift: (whole post here)

21st century learners need thinking skills. They need to be able to find, process, and evaluate information that is EVERYWHERE and always accessible. They need to be able to participate in an interconnected, wired world in effective and responsible ways. They NEED to be taught how to manage/handle/thrive amidst all of the information that is out there and continuing to grow.

Our allegiance to English, Science, Math, and Social Studies as core curricular ideals and the end-all-be-all in student learning needs to make room for higher order thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

And after sharing my thoughts on the NYTimes reported failure of a laptop program, I offered: (whole post here)

Our curricula of content mired in Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies is not preparing students for anything but further education focused on these same subjects.

What students learn needs to be different and how they learn needs to be different.

These are not unique ideas.  Throughout the edublogosphere in varying degrees, educators are talking about the importance of a 21st Century Curriculum (for lack of a better name).

So I ask this question, in light of the shared belief that a 21st Century curriculum focused on thinking, communicating and collaborating skills is necessary for a world in which knowledge is so readily accessible.

What is the point of the way current curriculum is setup?

More specifically, break it down into the classic subjects:

  • Why do we learn Language Arts (or English in HS)?
  • Why do we learn Social Studies?
  • Why do we learn Science?
  • Why do we learn Math?
  • Why do we learn Art (performing and visual)?

(note:  I stick to these subjects, because Language learning seems to have an obvious practicality, as does Health/PE.)

Is this too bold to ask?  Can we defend what we do as schools?

No more, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” defense.

Out of the box time.

Prove that what we say we value is useful.

Truly no offense intended to any of these subjects and the educators who teach them.  I just want to hear from the experts what the right answers are.

Please feel free to answer any and all in the comments.

Image: “Question!” by Bast, found at Flickr Creative Commons

11 Responses to “Is school curriculum still meaningful?”
  1. How about a balance between content learning and process learning.

    It’s what I know
    It’s what I can do
    And, I know how to learn anything I need to learn.

    Process learners generally know how to learn but don’t know anything.

    Content learners have mastered a group of facts or ideas but have feuw skills to transfer their expertise into other areas.

  2. dharter says:

    Agreed. But I am going to continue to stir the pot.

    Why this content learning?

    Why do we continue to do the math we do or study literature analysis?

    Why do we teach history?

    I am looking for specifics. What do students get out of these curricula?

  3. History: so we learn how the choices yesterday impact the world today and to hopefully avoid making the same mistakes. To pose the question of progress? Should teach the ability to seek connections. Memorization of dates and names should be limited to those of core importance. Connections should be stressed.

    Language Arts: to communicate. Literature analysis to see the themes that impact all human life. Leads to asking questions about meaning.

    Math and Science to understand the world and universe is an ordered place. Truth exists and the scientific method increases learning.

    If we shift to teaching critical thinking skills from just content coverage education would be more valuable. We need to ask the question of mission? If we exist just to train employees then why are we here? Life’s meaning is found by exploring the questions of who we are? where we came from? and why are we here?

    My worry is that the current secular education system lacks the freedom to even attempt to answer these questions.

  4. shaggyhill says:


    Asking a child to create the future, without analyzing the past, is like telling an athlete to become a pro, without letting them use the experience of a coach. Giving a kid a violin and telling them to get to Carnegie Hall, without any lessons, or even being able to hear the music of other violinists. I know that it is better to experience something in order to gain wisdom from the actions, but I hope, really hope, that is some way I can deliver an experience in my history class that lets kids gain some wisdom from other’s experiences, and that they use that wisdom to guide their creation of a better future.

    If we can’t answer why for everything we are teaching, we should not be teaching it. I just asked my student teacher yesterday the same question…after explaining what he was going to do I simply asked why do they need this? Why is it important to them? Why is it going to make a difference in there life the second they participate in the activity? After going through the questions I then ask one more…why are you teaching this?…and make your answer fit on a bumper sticker. If you have to give a long winded answer to why something is being taught, it probably more of a defense than a reason….

  5. dharter says:

    Great answers. I wonder when I consider what you’ve written against what I see students come away with whether the “intent” of this learning is getting through. Do kids get that these themes are about the human condition when they study literature, or are they too focused on looking for imagery or writing a good analysis paper? Is there another way to teach math that speaks to the “order” of the universe or do we simply teach skills and hope that message is implied/inferred?

    It’s certainly the expected and valid answer for history…so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past…but do we teach it that way? Do our history students get that what they are learning about is the “what worked” and “what didn’t” of the past? Are we challenging our kids enough to think of themselves as “creators of our future”? A great line by the way.

