Curriculum Opinion

Charles Fadel on What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do

By Marc Tucker — February 25, 2016 9 min read
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I recently interviewed for this column Charles Fadel, the Founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign and a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He has studied physics, electrical engineering, and business. Starting his career in semiconductors and working his way toward systems engineering, Charles worked as Global Education Lead at Cisco Systems, which makes various internet technologies. Transitioning from education technology to education policy, he found himself drawn from a focus on the technology itself to a focus on its implications for what matters in an education. Personally, I find much of what has been written about 21st Century Skills to be very superficial or worse. But that is not true of Charles and his work. If this short piece intrigues you, I suggest you get a copy of Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed.

Marc S. Tucker: Since humans first walked the earth, we have had to work for a living. We may be at a point now in which smart devices may do so much of the work that needs to be done that there is very little for most people to do, resulting perhaps in wide poverty, or, depending on how the fruits of the machine’s labor are distributed, a world of leisure. Both of these possibilities have big implications for education. What is your view on this point?

Charles Fadel: A study of the census results in England and Wales since 1871 showed that the rise of machines made many jobs obsolete but created many more than were destroyed. Of course, this time could be different. We do not know. There will certainly be a need for upskilling in the near-term, but beyond that it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen. As you know, an Oxford University study has suggested that 47 percent of the jobs in the United States could be automatable with future technology. But that does not mean that they will be automated. I am inclined to take the middle ground here, that advanced technology will substitute for many existing jobs, but many others, most of which we cannot now imagine, will be created. Fifteen years ago, one would not have imagined the job of a biostatistician. The new jobs, on balance, are more likely than not to require higher skills such as creativity, and the ability to adapt very quickly to changing job requirements and a changing social scene.

MST: So what does all this imply about what students should learn?

CF: This gets to the essence of my organization’s work. I would organize the answer to your question under four broad headings: relevant knowledge, skills, character and the ability to reflect and adapt (what I call meta-learning).

MST: Let’s take a look at each one. Let’s begin with what is learned. There are many educators and prognosticators who think that the pace of creation of knowledge is so stunningly high, and knowledge so quickly obsolete, that it is pointless to cram knowledge into students’ heads. How would you respond to that?

CF: The truth, as usual, is more complicated. Yes, factual recall is becoming somewhat less important because everything can be found online. But are you going to interrupt your daily life constantly to look up every fact and figure? Can you imagine what life would be like if you had to pull out a calculator every time you wanted to know what two times two is? A certain amount of knowledge is still essential; we must rethink what that is, through the lens of relevance.

MST: Isn’t it also true that understanding something depends on having something to hang new knowledge on, and that ‘something’ depends on having both conceptual structures of knowledge and much of the content that populates those structures in your head?

CF: Yes, of course. Without deep conceptual mastery of disciplines, it is very hard to learn much of what our students will need to know. And that implies that, notwithstanding the availability of an enormous amount of information on the internet, it is still essential that students have in their heads very complex knowledge structures as well as the knowledge that gets hung on those structures. The question is not whether we need facts and structures in our heads but which facts and which structures. When the country was much younger and mariners and land surveyors and builders needed trigonometry it made sense to require trigonometry in the math curriculum. But today it might make much more sense to drop many topics in trigonometry from the mathematics curriculum and put in math modeling, statistics and probability instead.

MST: I see a structure going up, like a building. The strong pillars on which it is built are the disciplines, constructed by the finest minds in history to structure the knowledge we have built up over the centuries and millennia. But there are also beams and trusses and floors that connect these pillars, running in all directions and layered as the building rises. These are the big ideas that run across the disciplines and connect them, as well as an ever-changing array of specialties and sub-specialties that allow us to adapt our knowledge to a rapidly changing context. I would argue that interdisciplinary studies are shallow and useless without a deep grounding in the disciplines. And a deep grounding in the disciplines won’t get students very far unless they can work across the disciplines to solve real-world problems as they arise.

CF: Absolutely, it’s about deeper understanding as well as the ability to use that deeper understanding well and wisely across many real-world situations. Transfer is essential.

