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Rethinking school curriculum for a new world

An education thought leader says what we teach now has little relevance to the future
Marc Prensky, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, wants to replace traditional curriculum with project-based, real-world problem-solving.
Marc Prensky, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, wants to replace traditional curriculum with project-based, real-world problem-solving.

Marc Prensky, an authority on the connection between learning and technology, coined the phrase “digital native” in 2001.

In his new book, Education To Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st-Century Kids (2016, Teachers College Press), Prensky says our current education system is wrong for the future—not because we haven’t added technology and so-called 21st century skills, but because we have the wrong ends or goals in mind.

Prensky, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, wants to replace traditional curriculum with project-based, real-world problem-solving, with students learning necessary skills as they go along.

“Up until now education has been about improving individuals,” he says. “What education should be about in the future is improving the world—and having individuals improve in that process.”

How did “education to better their world” evolve?

The concept evolved over a lifetime. It began with lack of engagement in the classroom. I wondered whether games could help that. It turned out games were a good idea, but people were not able to invent the kind of games that would solve our problems.

We thought maybe we just don’t have the right relationship with our kids, so I wrote the book Teaching Digital Natives in 2009, in which I suggested the teacher-student relationship should focus on partnering together to achieve goals.

Then I started thinking about the curriculum. Do kids really need math, English, science and social studies proficiency to succeed? What they need is effective thinking and relationships and accomplishment.

But even that wasn’t enough because the ends of education are changing. If education is just about improving individuals intellectually, then we’re not going to get the world we want. We place a big bet that the kids are going to somehow go out and make a better world, but we have shown them nothing about how to do that.

So how do we show them?

Through project-based learning, practiced 50 or 100 or 200 times during the course of the 12 years they spend in school. Then they will know how to apply their own passions and interests and strengths, and we will wind up with a better world. We’ll have people who know how to make the world better because they’ve been doing it for all these years.

When they get into college, the role of college or university will then be to give them the kinds of depth they need to apply what they’ve learned to a particular area that they’re interested in. You see a lot of colleges moving to projects now, but they’re starting from scratch. If kids just start doing projects in college, they miss the first 12 years of preparation they need to do it at a college level.

Are the skills that they pick up in project-based learning transferable to other disciplines?

The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that it’s the teacher’s role to help people understand the relationship. A teacher should not be someone who teaches Topic A, then moves on to Topic B and Topic C.

Instead, it’s someone who says, “You know, in this project that you’re doing, Topic B would be very helpful. Here’s how you do it and here are the skills.” The kids learn the particular skill when they need it, and they often learn it on their own.

Schools are pushing students to use tablets and other mobile devices, but you say technology is a mask. What do you mean?

Here’s what we use technology for. We use it to deliver curriculum in fancy ways, whether it’s video or animations or games. We use it for keeping records. We use it for testing. Those are the basic three uses for technology. None of those things are the crucial leverages of technology. What technology should be about is connecting with the people around the world, and leveraging the powers that we have.

First-graders can do worldwide surveys of other first-graders. It’s unbelievable the power that kids can have these days. I just read about a girl who was concerned about the bullying and isolation that goes on in her middle school, so she created an app that lets kids sign up for a cafeteria table that will be welcoming at lunch.

That’s the kind of thing that kids can do. They don’t have to wait for technology companies, they just do it. That’s what we should be helping them understand in school, rather than giving out tablets so they can use that technology to watch another math lesson.

Let me play devil’s advocate. The girl who developed the app had a conventional K12 experience in that she learned how to read and write as we all did. She studied math, science and social studies. Yet you suggest that we should discard that educational path.

I’m suggesting that we should think what parts of it are really necessary and what parts of it we just impose on people for historical reasons.

Take math for example. Yes, kids should be able to do some kinds of arithmetic. Not much above that is really needed except conceptually. We devote most of our learning to calculation—which is something computers do very well and humans don’t—but we spend very little time helping people understand where something in the world is actually mathematical.

There’s plenty of math involved in creating an app. It could certainly be learned by starting to do programming in the first grade. My point is that we don’t want to inflict a curriculum on people. I’m not saying kids should be illiterate or kids shouldn’t read.

I’m saying that beyond a certain point you’ve got to focus on the kinds of things kids need for the future and not what they needed for the past. Kids teach themselves to read just fine when they finally find a book that they’re interested in, and they teach each other.

That’s like learning a language by immersion. Yes?

Exactly. You learn the language when you want to say something in the language or want to understand something in the language.

A lot of kids play video games. Why not give them that same game in Spanish? They will know what it’s all about, but they’ll learn a different way to say it.

It’s a radical departure from what we’re doing. Some parents may say, “Great idea, but not with my child.”

My answer to that is, given how different the world is, if we don’t experiment we would be irresponsible. If you want us to be irresponsible with your kid by just doing the same thing that we know doesn’t work, then there are plenty of places that’ll do that for you. The responsible thing to do in a world that’s changing is to adapt.

What I’m proposing works, but people don’t trust it because they’re so used to what they have.

In the book I tell a parable about the “Saber-toothed Curriculum.” In prehistoric times, they needed food so they learned to catch fish in clear pools, or they learned to club animals for meat and skins. They learned to protect themselves from the saber-toothed tigers with fire. That’s what they taught their kids for thousands of years.

Until one day the world changed. The pools got muddy. The horses disappeared and the saber-toothed tigers died out and were replaced by bears that weren’t afraid of fire. Everything that they had was no longer applicable, but they continued to teach it because it was the traditional curriculum.

It’s so clear that things that we teach are no longer applicable. We can move away from some of these proxies that we used to have. We used to teach geometry for logical thinking. Now we can teach programming—that’s pretty logical thinking.

What people are not understanding is how different the world will be in 20 years. Think about how fast it’s changing. If we don’t start preparing our kids for that world and we focus only on learning 19th century stuff, we’re going to be in big trouble. 

Tim Goral is senior editor.