Mick Waters


One way of looking at what we will need for the future is to imagine getting to the future and looking backwards. If today’s children, starting school in, say, 2020 were to look in the rear-view mirror and reflect on their schooling in the year 2050, would they be pleased with what they had learne

Some future challenges

By 2050, how will the world have changed? The opportunities and challenges we currently face might influence what young people should learn. In the developed world, we have an ageing population with a growing proportion of people taking human life beyond the limits we knew a century ago. In thirty years’ time, will we have found a cure for some of the illnesses of increasing age? The gap between rich and poor is destined to grow and the shift of people across the globe will increase rather than subside. By 2050, will the capacity to pipe water to Africa be matched by the will to do it and so release a vast amount of the world’s land surface as a productive resource? How far will humans toil physically and will robots have taken over the processing of much of the human condition? Our knowledge of the human brain is expanding at such a rate that we might be able to address disorder and improve capacity. Will the superpowers of today be the superpowers of the next generation? Will China and India be the economic giants? Will the States still be united? To what extent will the climate have changed and how far will we be able to generate energy to support the planet without destroying its very existence? Technology will have expanded its reach; in communication, logistics, design, transport, war, commerce and finance, touching every part of our lives.

These are big picture questions. Our children are growing into a world that offers greater opportunity than ever before and, at the same time, some challenges that the adults before them have never met, let alone addressed. At the same time, most would want our children to be growing up to take their place in society as responsible adults, able to manage their own lives and contribute. Indeed, in just a few short years after moving to secondary education, our children will be old enough to be employed, in business, in the military, married and parents. Most would want them to be decent members of society. The thought that any of them could be asked to be a juror should be salutary for every teacher. The thought of being faced with an ex-pupil across the court (it couldn’t happen in reality) might make every teacher think, ‘I’d better teach the ability to weigh an argument, to discern fact from supposition, to make reasoned decisions.’

Of course, whatever the future holds, our society will still need some people to work out how to feed us all, to construct, to clean up the messes we create. We will need those who tend to the sick, bring succour and compassion. There will be a need for those who entertain and amuse along with those who help to enact laws that some of us make or defend the principles that we hold against those who might oppose us. The belief that schools should fuel the economy and provide the nation’s workforce has traditionally influenced our thinking on what should be taught but, in truth, we need much more.

Some see the school curriculum as a sort of sieve which gradually sifts out those who can do things from those who cannot; the curriculum as a search for talent so that we find the best to supply our universities or our football academies or our ballet schools. Others see the curriculum as a route to social mobility, believing that success in examination will overcome the influence achieved by social networking. Others see the curriculum as opening doors for young people to a world that they will never experience otherwise; to culture, arts, thinking, even books.

At the same time, most would want children to grow up with extended innocence for as long as possible. Childhood should be a joyous time; the endless new experiences, excitement at finding and doing new things, the wonder of the world in which we live in, its scale, nature and beauty. Again, most would want their children protected from the worst of society and the perils that can befall them. From being healthy, to preventing accident or illness, to avoiding influences of perceived evil, most want children to be taught to be wary.

A battleground of ideas and purpose

It is this complexity of ambition for our young that makes devising a curriculum so difficult and especially so if we are not clear about the real purpose of our schools. The early chapters of this book highlight the confused and disputed purposes that sway education policy and so often these disputes show themselves in the curriculum, becoming a battleground for ideas. When we add to our considerations the range of views on how people best learn, we complicate the expression of the curriculum. We further complicate things by deciding to measure certain aspects of learning as measures of school and personal success; exams and tests.

It is hard, therefore to unscramble the complexity of today in trying to state what a school curriculum should be for tomorrow. We usually start with trying to modify the curriculum that is in place and negotiating some change, which leaves the radical reformers disappointed and the traditionalists disheartened, so that each goes away to regroup and return at the next possible opportunity to the battleground of ideas.

The battleground is always busy with skirmishes where people work on unproductive polarities. They refuse to accept that it is possible to teach traditional subjects and more future-focused disciplines. They cannot perceive that we can teach knowledge, alongside skills and attitudes. They decline to see that scholarly learning works with practical understanding and vice versa. They prefer not to see that academic and vocational studies can complement each other. There are others in the battlefield who prefer to seek a world of little challenge; of dumbing down, of trendy ideas and gimmicks, giving our young an experience that does not extend them, fails to open doors to new experience and leaves them bereft of much learning.

The rear-view mirror

What would children of today looking in that rear-view mirror want to see in terms of their time at school and what they learned? Surely, they would want to reflect that their schooling had offered a rounded and full experience that prepared them for the complex lives they have enjoyed and face?