    Awesome 2nd paragraph by the way…we are on the same train of thought, you and I.

    I guess both of my responses here speak more to pedagogy and engaging kids than they do to curriculum choices. I suppose it says that if our curriculum is in fact justifiable (as it should be), are we doing it justice? And in turn, are we doing our kids justice?

  6. @dharter
    Literature and history lend themselves very well to these themes. But then again the teachers need the freedom to ask the questions with their students. When you start asking questions of meaning and purpose this inevitably leads to philosophies of life and the discussion of religion. Some schools are free to address these issues, and by addressing them teach to the whole person. Can secular education accomplish this task?

  7. Alicia says:

    One of Jeff U’s TOK students asked what my colleagues have deemed an “essential question” in her blog:

    What is the point of higher thinking and reasoning skills when we have leaders who are suppose to be sophisticated and critical thinkers yet do not practice the minimal basics of dealing with people who have conflicting views?

    I felt my comments were going to turn to a blog, so I posted one in response. In essence, until higher education changes its expectations for a degree, k-12 education is obliged to address the “traditional” core subjects in meaningful ways. How we lead students to discover this knowledge is different than changing the essential content and skills. We need to prepare students for the box they live in. If we also provide them with the tools to click away at the mortar of this cell, we have done well.

    I would rarely do a student a disservice by leading her to believe s/he doesn’t need to demonstrate competency in math, science, the arts, with fluency and a perspective of the history of “modern” civilization. To do so would be setting him up for failure or disillusionment.

    Thanks for making me think – whether within the confines or outside of the box!

  8. Dennis Harter says:


    Thanks for the comment! I posted this comment on your blog, but it didn’t appear for ages, awaiting moderation. Just thought I’d continue the converstation here….

    Comments like yours and others are exactly what I was hoping for when I posted my question.

    I would never undermine our curriculum with students, but I would encourage them to question and critically evaluate what they do and why they do it. I don’t believe that any curriculum coordinator or educator would not value these qualities in a student when used appropriately and in the best interest of their learning.

    I do worry that we too often accept and offer the response that we teach the content curriculum we do because kids need it to get into college and then get a good job. Surely there must be a better defense than this – despite the undeniable practicality of that answer.

    I taught math. So I am more than used to the “when am I ever going to use this” question. And I had an answer. It’s about a way of thinking. It’s about processing and solving problems. It’s about understanding and being amazed by a human-created system/language that incredibly explains and predicts our universe. It’s about logic and creativity and ultimately about thinking.

    I don’t believe that technology should “dictate the content of what we teach.” In fact, technology has little to do with it other than as the tool you suggest. Instead, I believe (along with most curriculum directors and teachers) that we need to value thinking, communicating, and collaborating skills. These will become incredibly important to separate the successful in a world in which “content knowledge” is more and more accessible at the click of a button. (In truth, these skills have always been important.) That we need to embed in all children’s education safe and responsible use of these tools that have the power to harm just as they have the power to connect.

    I wonder/question whether we need a traditional curriculum based on content and valuing these skills or instead should we not have a curriculum that focuses on ensuring we create thinkers, communicators, and collaborators, in the context of traditional content curriculum that we value.

    I don’t know the answer…but I love the conversation and I am happy to have started/continued the discussion with other smart educators (like yourself) who can offer answers.

    Thanks for joining in!

  9. [...] have written before about a thinking curriculum – one less focused on content knowledge. But  let’s think about [...]

  10. Jenn says:

    I was drawn to your blog, because this is a question that I ask myself everyday. Why am I teaching this? Will my students use this and apply their knowledge outside of my classroom? I hope that I am giving my students the thinking tools needed to succeed in all realms of life. However, this can be hard, especially with so many state-mandated standardized tests. My favorite quote is, “It’s not what you teach, it’s how you teach”. I think that no matter how traditional the content, as long as teachers can inspire students to become life-long learners, we are helping our students to succeed at anything they put their mind to.

  11. Jenn,
    Thanks for your thoughts. No doubt, you are right…creating life long learners will always mean we are successful. And “how you teach” will do that and promote thinking and foster creativity and build confident communicators.

    What worries me is that these great results are a side effect of good teaching of possibly less-important content. Why not make all those things the focus of a good curriculum and then have different content knowledge be the side effect? Some would learn about Australian Aborigines, others would learn about Native Americans, but ALL WOULD BECOME SUCCESSFUL THINKERS.

    Am I under-valuing content knowledge?

    Glad you found this post, Jenn. Nice to continue this conversation.

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