21st Century Education

School Curricula

The author spent most of his life as a science teacher, that is trying to help himself and others to better understand the universe in which we reside, including understanding ourselves.  Such understanding is a small but critical part of the broad goal of optimizing what we accomplish in the limited time we each get to be alive.  The schools have the primary task, shared with parents, churches and other institutions, of providing understanding and skills to accomplish that goal.

But the problem is that most of our schools teach a disarrayed collection of ideas, facts and skills, compiled long ago before there was much understanding how each of our brains and nervous systems work.  There has been scant revision based on how inhabitants of the 21st Century will need different skills than those who lived in the Industrial age.  Our culture and our schools remain hobbled by outdated assumptions and traditions.  They are restrained from badly needed reform by ancient taboos and risks of offending those who, fearing change, cling to the ways they believe were ideal for their ancestors.

Since change in school curriculum is so tightly restricted, there appears to be little possibility of radically transforming the traditional educational institutions based on the latest understanding of brain development and the needs of citizens of the 21st Century.  Despite such restrictions, the current problems of funding the high costs and inefficiencies of traditional schools and the shortage of well trained teachers, the advent of the Internet and possibilities of new educational alternatives provided by home schooling and new technology may be able to provide effective, modern teaching methods and curriculum.  For many people, the new alternatives may supplement the deficient education they receive via the traditional institutions.  But some others, the alternatives may totally supplant traditional education.

Various groups had suggested reforms.  For example the Human Greatness Group has suggested focusing on 7 Dimensions of Human Greatness:
  1. Identity - Help students learn who they are - as individuals with unlimited potential, develop their unique talents and gifts to realize self-worth and develop a strong desire to be contributors to family, school and community.

  2. Inquiry - Stimulate curiosity; awaken a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature and humankind. Help students develop the power to ask important questions.

  3. Interaction - Promote courtesy, caring, communication and cooperation.

  4. Initiative - Foster self-directed learning, will power and self-evaluation.

  5. Imagination - Nurture creativity in all of its many forms.

  6. Intuition - Help students learn how to feel and recognize truth with their hearts as well as with their minds - develop spirituality and humility.

  7. Integrity - Develop honesty, character, morality and responsibility for self.
It seems that most Americans (and perhaps many others of the earth) presume that pleasure is innate and generally requires no instruction.  But it is easy to observe that we don't all have identical pleasures, suggesting that what we do enjoy has been learned.  If that is true, and evidence suggests strongly that it is, an 8th dimension needs to be added and taught:
  1. Joyfulness - Find enjoyment in doing the above.  Pleasure is what we learn it to be.  Since it is not automatic or innate, it is important to be taught to find satisfaction in accomplishing the skills which are important for the 21st Century.

The table below contains a skeleton of core educational content based on the current American school age levels.

Elementary School: Middle School: High School:
basic skills of... idea skills of... cloud skills of...
obtaining information
understanding ideas
rational analysis
evaluating implications
team building
group thinking
promoting creativity
empathy and compassion
idea implementation
idea and resource management

The above content areas should be considered emphasis and are not intended to be limiting.  For example calculating and communication skills will need later enhancement as other skills and understanding advance.  And empathy and compassion could begin much earlier with the research and observation of people living in different cultures and with different religious beliefs.  There certainly will be advances in technology that will need to be understood, mastered, and assimilated.


Note what is missing from the curriculum:  science, social studies and physical education.  It is not that those should be totally eliminated, but rather they be replaced with a different emphasis.  It is becoming much less important to know specific facts which can be easily retrieved from knowledge bases when needed.  What will be needed are a broad overview of the nature of the universe, its laws and principles, an understanding of the big trends in evolution, cultural variety, and human history, and familiarity with the systems of living organisms.  This must include understanding ourselves, particularly the fundamentals of learning, the learned basis of pleasure and the functional value of habits, customs, traditions, trust and confidence.  Skills need be taught and practiced for using such a "big picture" understanding to guide gaining detailed knowledge and skills when the need arises.  The core curriculum cannot be taught or practiced in isolation, but needs to be carefully integrated with development of ALL of the ethics, morals, and social skills appropriate for EVERY individual.

