What is worth knowing? What should students learn in school? Or, as the insolent student in the back of the room might ask midway through a lecture, “why do I need to know this?” These are difficult questions to answer and made all the more challenging because educators must prepare students for an unknown tomorrow. In his newest book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and founding member of Project Zero, David Perkins, offers a framework for responding to these questions. Perkins does not tell his readers what is worth knowing—the answers are dynamic and person-specific. However, he provides scaffolds to help school boards, textbook authors, principals, teachers, parents and students make decisions about what is worth learning. Curricula, he argues, should be “lifeworthy,” “lifeready,” and embedded with interdisciplinary thinking and 21st century skills.
Lifeworthy learning, a phrase coined by Perkins, teaches students ideas and skills that are likely to matter in the lives they are expected to lead. Lifeworthy learning is not sufficient if students think only about that information and not with that information. To think with knowledge students need “lifeready learning”—knowledge they use to solve problems, weigh options, make decisions, and better understand their world. Perkins contends that given that students’ level of school engagement decreases as they progress through the educational system, increasing the lifereadiness of curricula is critical.
He argues that the educational research community aggressively tries to address race- and income- based achievement gaps, but an equally if not more harmful gap in education is the relevance gap. Closing the relevance gap between what students are taught and what they will need to know in the future can be achieved when educators consider whether content is lifeworthy and lifeready. Teaching students with the goal of promoting “big understanding” leads to deep insights into how the world works, how to take action, how to be ethical, and how to apply knowledge in varied circumstances.
Perkins argues that educators need to think more about what to include in curricula. One problem he identifies is the “crowded garage effect”—new content is continually added but rarely removed from the curriculum. Currently, curricula attempt to touch on a broad range of topics, but coverage is shallow. Smart sampling or choosing to cover only exemplary, resonant and accessible ideas or cases within a discipline can help stem this problem. Rather than seeking to develop experts, the goal of pre-university education, according to Perkins, should be developing “expert amateurism,” so that students understand basic concepts within a discipline and can apply them appropriately and in a range of circumstances.
Perkins emphasizes the need to inspire wonder in learners, which can occur in part by asking penetrating questions. When we press students to think about what the real issues behind a problem are or how things would be different if not for an assumption we make we can ignite their passion.
Perkins suggests changes to: 1) the way disciplines are approached, 2) the way thinking is taught, and 3) the emphasis placed on relationship skill development. Given the types of challenges students will need to address in the future and the types of skills future employers will need in their employees, today’s curricula should build bridges between disciplines, reframe existing disciplinary content in terms of real-world challenges, and include additional disciplines (e.g., social science disciplines) in the curriculum. Teaching students about different ways of knowing, the ways of reasoning within a discipline, and metacognitive skills are often neglected because of the pressure to cover content. Perkins suggests that students should be taught a discipline’s content and ways of thinking in unison. He says that to be productive citizens of the 21st century, students need to develop empathic abilities and ethical understanding. He offers a comprehensive list of personal and interpersonal skills and knowledge that are worth knowing.
Perkins tells of an instance in which Gandhi lost a sandal on the train tracks. Unable to retrieve it because the train was in motion, he tossed his remaining sandal next to the lost one. One sandal did him no good, but an abandoned pair might have great value for someone else. Perkins argues that Gandhi demonstrated “big understanding” in this moment of insight. He took action to advance an ethical outcome. Cultivating this kind of wisdom is a tall order for schools amidst a packed curriculum. Yet teaching only facts is too low a bar. Inspired by this example, Perkins concludes by suggesting a compromise: “maybe a reasonable aspiration for education, even pre-university education, is not so much wisdom but knowledge on the way to wisdom.”
Perkins, D. (2014). Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. John Wiley & Sons.