The subject of education

I mostly focus on workplace learning here, but I want to put together some of my previous thoughts on public education. My opinions are based on watching our two boys go through a public education system, now complete, plus a fair bit of reading, in addition to many conversations with educators over the years. If we change how we think about public education, we may also be able to improve how we support workplace learning.

school_country__abiclipa_01.jpgWe do not live our lives based on academic subjects, and no workplace is subject-based, but almost all of our curricula are stuffed into subject silos. Education systems should focus on facilitating learning and critical thinking. When students are ready to enter the workforce they will then have the learning skills to blast through whatever job training interests them. Getting the education system out of the job training business will likely make for happier learners, teachers and and maybe even parents.

What would a curriculum look like if you eliminated any specific content and any reference to particular technologies and instead focused on universal cognitive processes? Many varieties of this “curriculum” could be created, using various content areas or communication technologies. I imagine a curriculum that is open to teachers’ expertise and students’ needs, based on processes like those suggested by Marina Gorbis in The Nature of the Future:

  • Sensemaking
  • Social and emotional intelligence
  • Novel and adaptive thinking
  • Moral and ethical reasoning

What would be different about this more basic curriculum is that students would be able to choose how they would learn these process skills and how they would show mastery. Self-expression could be shown through writing, blogging, art, drama, mechanics, etc. This approach would also free up a whole bunch of teachers in administrative curriculum development positions. Without a subject-centric curriculum, teachers could choose the appropriate subject matter for their particular class and the school system could concentrate on ensuing that students have mastered the important processes.

All fields of knowledge are expanding and artificial boundaries between disciplines are disintegrating. Our education systems need to drop the whole notion of subjects and content mastery and move to process-oriented learning. The subject matter should be something of interest to the learner or something a teacher, with passion, is motivated to teach. The subject does not matter, it’s just grist for the cognitive mill.

Discussing what subjects we should teach is the 21st Century equivalent of determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The answer is infinite. The real debate in education is whether we need subject-based curriculum at all.

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