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Curriculum 2040: What could be taught and why teach it?

Cambridge Learners  Curriculum   21st Century SkillsArtificial IntelligenceCurriculum 2040Curriculum Programmes

What should be taught in schools? Why should, e.g. the water cycle be taught? If it is taught, then does anything need to be removed? Will it fit in neatly or does it require bigger changes so learners can access the concept?

These are the sort of questions that underpin curriculum development and that, as a Curriculum Programmes Manager for Cambridge International, I grapple with regularly. They are also issues that I will be discussing with global education leaders at the Cambridge Assessment Summit for Education on 17 September.


National curricula, which define the subjects to be covered and in what depth, are developed on long time scales. For example, the 2014 national curriculum in England started development in 2010.

We must also consider how long a national curriculum should be in place for. In A Cambridge Approach to improving education, Cambridge Assessment noted that many nations tend to change their national curriculum around every 10 years. While there is no fixed recommendation, curriculum content does have a fixed lifetime and decisions on change need to be made several years in advance.

The final consideration is how the curriculum prepares learners for the next phase of life, whether that is further study or the world of work. A learner who leaves school in 2020 having studied a curriculum that was conceptualised in 2010 is entering a world that the curriculum developer could only imagine.

Identifying trends

Identifying trends and predicting the future that learners will face is integral to our approach to effective curriculum development at Cambridge International. So, what are these trends? Broadly they fall into the following categories:

  • Subject integrity – subjects are generally seen as stable areas of learning. However, this does not mean subjects never change. It is important that trends in subjects are monitored and that changes that could be beneficial to learners be considered. For example, the theory of plate tectonics was defined in scientific papers in the 1960s, but only became a standard part of geography teaching in UK schools 10 years later.
  • Societal links – a curriculum generally reflects the society it is designed for. These societal links are sometimes explicit, e.g. the inclusion of a subject due to its societal importance like agriculture or marine science, or implicit e.g. how subjects reference issues of societal importance such as emerging public health issues. The societal links desired can be identified, predicted and included in future curricula.
  • Technology – technological change has been rapid for nearly two hundred years and many learners either have access to modern technology or will know of modern technology. As we live in an increasingly connected and technologically driven world, aspects of technology may require greater focus within the curriculum. This has been seen recently with more countries introducing coding into their curriculum and there are projects considering what learners should be learning about artificial intelligence.
  • Government policies – national curricula are often developed from a government level. As such, it is possible that government policies can be integrated into the curriculum. Economic policies, which sometimes seem distant from education, may also have an impact. For example, training learners in programming will only provide wider benefits if there is investment in the tech sector to ensure there are jobs for learners to go to with their new skills. This is leading to increasing recognition of vocational education and how it is vital to provide learners with the knowledge and skills needed to drive wider national reforms.
  • Supranational activity – there are some issues that transcend borders. For example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted in 2015, are now being referenced more in education and curriculum reform, for instance when referring to combating climate change.  

Barriers to change

While it can be tempting to find reasons to change a curriculum, it is important to remember that the existing curriculum is most likely already developing learners who can read, write, be mathematically literate, and more.

This means there are barriers that will restrain impulses to radically overhaul the system or allow change. These include:

  • Curriculum time – there is only so much content the time in a curriculum can allow for. In a school that has a 190 teaching days, I would estimate that after assessments/examinations, special events, breaks, transition time, assemblies, sick time and more, you probably have around 810 hours of learning a year (180 days x 4 ½ hours). This restricts the freedom curriculum developers have for reform. This reality also increases the risk of overloading the curriculum at the national level – leaving little room for local contextualisation of the curriculum content.
  • Curriculum coherence – How do all the parts of the curriculum fit together? Do you have curriculum coherence? Will the learning make sense? These questions can be resolved by considering the wider purpose of curriculum and if a broad curriculum is desired (lots of content covered but not at great detail) or if depth is desired (less material but lots of detail where learners develop a deeper understanding of the content presented). This is why, regardless of trends, the first step in any curriculum development is addressing what education is for, to ensure that the curriculum works as a whole. This is something we at Cambridge International have considered through our guide on Implementing the Curriculum with Cambridge.
  • Country specific contexts – If you introduce a new subject who is going to be teach it? Does the system have enough specialist teachers? If you change a subject will teachers need support or retraining?  There are many more barriers that can occur, from class sizes to resources. For many of these country specific contexts, curriculum reform cannot happen in isolation and often requires joined-up action with those involved in teacher training and publishers producing support materials.

Relevance, knowledge and skills

Despite these barriers, the art of curriculum development is about finding solutions to ensure curricula remain relevant to learners and the modern world while providing learners with the knowledge and skills to live in society.

If you look at a school from 1919, the curriculum would look similar in places, but very different in others. However, a lot of curriculum content is stable over very long periods of time.

When judging curriculum change, we should consider the balance between emerging knowledge and skills against fundamental, tested knowledge and skills that continue to underpin human endeavour.

At Cambridge International, we support Ministries of Education and schools in identifying trends and considering key questions in their specific contexts.

We work with them to review existing curricula, provide feedback and recommendations, write curricula and providing training on curriculum design and development. Trends we have already started to identify include a greater focus on competencies, digital technology, gender equity and sustainability. More information can be found on our website.

We are already approaching a point where we should consider what to teach in 2040 – now is the time to start the conversation!

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