Different learners; different needs                    

Those people looking back might reflect that the school managed to get the balance right between what they had learned at home with their parents, what they learned in their communities and what the school itself needed to provide. Indeed, if the main things that young people need to learn are about being able to function effectively in everyday life; to tell the time, manage money, read, be able to hold conversations for various purposes and use the internet, then surely by now in an educated society it should be easy enough to do all this without going to school? Does there really need to be a formal experience of schooling so that children will get on with others, learn to adopt a healthy lifestyle and not fall into bad ways? Yet often, the school is seen as the place where these basic tenets for life will be acquired. At other times, there is a move towards expecting schools to develop in the young outlooks that the adults find hard to manage. Dealing with equalities, or enabling communities to co-exist where there is traditional suspicion is the sort of thing that is often laid at the door of the school. It is often suggested that such issues as radicalisation, genital mutilation or religious bigotry should be addressed with children in schools. Hence, often, the school is the starting point for the solution to the exasperations of ‘young people these days…can’t… won’t…always…don’t; schools should…’ and the list for schools extends to ensuring the best for youngsters in terms of everything from work readiness, to personal finance, to grooming, sexting, dental health, radicalisation, and voting.

At the same time, we need to be able to find the youngsters who can go on to work at a high level of understanding. We need people to do the complex jobs and to push the boundaries of understanding through research. From basic function to world-changing invention; can schoo

If we take an example of learning about health, we somehow have to find ways of enabling all youngsters to understand, say, the importance of their vital organs and how to protect them from harm and protect society from the health cost of negligence while at the same time helping the appropriate youngsters to study the human anatomy to a level which will eventually provide the medical care for the needy. At the same time, we need to find the people who are destined to develop new solutions to the challenges of maintaining health and reducing or curing illness.

Curriculum complexity, distortion and confusion

It is this search for balance that is often the cause of tension in the battlefield of the curriculum. For many, the curriculum in school is the ‘top up’ for a full, productive and happy life. Their children have secure home lives and enjoy rich experiences with a learning attitude to the fore. For them, school is the place where the more complex concepts of individual subjects are inculcated. The curriculum in school is an interesting repertoire of learning that provides the qualifications necessary to enter work. For others, school is a proving ground, the make or break that will take children towards better life prospects through qualification. In some cases though, children are coming to school, not needing a ‘top up’ but nearly on ‘empty’. The school is expected to provide the very basics in hygiene, health, personal and social learning, even language as well as the qualifications. Because the purpose of school is unclear, tensions persist.

At the root of all this is whether the school experience ‘belongs’ to the individual or to society. Perhaps we should accept that it belongs to society and should be tempered to meet the needs of each individual. Some people have greater challenges to cope with in terms of disadvantage or special needs, some have special talents and abilities. If it belongs to the child, then entitlement becomes a key principle and some children might get more than others in terms of meeting their more extensive needs. Nobody is fixed; the ambition of learning is for growth. Words like ‘ability’, ‘performance’, and ‘potential’ should open rather than close possibilities in learning. If it belongs to society then, in a democracy, we would expect schools to teach children some of the central tenets of living together and how society functions. The problem with this standpoint is that this outlook works best when society is at ease with itself; when society is divided there is dispute about the extent to which children should be taught about injustice and social division and schools risk being accused of indoctrination. A fairer, more just world always sounds good until it means a change of power base.

Next, we might question whether we need a national curriculum that details the learning that will be set before children. We need to free curriculum from the political tugs of war and allow it to be broadly defined by a wider community of interest. The detail of subject disciplines can surely be left to experts. Indeed, the time has surely come for international collaboration on how to teach concepts. Trigonometry, algebra, density, latent heat and glaciation are the same the world over; it is surely possible to construct modules of study to enable learning to what we call A level standard. The studies of things like literature and the history of art should be globally influenced and we have surely moved past the point where we think that we can select but a few authors, poets or artists as ‘the essentials’ for every learner.

Currently we have a national curriculum which is designed to accelerate a minority of children to supposed success at sixteen with the promise of further success at A level. Its problem is that it also risks disenfranchising many children and creating negative learning outlooks, attitudes and beliefs. Why is this? It is because one way of trying to squeeze ‘performance’ out of schools is to put pressure on teachers to produce rather than children to learn. We set exams where the proportion of passes at each grade is fixed and then make schools fight over whose pupils get the pickings.

Too often, we make learning abstract and separate from the real world. Learners are invited to climb ten parallel subject ropes with the clear assumption that many will only be able to completely climb a few and then only half way. For most learners, the announcement that they are ‘no good’ at certain subjects is a given, even when they achieve GCSE. It is a strange phenomenon that children enter school knowing little history and we teach them until they announce they cannot do it. It is hardly success.

