Acedo-Hughes2014 Article PrinciplesForLearningAndCompet

Prospects (2014) 44:503–525
DOI 10.1007/s11125-014-9330-1
Principles for learning and competences
in the 21st-century curriculum
Clementina Acedo • Conrad Hughes
Published online: 30 November 2014
Abstract This article addresses the core competences, attitudes and knowledge that the
authors believe will promote transformative learning in the 21st century and should,
therefore, feature in curriculum design. It first defines the purpose of curriculum, stressing
the need for a coherent worldwide understanding of what is meant and intended by curriculum, and then focuses on learning as the cornerstone of curriculum, before turning to
the guiding principles that should guide curricula in the 21st century.
Curriculum Competences Learning Knowledge 21st century
For nearly 300 years, theories of how we learn have been driving research in education,
ever since Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his Emile, placed the focus of education on the
learner more than on the content, influencing the early 20th-century schools of pragmatism
and inquiry-based learning and theories in cognitive psychology in the middle and late 20th
century. But only in the last few decades have we started to see wide-scale endorsement of
the centrality of learning in education. Today, around the world, national education
authorities ‘‘are generally looking into new solutions aimed at improving the quality of
students’ learning’’, and the curriculum is increasingly ‘‘viewed as the foundation of
comprehensive educational reforms aimed at achieving quality learning outcomes’’
(UNESCO IBE 2013a, p. 1). Advances in neuroscience show us that the human brain’s
plasticity allows people to learn throughout their lives; meanwhile, levels of engagement
and information processing are largely controlled by neural activity in which emotional
stimulation plays an important role (Dehaene 2013). Neuroscientific advances confirm old
C. Acedo
Webster University, Route de Collex 15, 1293 Bellevue, Switzerland
e-mail: [email protected]
C. Hughes (&)
International School of Geneva, 62 Route de Chêne, 1208 Geneva, Switzerland
e-mail: [email protected]
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
beliefs about the connections between motivation and learning, but also dispel myths about
what the human mind is capable of: today we know it thrives on highly complex polyvalent
environments, implying that learners can cope with more than we previously thought they
could. We also know now from extensive meta-analyses that the teacher has the most
important impact on learning (Hattie 1999; Wiliam 2011) and that pedagogical quality is a
vital part of educational quality. Therefore, an education for the 21st century should reflect
the knowledge we have about cognition and should empower teachers to be as effective as
possible in the classroom with that knowledge.
Education is also about what we teach and what we learn. The 21st century is volatile,
uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The positivist knowledge system of the 19th century
was based on logical determinism; people thought and studied in ways that were generally
linear, predictable and based on causality they could understand at the local scale. That
system has been disrupted by a modernity that introduced overlapping, sometimes paradoxical challenges, among them big data, information overload (‘‘noise’’), and the presence
of multiple external influences and environmentally unsustainable behaviours. The content
of our education systems needs to be restructured so that it is relevant to today’s world and
focuses on competences: the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values people need to make
sense of and address complex problems. These include environmental degradation, the
increasing socioeconomic divide worldwide, the threat that the globalised economy poses
to nation-state authority, and the homogenising of cultural diversity. At the same time,
education needs to respond to the opportunities offered by technological development,
especially artificial intelligence, applied STEM, and social networking. The higher-order
thinking needed to face these challenges and opportunities involves creativity, critical
thinking, learning to live together and lifelong learning.
In this article, we outline the core competences, attitudes and knowledge that we believe
will promote effective, transformative learning in a 21st-century education, and discuss
these elements within the conceptual framework of curriculum. We address these issues in
three sections, one each on the fundamental purpose of curriculum, theories of learning that
should feature in curricula, and essential areas that should be addressed in curriculum
We offer this article for teachers, curriculum designers, leaders and all those involved in
K-12 education throughout the world, of any and all sociocultural backgrounds. We draw
on academic quantitative and qualitative research in the field, practice in schools and the
work done by UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education (IBE) on a quality curriculum
for the post-2015 agenda. We aim to combine forces, knowledge, experience and practice
in a comprehensive vision, to avoid the fragmentation that results when theory and practice
are developed separately; instead we aim to accumulate knowledge and conduct research
cooperatively (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone 2004, p. 1).
