Curriculum is vast. It can be overwhelming, and structuring it effectively is demanding. Within each subject area, there is a range of topics and concepts, making it difficult to narrow the focus and determine what exactly is worth teaching. How broad should our scope be? How in depth should we go? How long should we spend? Determining what we want students to learn is a decision that will inevitably lead to valuing some knowledge and skills over others. Some things have to be left out.
Is there essential knowledge that all students should be taught? The work of E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation offers a specific and coherent curriculum that has achieved success in the United States. Perhaps it is worth implementing here. How else can we reach a consensus on what the curriculum should include? Maybe using the test of time is a suitable approach. The older the knowledge, the more worthy it is of being learned. Ignore newer insights because they’re not as old. Nothing dates quicker than the cutting edge. Despite what the ed-tech pundits would have us believe, learning has not changed significantly in the new century. We still learn the same way.
Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of several books on language, cognition and human nature, offers a convincing definition of a quality education:
‘It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.
On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.’
If we want to provide a quality education, we need to ask ourselves what is truly worth knowing. What knowledge has enduring value? Twenty years down the road, what do we want students to remember?