MST: Let’s go now to question of what you do with disciplinary knowledge. How much of the curriculum should be driven by the logic of the discipline, which is the way we have done it for millennia? The alternative is a curriculum that is driven by real world problems to be solved, learning the formal knowledge we need as it is needed to solve particular problems? That proposition has implications for curriculum and pedagogy. If you look at the new medical curriculum, started at McGill and later adopted by Harvard, they made huge changes in the instruction of medical education. Much the same thing has happened in engineering and other professions. They still include classes in the underlying disciplines, but students move to applied work much more quickly, and the questions that come up in the applied work shape the way the students learn the underlying disciplines. The argument for this kind of education is that the student learns how to learn from the very beginning. The education of these professionals includes classes in the traditional subjects, but they don’t last as long, or go as deep as they used to. Is this the way to create schools that produce students with a deeper conceptual mastery and, at the same time, much more capacity to apply what they know to real world problems?

CF: Our work is more centered on the “what” than the “how”, and of course the two are in a feedback loop. We recognize that there are significant questions of implementation at the school level. But if we don’t sort out the “what” properly, we will never get to the “how” part right. How time is allocated between the traditional disciplines and interdisciplinary work is very important. How time is allocated between mastering the content and applying it is no less important. Creating school experiences that successfully blend both is crucial. Part of this is, as I said earlier, is a matter of making wise decisions about which topics to include in the curriculum and which to curate from it. We won’t get universally to learning new disciplines such as robotics, entrepreneurship, etc. without dropping something we are now teaching. That will require simplification of a high order, with careful curation - a scalpel analogy comes to mind, not a chainsaw. I asked my cousin who is a zoologist: if you had to teach zoology in two weeks, what would you teach? He jokingly quipped: it would take 40 years to answer that question! But lo and behold, the next day he sent me an email of nine bullet points about the essential concepts in zoology. It is perfectly possible to take any discipline, and extract the essence of it. Having done that, we must make sure students deeply absorb these concepts, for life.

MST: The English, in the heyday of the great English ‘public’ schools, like Eton and Harrow, thought that a broad liberal education, combined with the development of strong character was the whole purpose of the education for the people who were going to run their empire. Is there anything new here, except for the fact that we are talking about education for all, not just a small elite?

CF: In the past, the United States relied heavily on employers to provide specific job skills, so we, too, favored a liberal education over job specific education. But that has changed. Now employers of all sorts are expecting high school graduates to come to them with all the skills needed to do the jobs they are offering. On the character side, we used to rely on families, governments and religious institutions to instill character, but families are now less influential, and, increasingly, societies are now expecting schools to take on character development, too.

MST: Because, as you say, most employers are now looking for job-ready entry-level applicants, a modern education system must give students the skills for jobs we foresee but, at the same time, for those we cannot foresee. So we must prepare students to readily adapt to swiftly changing technologies, forms of work organization and jobs. The buzzword here is “learning to learn”. But this brings us back where this conversation started. Learning quickly depends on being able to hang new knowledge on structures that are already in your head. This is why mastery of the disciplines is so important. What else is entailed in learning to learn?

CF: There are two elements. The first is attitude, what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset": I can learn because I have the ability to learn. I may never be Mozart, but I can be a good pianist if I try really, really hard. Sure, genetics matter. But, resilience and determination matter even more. Especially here in the United States, people think that if they are not born with the right genes there are many things they simply cannot learn to do, whereas research shows that belief that one can learn and putting in the effort needed to learn are far more important then genetics in making you competent. Then, there’s the metacognitive aspect. What do I have to know about myself and about learning to direct my own learning?

MST: Is there more to the goals of your four dimensions than learning to learn and guiding one’s own learning?

CF: Yes. In the end we get to Wisdom, the heart of meaning, value and truth. What’s Just is beyond what is Legal. What’s ethical is what’s beyond what’s Just. What’s Wise is beyond what’s Ethical. For Einstein, mathematics and physics were the ultimate aesthetic, beautiful beyond measure; but he also saw mathematics and physics as Truth. All of which is to say that a curriculum worth having must not be reduced to the mechanics of the things we can easily measure, though we need to accurately measure whatever we can, and evolve the science of assessment of competencies as well.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.