What a modern curriculum really looks like

Steven Rudolph

For the past many years, we have all been hearing about a call for change in education. There have been countless articles, TV debates and conference sessions where educational leaders, parents and even students have clamoured for an end to the mugging up of endless amounts of information for the sake of passing exams. But when the programmes are over, we return to the same rat race of children chasing marks.

While the calls for change abound, we find ourselves unable to bring about that change. One of the reasons for this is that people have not understood the problem clearly enough. In this article, I aim to clarify the underlying issue that we need to acknowledge if we are to know precisely what steps we need to take to achieve the Himalayan goal of redesigning a curriculum that meets the need of the hour.

To define the problem, we must understand how things have changed over centuries with respect to the trends in the way we work. Over 30 years ago, futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book The Third Wave highlighted three key eras that we have passed through in the course of human civilization: the Agricultural Age, the Industrial Age, and most recently, the Information Age. The first period found man involved mainly in the pursuit of farming. The second was characterized by the mass production of consumer goods. The third, which began in the 1950s, is defined by a shift away from the blue-collar, factory-based work, towards the white-collar, conceptual-based work.

While most people are aware of these trends in human evolution, what the Tofflers more importantly reveal in their book, Revolutionary Wealth, are three “deep fundamentals” of life that change through these eras: time, space and knowledge.

Time
In the Agricultural Age, time was extremely flexible. Crops grew at a very slow pace so if you showed up late for work (or not at all for a few days), it didn’t really have much impact on the harvest. In the Industrial Age, however, time became much less flexible. For instance, factories and mechanized production processes required everyone to be in their place at the same time. Not showing up on time – or even a few minutes late – could drastically affect output. However, in the Information Age, time has very different implications. Companies are much more flexible toward employees with their working hours, as long as they know that the work will get done – and knowing that with technology, people can be working any time – even at home and on weekends.

Space
In that same sense, the Information Age has released us from the constraints of space, where activities are no longer bound to a single location. Mobile phones and the Internet permit people to perform their work wherever they might be. Think about freelancers who can do the bulk of their work from home or a local coffee shop if they so wish. And also the entire world of outsourcing, where customers in America talk to support agents in India about problems with their computers that are produced in China. Compare this aspect of space with the Agricultural and Industrial Ages, and you see how starkly different things were. In both those eras, work happened at one particular location (either in the field or at the factory).

Knowledge
In the previous eras, information travelled slowly, and a little knowledge went a long way. Performing agricultural activities or mass-producing things required a limited amount of knowhow, which stayed more or less the same as the years went by. A person who learned how to sow seeds for a potato crop or tighten the screws on a widget as it passed by on the conveyor belt needed very little or no additional training for years or even decades. However, in the Information Age, because information travels at such a high rate and because the speed of change is so fast, people are in a constant state of upgrading their knowledge. For instance, in many companies, product sales are tracked in real time, with analysts monitoring trends and suggesting changes in strategy on the fly . What characterizes this age when it comes to knowledge is the access to free information, as well as the fact that it is no longer possible for people to learn once and forget. Rather, people must embrace a constant practice of learning to stay current.

The implications on education
Education systems are designed to help students acquire the knowledge and skills they will need when they enter the world of work. The specific problem we have in this regard is that our current education system was fashioned after the paradigm of the Industrial Age. Below, I compare work in the Industrial Age with schools in the Information Age. Note the similarities:

Time
Everyone must come to work at the same time.
Everyone must come to school at the same time.

When the bell rings people start and stop work.
When the bell rings, students start and stop learning.

Work schedule is decided by a manager.
Learning schedule is decided by a teacher or the management.

Space
Work happens at the factory.
Learning happens at school.

Workers of the same type work together.
Children of the same age work together.

Work tasks are divided; workers are assigned fixed locations to work in.
Classes are divided; students are assigned fixed classrooms to learn in.

Knowledge
What workers learn stays the same for years and years.
Curriculum largely stays the same for years and years.

There is one way to do things when working (the right way).
There is one way to answer questions (the right way).

What you need to know comes only from your manager.
What you need to know comes only from your teacher.

Only workers learn. Managers know everything.
Only students learn. Teachers know everything.

Education in the Knowledge Age
If this is so, and if educational systems must reflect the age in which we live, it would hold that our current education system should foster the qualities and skills required for the Information Age. For such a knowledge-based society, here is what a curriculum must look like:

  • Students create their own daily learning schedules.
  • Students determine their path for learning the syllabus and go at their own speed.
  • Students use technology to learn anywhere, anytime.
  • Students select the rooms they wish to visit to fulfill their learning needs.
  • Students take exams whenever they are ready.
  • Students of different age groups learn together.
  • Students learn both alone and in different-sized groups.
  • Both teachers and students teach and learn.
  • Teachers spend more time coaching and facilitating and less time teaching.

In my next article, I will talk about how my colleagues and teachers reacted when I proposed changing our curriculum at Jiva Public School to one like this. I will discuss the first steps we took in making this curriculum a reality.

Until then, I encourage you to dream a bit – to envision what your school would look like were it to adopt a curriculum that is in sync with the Information Age. In this stage, don’t get bogged down with the reasons for why it couldn’t happen (there will be plenty of time for objection handling). Remember that if we want change, we must first visualize what that change looks like. For now, let’s get a line of site on the peak of the mountain.

The author is Director at Jiva, Faridabad. He can be reached at steve@jiva.com.