The Case for Student-First Curricula

When students lead the learning journey, they get where we want them to go.

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“If we had to rebuild our education system from the ground up, it’s the students who would have the best shot at getting it right,” a colleague once told me. It was a bit of self-deprecating humor aimed at those of us who work in education policy. But like all good jokes, it’s rooted in some truth. America’s schools need dramatic changes – and those changes should start with reforms that empower our students to take a more active role in deciding what and how they learn.

Economists say that we are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Rapid innovation has created a job market that values not only what you know today but also what you are capable of knowing tomorrow. That means that our schools must produce problem-solvers, critical thinkers, team players, and – most importantly – lifelong learners who can grow and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

How do we get there? We start at the most fundamental level – with curricula that treat students as individuals. We need to provide them with the independence to infuse their personal interests and passions into their lesson plans. We should encourage intellectual curiosity, not by providing the right answers, but by asking the right questions. And we should foster collaboration by freeing students to share their unique gifts and talents with others.

Simply put, we need to take a student-first approach to curriculum. We can start in three places.

Engaging Content

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, we’ve seen a proliferation of reading-comprehension programs centered on arcane excerpts and passages that are disconnected from one another and have little to do with our students’ personal experiences. One day, they are asked to find the main idea in a paragraph about corn. The next day, it’s a short write-up about Australia. The day after that, they’re reading about railroads. The content isn’t familiar, relatable, or aligned to our students’ interests. So it’s no wonder that reading scores have remained flat for 20 years.

But there is hope. Education reform leaders like Dr. Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, has started doing something about it.

“Quality curriculum is windows and mirrors,” she recently told me. “Students need to see themselves in the content we teach. When they do, they develop a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.” This philosophy guided a top-to-bottom curriculum review in Baltimore City that brought about big changes and positive results.

Today’s reading programs in Baltimore emphasize content that not only has meaning in students’ lives but that also supports learning goals in other areas of academic achievement. Students are now asked to analyze passages about the science of space exploration, the history of the American Revolution, and the art of the Harlem Renaissance. They are now introduced to content they actually want to absorb – and their test scores are demonstrating what an engaged student can achieve.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

If you work in education, you are familiar with Ebbinghaus’s “Forgetting Curve” – a classic study that illustrates how much information students lose when there is no effort to retain it. Boiled down to the essentials, the study concludes that students lose more than half of what they learn within an hour; two-thirds within a day; and three-fourths within six days. Educators have been wrestling with these results since the study was conducted 140 years ago.

Fortunately, it’s no longer the kind of problem it once was. “We don’t have to know things in advance anymore,” says famed educator and futurist Sugata Mitra, “because technology enables us to know them instantly.”

Mitra sees technology opening the door to a new way of learning built for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “This means we no longer have to teach students what they can learn by themselves with an Internet connection. Instead, we can facilitate problem-solving skills and encourage critical thinking by asking interesting questions and letting the students find the answer on their own.”

Not only does Mitra’s own Hole in the Wall study demonstrate that this method works; his Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) are also precisely what students need as they prepare to enter a working world where knowledge becomes obsolete faster than ever, where the problems they will need to solve are constantly changing, and where new solutions will always be in demand.


Student independence and collaboration might seem incompatible, but they are indispensable to one another in educational settings. Mitra’s SOLE approach works best when students work together to find solutions. John Hunter, the elementary school teacher who invented the revolutionary World Peace Game, which asks students to work together to solve the biggest global challenges, told me that he has also found this to be true.

The World Peace Game not only lets students focus on their interests and engage in independent problem solving; it requires that students work together and make use of their diverse perspectives. “As teachers, we have 25 to 30 co-teachers in the classroom with us every day,” Hunter says. “Why wouldn’t we want them to share their unique wisdom and experience? All of a sudden, they are not just recipients of a service, they have some control over what is happening in the classroom. That leads to buy-in – and buy-in leads to true engagement.”

Providing students what they need by giving them what they want

When we empower students to lead the learning journey, they get where we want them to go. And those of us who work in education get where we need to be as well – because to make these changes in curriculum at scale, we will need to think differently about how we teach, how we test, how we leverage technology, and how we make policy that drives innovation forward.

When we focus on students first, everything else has a way of falling into place.

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