What should a student know? What knowledge is most necessary? How should we teach? The answer to all these questions lies in the educational curriculum – the roadmap that lays out the knowledge and skills students should acquire in school. The faster society changes, the more flexible the curriculum should be to adapt and respond to new needs. This is probably why curriculum reforms are at the center of discussion on the education agenda in countries within and outside the region.
David F. Labaree, a Professor at Stanford University, has identified four levels in curriculum reform and has highlighted the importance of alignment between them for successful reforms. These are educational leaders’ ideas about what the curriculum should be, the formal curriculum reflected in guides and textbooks, the curriculum teachers teach in classrooms, and the curriculum or content students actually learn.
In the wake of significant global changes such as automation and artificial intelligence, it is essential for education systems to revise their curricula to equip young individuals with the necessary skills to succeed. How are Latin American and Caribbean nations progressing with their curriculum reform efforts? What distinguishes traditional models from those founded on competencies? And why is it crucial for teachers to take charge in implementing a curriculum that is current and transformative?
What Is The Curriculum?
Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is a curriculum? In simple terms, it is the blueprint of an education system that outlines what needs to be learned, why it needs to be learned, and how it should be learned. The curriculum serves as the primary tool for education systems to translate society’s needs for human capital into specific contents, competencies, and skills.
According to UNESCO, the curriculum is responsible for selecting the knowledge, skills, and values that shape the teaching, learning, and assessment processes. As such, the curriculum is a social agreement that reflects the current understanding of what an educational system needs to thrive in a given context. This is why it holds such significant importance.
As such, the curriculum is a social agreement that reflects the current understanding of what an educational system needs to thrive in a given context. This is why it holds such significant importance.
A curriculum strategy that focuses on skills is crucial for the region, given that 70% of the population’s primary source of income is work, and 88% of their income comes from salaries. Furthermore, one out of three companies in the region identifies a lack of skills as a major obstacle to their growth.
Accumulating skills is not only vital for individual income but also for a country’s growth, productivity, and equality levels. It is essential to note that years of schooling alone do not guarantee economic performance. Instead, it is what is actually learned in schools that can make a significant difference.
Are Today’s Kids Learning More Than The Previous Generations Did?
Are the new generations acquiring more skills than their predecessors? The data indicates that there has been progress in reading comprehension – a fundamental skill – in the four countries of the region where data is available. This means that today’s kids are indeed learning more than previous generations.
However, the unfortunate news is that even with this progress, Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to fall behind the OECD country levels. This not only applies to the current generation (16-24 year-olds) but also to the 55-65-year-old generation in OECD countries, who possess more skills than our own.
Currently, over 60% of adults, on average, lack basic levels of reading comprehension and math skills.
We are aware that possessing basic competencies is no longer sufficient in today’s world. The region is also facing significant challenges in developing non-traditional skills like digital ones. Tasks that are specialized, routine, repetitive, and predictable, requiring information accumulation and following instructions, can easily be automated. Such functions are better suited for robots than humans.
To safeguard individuals in the labor market, we must train them for tasks and occupations that require skills where humans have an edge over machines. These include connecting concepts that have not been linked before, skills that enable handling unpredictable situations and using emotions to solve problems or generate novel ideas. With generative AI breaking new ground, the skills required for these tasks are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
The “False Dilemma” Between Content and Competencies
Considering all the reasons mentioned above (students not learning what they need at the necessary pace), curriculum reform is imperative.
In this context, there has been a lengthy debate about what I believe to be a false dilemma between content and competencies. It’s essential to understand that competencies cannot be developed in isolation.
What Does Competency-Based Training Mean?
Education systems are increasingly shifting towards curriculum reforms that equip and prepare students with more comprehensive capabilities or general capacities. This movement acknowledges that while learning, retention, and repetition of knowledge are crucial, they are not sufficient.
In practice, students must be exposed to knowledge-based content, but the curriculum must also include opportunities to apply that knowledge for them to develop competencies. Skills and competencies are linked to specific learning objectives and standards that provide structure and enable progress measurement.
Let’s take a concrete example to highlight the difference in practice. We can use an extract from a 4th-grade unit in Argentina on the skeletal system.
- Students copy bone tissue data and the names of the 206 bones that form the human skeleton from the blackboard into their notebooks.
- They then respond to questions based on lectures and textbook readings, recording their answers in a notebook or worksheet.
- Finally, teachers review their answers.
- Teachers guide students through hypothesizing and testing by posing research questions.
- A motivating question could be, “How do bones benefit human beings?” Students then investigate data on bones from various sources, such as texts, to generate ideas.
- Another research question could be, “What would happen if humans did not possess bones?” In response, students could create 3D clay figures and make predictions about how long they could stand with and without popsicle-stick bones.
- Furthermore, the teacher could ask, “How does calcium loss affect bone strength?” In this case, students could soak chicken bones in vinegar for different periods to extract varying amounts of calcium, concluding that the more calcium a bone loses, the more it will bend.
Competency-based learning shifts the focus to the practical application of knowledge. While students must first acquire knowledge to be competent, the objective is not simply to accumulate content but to use it effectively.
The Role of Teachers in a Competency-Based Curriculum
Matthew Taylor, CEO of RSA, once said, “Whatever system prevails, the quality of teaching is key. Good teachers can make the dullest content sing, while bad teachers can squeeze the life out of the most fascinating material.” This highlights just how crucial teachers are in the learning process.
In new active pedagogies, teachers are no longer just transmitters of knowledge that students must memorize. Instead, they facilitate processes where students can use that knowledge to solve problems, make informed decisions, and contribute positively to society.
To implement curricula successfully, it’s necessary to empower teachers and update their training, enabling them to bring new standards and learning objectives into the classroom.
The competency-based curriculum ensures that education is relevant to the real world by reflecting a major social and political agreement on which knowledge and skills should be imparted to present and future generations. Updating these standards requires not only technical capacity but also determination, vision, and ambition to enhance the educational opportunities of girls, boys, and youth.
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