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.

7 Responses to “The subject of education”

  1. William J Ryan

    Interesting question posed, many of our workplaces are competency-based, we need people to be able to perform (“do”) specific tasks and I can see how the credit hour could be replaced by a list of competencies and wonder where you see (if you do of course) an overlap with process-oriented learning.

    • Harold

      Competencies work for complicated tasks but not complex ones. Having a competency like “think creatively” may sound good on the surface but is very difficult to evaluate. I think we should focus on the work that needs to be done, how it gets done and with whom. That means looking at the effectiveness of teams and communities and not individuals. Another problem with competencies is they are usually linked to performance evaluation, which W. Edwards Deming described as a deadly disease.

      “A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation as will be learned in the experiment with the Red Beads (Ch. 7) could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people.” Deming, W. Edwards. 1993. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education.

      In his own words:

  2. Bree

    I was so happy to see this post. Harold, I think you are right on. I just blogged about this exact idea – that education should focus on the skills we’re after and not content mastery – last week. if you’re interested.

    Teachers intuitively understand this, but still change is slow to come. When students ask math teachers why they need to know the Law of Sines (a formula they’ll likely use 0 times in their adult lives unless they become high school math teachers), most teachers will respond that it’s not really that they need to know the formula, but that math class is for training them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers. Which of course begs the question, can students learn to be problem solvers and critical thinkers with content that is of particular interest to them instead of curriculum-prescribed topics?

    Will and Harold, thanks for posting book recommendations. Will, I wanted to introduce myself. I work at Flint Hill and heard lots of great things from Shannan about your Skype with our board. Thanks for helping us in our r/evolution.

  3. Howard

    Great post! I agree on the “move to process-oriented learning” in all forms and levels of education. I would also add the word social to process and I think the participation metaphor can help explain. Barbara Rogoff explains it well as 3 activity plains: participatory appropriation, guided participation, and apprenticeship – copy here:
    (with Girl Scout cookie sales as an example)
    My own take is that, while there are universalities in cognition, it is also universal that cognition and action are linked and intertwined. Even meditation involves the body and social practice.


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