People might need ‘courses of study’, including those in traditional subjects. A linear programme covering aspects of subjects and demonstrating competence through an exam is one way to learn. At present though, learners have to do nine or ten of these for two or maybe more years as they climb their separate ropes towards GCSE. The courses are too long. It should be possible to pass a GCSE in science in a short time if the basic understandings and knowledge are secure prior to the introduction of a specific syllabus for the examination. As it is, with the high stakes accountability regime for schools built upon annual results, the syllabus is stretched to provide more time on the practice and the learning is focused upon rehearsing for an exam.

The narrowing of focus is also prevalent at primary schools. What gets tested and inspected gets taught; literacy and numeracy dominate. Too many children experience little art, dance, drama, music, even history and geography become another vehicle for literacy. Science lacks experiment for so many children. There are plenty of so called outstanding schools elsewhere where the life blood is sucked out of learning to sustain high test scores.

We might need to question some of the traditions of schooling. The timetable, lessons themselves, exercise books for each subject, marking, the way teachers are observed and therefore expected to work – these are all aspects of learning that are only slightly developed since schools were set up centuries ago. When we give every pupil an exercise book for their subject, do we not communicate that learning is an isolated activity, based in exercise, which can only be covered as the teacher unfolds the next page? In the real world of science, upwards of a thousand people contribute to a paper on physics. In astronomy, the number of contributors rises to 3,000 and in genetics it is often 10,000…and even more comment upon it. Yet we expect our young to ‘do their own work’…and someone else, called ‘a teacher’, marks it. Perhaps we need to think differently for the future.

A curriculum for the future?

Where might we start to develop a curriculum for the future? First, we should expect every school to make maximum use of every moment that is available. The curriculum is the entire planned learning experience. It includes the lessons and so much more. The daily life of school, its routines, will teach children much. The events that a school arranges will teach more. What children do beyond the ‘school day’ will be productive for learning if well used. For the curriculum to prepare children to face the future, it needs to speak to children positively at every point. There is much talk about raising aspiration in young people; this is far more than helping children to believe that they can ‘be anything that they want to be’, far more than achieving high grades or reaching higher levels. Aspiration: at the root of the word is ‘spirit’ and the curriculum should be about aspiration of spirit, of contribution and worth. If society is to be effective and people are to be fulfilled, it is their spirit and outlook on life that will be as vital as the knowledge and skills they acquire. Indeed, important knowledge and skills are more likely to develop when worth and spirit are secure.

Learning with purpose

Children and young people need to think their study has a purpose, hence the need to think about the rear-view mirror. How can we provide a curriculum that entices, absorbs, challenges, stretches and gives purpose? Does that need to be done nationally? Is it not possible for the community of a school, rather than the nation, to determine what it wants for its learners?

How would we describe a good curriculum?

A good curriculum emphasises the inter-relatedness of concepts, big ideas, critical thinking and learning that is personalised to respond to the differences in individuals. It includes foundation skills in literacy and numeracy, coding and associated logic, personal responsibility and self–awareness and assessment.

Learning is based on enquiry, project and problem based learning, using research skills and scientific methods. Flexibility of learning environments is encouraged, including involvement with the community and experience of the world of work. International perspectives are natural, local interpretations of study are accessed and theoretical perspectives explore some abstract learning.

It is the complexity of the previous two paragraphs that seems to unsettle many people. When described in this way, it sounds complicated. The simple polarised arguments and comparisons with our own schooling are much safer.

A good curriculum is exciting, dynamic and complex. We are not afraid of it and do not resort to trying to control it by creating models that restrict, reduce and flatten learning. We delight in learning that is sometimes unpredictable and can cope without the need to measure and test everything.

So, what would be the features of curriculum for the future? A curriculum for the future would:

  • encourage a global outlook
  • be about doing learning with others
  • help understandings of the disciplines of subjects
  • be about absorbing through doing
  • teach children that learning is worth it
  • see learning as something done by communities
  • expose and enrich talent
  • enable those with difficulty or disability
  • emphasise compassion as much as competition
  • leave learners wanting more learning in a world where learning was limitless
  • see learning as a gift rather than a trial
  • make learning irresistible.


Mick Waters is Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University. Each year he spends time in many schools across this country and abroad helping teachers and leaders to develop their practice. He applies his insights to policy work for governments in teaching, curriculum or leadership. He contributes to major conferences, writes extensively…and is often to be found in classrooms working with pupils. Mick’s ideals are driven by unquenchable optimism, unflinching challenge and realistic recognition of what schools are and could be. He is a trustee or patron of several organisations, all devoted to bringing learning alive and making schooling fit the needs of a global society today and in the future.