What is the role of content in twenty-first century education?

Largely thanks to the internet, information is everywhere. People are able to find out anything they want to know by simply ‘Googling it’. The need to store a lot of scarce information in our heads for later access is no longer necessary – all we need is access to ‘the global brain’ (The Internet) and the skill of knowing how to sort and use the information we access. This has dramatically and fundamentally changed the answer to the question of what an education system needs to provide for children.

Obviously developing children who know how to think for themselves, who are able to find and use all available knowledge (including making new connections that have not been made before), who can work together to come up with new solutions to our planet’s problems, and who are evolving constantly, will not occur in a content vacuum. But that content should be considered as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

There is much debate as to whether children need to be taught any specific content at all in order to thrive in the twenty first century. Are reading, writing and arithmetic really skills that children will learn on their own when the context requires it, or is there a body of knowledge that all children should be taught first so as to provide them with the necessary skills to learn organically for the rest? I am personally of the opinion that children will learn how to read and write in the course of doing other things, but I realise that my laissez-faire approach is not the only way for learning to emerge organically.

I am not completely averse to the idea that the first few years of a child’s education should be spent on steering him or her towards acquiring the knowledge of how to read and write and do basic arithmetic – as long as these are not taught mechanistically (in a one-size-fits-all way). If we acknowledge that there is more than one way to learn these things, and that not all children will learn the same things at the same pace, then I think that specific guidance from a “teacher” in the first few years of a child’s education in order to ensure these skills are acquired in a way that makes sense to the child would not be completely inappropriate.

I feel the same way about the range of content that children learn about all the way through their schooling. I am not averse to leaving it completely up to children to figure out what they want to know about and to go and find out about it with the support their teachers and/or peers. However, I realise that this is quite an extreme view. It takes a major leap of faith to not provide any context or structure for children, and I do not think that this is a pre-requisite for organic education. Many adults might feel uncomfortable with not having any clear idea of what their children are going to learn. If they feel that a certain body of content is important enough to know and that children should be guided towards knowing it, I think that is absolutely fine. The difference between organic and mechanistic education is that organic education would be more flexible about how the children come to know this body of content.

Organic educators might guide children towards discovering this content for themselves by asking questions that spark children’s curiosity about something that would require them finding this information out. Inquiry-based learning where children are encouraged to seek out answers to questions is a fantastic organic learning method that could be used to steer children towards whatever content the school feels it is necessary for children to know. There are several other approaches that would work well too, including design thinking (getting children to design a product or service) and project-based learning (getting children to explore a variety of connected subjects as part of a project). The key point here is that the process of how children come to an answer should be as important as the answer itself, and this process should be largely self-directed (the child should construct his or her own learning in a way that makes sense to him or her).

Types of content that might be relevant for the twenty first century include amongst other things: life skills (how to grow food, build a home, make clothes); financial, economic and entrepreneurial literacy (how business works); technological literacy (how technology works); civic literacy (how society works); environmental literacy (how our natural world works and how to preserve it); health and wellness literacy (how our bodies work). There are many perspectives on all of these subjects, so it would be important to draw attention to these perspectives in order to realise that there is never just one right answer to a question. It would be more valuable to compare these perspectives and judge their relative validity rather than to simply learn this content in a vacuum.

On the whole with organic learning processes the content is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Organic learning processes tend to be multidisciplinary (horizontal, interconnected) rather than siloed (vertical, fragmented), and collaborative (children work together) rather than individual (children work alone). Organic learning also requires that teachers be prepared to abandon their lesson plan if the children are following an unanticipated, but worthwhile, direction with their thinking. So flexibility and adaptability are necessary for organic education, even where the teacher is pursuing a specific learning outcome. I am very excited by Professor Sugata Mitra’s recent research into self-directed (self-organised) learning environments which indicates that, with the right ‘curiosity catalyst’ children will evolve their own learning without the need for external guidance (I will describe Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLES) in more detail later). I think there is a lot of exciting work still to be done on designing and sharing suitable organic curricula and learning processes for all ages, but it is becoming increasingly clear that education should focus on teaching and practicing processes that develop children’s inherent capacities rather than teaching them pre-determined static content.


Content in education in the twenty first century is a means to an end and not an end in itself – the process of learning is more important than the memorising of content.

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