What’s the Difference Between a 19th and 21st Century Curriculum?

From a World’s Leading Expert

Recently, I received well over 300 comments on Twitter posts I made, which indicated to me people were confused by the terminology “19th Century curriculum.”

I decided to write this article to help people get on the same page, so we can begin to fix the K12 system and stop arguing with each other when the reality is that we AGREE.

Curriculum Expertise

This article will be citing research from one source, “Bold Moves for Schools” written by Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, considered the world’s leading expert on curriculum design and author of 13 books on curriculum and education. She and her colleague, Dr. Marie Hubley Alcott outline in this important book, how schools, teachers and administrators can move forward into the 21st century without getting tripped up by the resistance against change.

Framing the 19th Century Curriculum

It’s important to state that academic scholars agree the vast majority of our K12 schools still use a traditional approach to learning. This traditional sense of school is bolstered by the 19th century curriculum. Despite many efforts to reform the system over the last 75 years, very little progress has been made.

The 19th Century Curriculum

What is the 19th century curriculum?

It’s important to start on the same page, which is why defining the 19th Century curriculum is so important.

A 19th century curriculum is a school system that relies on single-core subjects that focus on single-core ideas.

School was once a place where all students came to learn the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. (p 5)

This is not a foreign concept to any of us, since we all sat in K12 classrooms our whole lives. In fact, when we think back on our school experience, it’s easy to remember English, Math, Science and Social Studies classes. And we also know that each subject taught topics that were only relevant to those subjects. None of us sat in a Math class and learned topics that the English teacher was also teaching us.

That didn’t happen when we went to school and that still does not happen when this new generation of kids goes to school.

A 19th century school, no matter how much technology they can purchase is a school that relies on teaching students single-core ideas in single-subject classes.

19th Century Limitations

If you aren’t aware of the limitations this type of learning environment can have on student achievement, let’s take a closer look at why using a 19th century curriculum isn’t the best choice for 21st century students.

In the design of curriculum, however, the domination of separate discipline-based work — and even an occasionally foray into interdisciplinary study — has limits for reality-based contemporary learning. As supporters of thoughtfully designed interdisciplinary connections, we note that meaningful links between subjects require that the subjects themselves be current and robust. (p 68)

If we unpack what Dr. Jacobs and Alcott are saying, we can begin to see that robust and meaningful well-rounded educational opportunities occurs when the curriculum is not focused on single-core ideas, but instead on cross-curricular ones.

It’s more than just changing the textbooks or adding technology to the school.

Certainly there can be constraints when the starting point on many projects is predicated on outdated curriculum. (p 76)

Dr. Jacobs and Alcott agree that forcing a teacher and student to use an outdated curriculum, such as the 19th century one, will always hold student achievement back, no matter how much the teacher prepares or tries to boost achievement.

In other words, if the starting line is ten feet behind the other runners, even the fastest runner will always finish behind everyone else.

That’s what using a 19th century curriculum is doing to 21st century students and teachers. It’s holding everyone back for no real reason.

21st Century Curriculum

The solution is to start using a 21st century curriculum, but it’s important to understand what is actually being changed and updated.

One of the legacy remnants of the 19th century curriculum is the common cores standards. If we go back to the beginning of this article, Dr. Jacobs referred to the school system as “School was once a place where all students came to learn the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic.”

That’s what common core standards outlined for educators, a way to codify reading, writing and arithmetic skills. It’s important to recognize these skills are crucial for student success, but they cannot be the focus in grades 8–12.

Think back on your high school experience. What did your English teacher ask you do to over and over again? That’s right, the English class was focused on reading and more reading.

Were you forced to read Shakespeare? The answer is yes, but no one could answer the question, why?

This is where the limitations of the 19th century curriculum really show up in plain sight. There is a real reason to read Shakespeare, but when the curriculum is stuck in the past, and high school English is focused on a single-core idea “English skills” then students are left behind.

Here’s how a 21st century high school English class would look like.

Teacher: “What if you could learn all the tricks and secrets of the greatest social media influencer of all time?”

Anyone that knows high school students, knows you would have their attention and engagement. But what does this lesson hook have to do with 21st century curriculum or high school English?

What’s the difference?

When we analyze the differences between the 19th and 21st century curriculum, we see it’s rests on the specific emphasis of learning objectives. In the 19th century curriculum, the emphasis is on the single-core idea of English. Therefore when students read Shakespeare they are learning “how to read.”

But that’s not the goal of the 21st century curriculum. On the contrary, within the 21st century curriculum the main objective is to teach kids “communication skills” and under that main idea is reading about Shakespeare.

When a student is in high school, it needs to be understood that students are ready and capable of reading high school level work. Teaching students “how to read” when they already know how to read is hurting engagement and holding students back for no reason.

The other benefit of using a 21st century curriculum is how cross-curricular learning works. If students in English class are reading about Shakespeare to learn about his secrets to communication, then the Social Studies teacher can add on by teaching the students about the social impact of Shakespeare’s plays on society and what that means for students in 2022.

Is the English teacher still teaching Shakespeare? Is the Social Studies teacher still teaching about British and European History? The answer to both questions is yes, but they are no longer limited and restricted to the boundaries of their single-core subjects.

With a robust 21st century curriculum and the use of main learning objectives that are cross-curricular, K12 schools gives teachers an opportunity to truly collaborate as professionals.

Student Disinterest

There is always the question of student engagement that needs to be addressed. If we have learned anything from the last two years, students seem very disinterested in school.

But no one seems to have a good answer as to why that’s the case. Except, Dr. Jacobs offered a good explanation for why students might “tune out” well before the Pandemic hit.

When the teacher spews information at students with no intent to engage them, the learner is not only passive but a passer-by. Students will bypass the content because there was never a real desire to bring them into the study. (p 12)

What’s important to note is that Dr. Jacobs was not “blaming or shaming” the teacher, but merely stating the obvious. When students are treated like receptacles of information and not learners, it’s human nature to stop being interested.

Engagement means inspiring students to think of the possibilities. That’s why when a high school English says we are going to “read” something, the students groan.

I have the same issue with non-followers of my social media accounts. If I suggest they read one of my articles, they “cringe” at the suggestion. It’s not because they don’t think what I have to say is valuable, quite the contrary, after someone reads my articles, typically there is widespread agreement on my arguments and theories.

That suggests the problem is with how asking someone to read something valuable is framed.

And framing learning objectives for students ties directly back to the curriculum a district has written and approved. Thus if student engagement is low, it’s the curriculum. If student test scores are low, it’s the curriculum. If student interest is low, it’s the curriculum.

Let’s take one lesson away from this article. Stop blaming and shaming teachers, when it’s clear the problems our K12 system faces starts with an old and outdated curriculum.

D. Scott Schwartz, M.Ed. is the founder of Leaf Academy, an online school for 21st century skills, which is expected to launch its first course on leadership for beginners in late spring.



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Professor Schwartz

Professor Schwartz

Former Superintendent | Ed Consultant | Speaker/Author — Go to my homepage at https://leafacademy.org