For example, dates of military victories are generally not essential facts all need to know.  But being courtesy and caring, having empathy and compassion for others often requires one to understand their heritage, customs and wishes.  Historical facts can assist such understanding.  As another example, most students are unlikely to need to calculate molecular weights or linear momenta.  But it will likely be more important to understand the basic nature of matter, hold appropriate concerns for primary constituents verses trace impurities, understand why skiing into a tree might be fatal, and know why it is harder to stop a vehicle traveling downhill than up.


Everything we ever perceive or learn comes to us through the senses of the nervous system.  Our eyes, ears, nose, taste buds and skin are our only means of knowing anything.  We are only beginning to understand how those senses function, their limitations, and how we might interpret input incorrectly.  Students will function more successfully when schools abandoned inadequate explanations such as primary colors and teach what is currently known.

Consider something as trivial as hair length.  Each hair on our body is hardwired to a nerve, allowing us to feel any motion of that hair.  If we shave off hair on our head or other parts of our body, we eliminated most of the sensations those hairs might provide.  If we instead grow our hair long and it flaps around at our every motion, our brain quickly learns to discard that information as unwanted trivia and distraction.  So there is some optimum hair length which avoids nearly continuous motions, but optimizes sensual input.  Similar optimization applies to our other senses as well.  Another example was provided by the author's college roommate who was a music major:  He lamented that the practice of having elevator music constantly playing in the background of our everyday lives likely impairs our ability to seriously devote our full attention to enjoying music in live performances.


Like most animals, we long ago learned that we could make distinct sounds which could be used for communication.  Over many centuries, we have developed this to communicate very complex and subtle ideas.  Each child is taught to recognize and understand such complicated sounds detected by our ears.  But like with our hair, there is optimum input for our hearing.  Some musicians believe that a constant din of background elevator music might deaden one's ear to hearing and appreciating the world's best music.  And never hearing any music, or just hearing certain languages, might be the equivalent to our brain of shaving.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of humans has been the development of written language.  It allows us to capture oral ideas, store and transmit them to others, and to greatly expand and develop them further.  Perhaps we might someday systematically develop our language to more effectively capture and communicate information from our other senses besides hearing.  For example, we now routinely use computers to index and search text, but we are only beginning to develop something similar for music, images and information from our other senses.


Mathematics is one area where the "big picture" is less important than drill type practice developing calculating skills.  Mathematics provides a precise, logic-based means for analyzing situations and communicating findings.  Like other languages, effective logic and communication requires attention to details.  Unlike most other languages, many mathematical skills cannot be added randomly when needed.  Most calculating skills must be added sequentially and many need to be practiced until routine before more advanced skills can be understood.  Having an electronic device capable of solving and imaging equations is useless if the user hasn't developed the mathematical thought processes necessary to formulate and understand an equation.  (One wonders if much of the current economic crisis might have been avoided if decision makers had a better mathematical understanding?Some things should be taught the old ways because those are most effective!


The 8th dimension is destined by far to be the most controversial.  While nearly everyone will agree that it is important to find satisfaction in accomplishing the other seven skills important for living in the 21st Century, there is a vast and controversial undercurrent in our culture that few people understand but nearly everyone has pre-formed opinions.  Consider that a vast part of the content of the Internet purports to present pleasures that many feel should be banned or blocked.  Consider that the United States has a greater portion per capita of its population in jail than any other nation on earth.  The majority of those incarcerated were seeking or selling drugs to provide pleasure.  Consider that in America marriage, the fundamental unit of society, now largely undertaken for the joy and pleasures of living together, have a failure rate over 50%.  There is clearly a lack of consensus on what should be allowed pleasures and how those pleasure and appropriate access should be taught.

why change?

Suffice it to note that of the above topics, only the oral, written and mathematical languages and ideas are much taught in traditional schools.  Ideas are typically restricted to the social and historical study of our own traditions and a small collection of acceptable science.  What are called physical education and health are largely restricted to stretching, muscle development, team sports and nutrition.  Except for a stray music or art class, there is little other development of skills of the senses.  Development of brain functions is typically restricted to reading, writing, mathematics and occasionally reasoning skills without any connection to how those are inextricably dependent upon the senses.  Most other skills and education are deliberately left to parents and religious institutions which remained universally clueless.



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created 28 July 2008
fourth revision 31 May 2009
by D Trapp
Mac made