Historically, curricula for mass education has tended to be described in terms of content. We can understand the need for this if the (mass education) system needs to ensure that all students study the same curricula. What is more difficult to understand is why this has become a "sacred cow", especially when we are beginning to view education not as a mass process but as a process to develop the full potential of all individuals.
In the past, the aim of mass education was to the development of people as an economic resource. Selection (for development, for resource allocation, for rewards, etc.) was a primary need of the system and this is reflected in the development of mechanisms for assessment, including standardized curricula and tests.
To maintain the same emphasis on the role of content in current curricula is less relevant if not invalid for the following reasons:
- there is no way we can teach someone everything they need to know in life so the primary objective of formal education needs to be to develop self-sufficient independent learners
- because we cannot teach everything, content in curricula is subjectively selected anyway, often reflecting the teachers’ own views and preferences
- knowledge obsolescence is an issue. Much of what is taught in formal education becomes obsolete and needs to be unlearned and relearned. As what will become obsolete is often unpredictable, an undue emphasis on content may generate obstacles to further learning.
More recent developments in education have demonstrated a shift away from only looking at the input side of the educational equation (e.g. prescribed curricula) to the outcomes of the process (e.g. competencies of graduates).
There has also been more attention given to the challenges of the "new" or "knowledge" economy where we do not limit the scope of education to simply the acquisition of knowledge, but to develop skills to become life long independent learners who not only acquire but also create and manage knowledge.
If we are to take a learner-centred view of education, the understanding of the role of content needs to change. I see the relevance of content in two aspects:
The first is the concept of foundation knowledge − what the learner needs to have in order to continue as an independent learner. At the most fundamental level, I suggest that this includes literacy (in a relevant language) and numeracy because this gives us access to captured knowledge and allows us to express our own knowledge in ways that others understand. I use these terms broadly.
We can extend these concepts to the language of a particular discipline and to more complex mathematical functions if these are relevant to a field of learning.
In my view, we should try and minimize this core of foundation knowledge for practical reasons. It allows us to distinguish the “optionals” from the “essentials” and focus on the development of the learner rather than the delivery of content.
The second aspect of relevance is to see content as a context for learning. This is more important in terms of vocational or professional education (rather than general education) where different disciplines are characterized by different vocabularies, different structures of knowledge and different problem solving strategies. To couch learning in terms of contextual content builds the understanding of the learner of the environment that she or he hopes to operate in.
To be truly learner-centred in our teaching environment requires us to do away with unnecessary “standardization” where possible. The aim is no longer to make students jump through the same hoops but to make the learner the center of our education process − to prepare them to continue learning independently in their own way and in areas of their own choice. Content in formal education is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Prof. Chen Swee Eng
Professor Chen Swee Eng is the Building Discipline Leader at University of Newcastle, Australia. He has had a long career as a construction manager and academic in both Singapore and Australia. Prof.Chen was in NgeeAnn for the Teaching and Learning Conference 2002
First published April 2003.