What do we mean by curriculum and what is its purpose?
Curriculum alignment
The curriculum is an expression of at least four facets of learning: the intended curriculum
(what we intend students to learn), the written curriculum (how these intentions are laid
out), the taught curriculum (what happens in the classroom) and the hidden curriculum
(subconscious, institutional intentionality). If a curriculum that places learning at the centre
is to be coherent and effective, these facets must be aligned.
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
National or international bodies that develop curricula should be mindful that the
quality of an education system is determined by the degree of systemic alignment between
the facets of the curriculum and teacher training. If classroom practice differs from the
written curriculum, then standardised assessments test competences and knowledge that
are not stipulated in the intended curriculum; if the hidden curriculum suggests outcomes
that do not cohere with textbooks or teacher training programmes, then the curriculum will
not be unified enough to be effective.
If the competences we seek to address in the 21st century involve learning to live
together, and higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking and creativity, as we will
argue, and if we believe that lifelong learning is an attitude that the curriculum should
nurture, then assessment, pedagogy, curriculum content and institutional and cultural
discourses should mirror this clearly. Without this alignment, systemic contradictions will
rise in an educational system, for example, between learning objectives and national
assessments, with the former preaching 21st-century competences but the latter testing
declarative knowledge whilst marginalising certain areas of learning (for example, the
arts). It is not enough to simply point out the areas of learning that are salient in the 21st
century; they must be openly valued by examination boards, university entrance tests and
standardised assessments. Dialogue and negotiations about 21st-century learning must
occur between different stakeholders and institutions at different levels of the system.
The first essential step, therefore, is to seek to align various facets of the curriculum so
that the key goal—students learning valued and agreed-upon learning objectives—permeates the entire system:
The curriculum organizes and gives meaning to a multiplicity of educational
activities that facilitate learning. It imparts overt knowledge to learners. It provides a
basis for socialising children, youth and adults from diverse backgrounds. It conveys
a wide range of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values in classrooms and diverse
educational settings. In short, the school curriculum embodies a society’s educational
aims and purposes. It encapsulates what learners should learn, why, when and how;
and what they should do while attending school. (UNESCO IBE 2013b, p. 2)
A 21st century curriculum: Peace and sustainable development vs. technology
and wealth
Many initiatives have attempted to map out the knowledge, skills and competences necessary for a 21st-century environment. Studies have tended to focus on socio-economic
assumptions about technology and the marketplace that are arguably driven by neo-liberal
constructs where the primary role of education is to build the economic sector. To give
some examples, the Assessment and Teaching of 21st-Century Skills (ATC21S) organization was sponsored by Intel, Microsoft and Cisco and focussed, understandably, on ICT
literacy; the 2009 Creativity, Culture & Education (CCE) report identified creativity as an
important skill because it is ‘‘central to economic life’’ (Jones 2009, p. 60); the OECD’s
PISA identified the ‘‘need to assess problem-solving abilities as governments around the
world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment’’
(Pearson 2011, p. 5).
Clearly, one essential goal of education is to provide young people with the skills and
certification that will empower them to find employment, and a social goal of education is
to improve socioeconomic indices. But these are not the only goals of education. A
curriculum must also address the affective dispositions and ethical decision-making
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
capacity of learners, and the moral issues that face the planet such as conflict, inequality,
lack of resources, poverty and citizenship. As UNESCO points out in the UNESCO
Principles on Education for Development Beyond 2015,
… concern for peace and sustainable development should be at the centre of our
efforts to promote inclusive and equitable societal development beyond 2015. Patterns of development and economic growth over the past several decades are now
seriously being questioned. Demographic growth, the expansion of middle-class
lifestyles and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are all contributing to environmental degradation, water scarcity, climate change and the
growing incidence of natural disasters. (UNESCO 2013, p. 1)
Therefore, a 21st-century education must have considerable focus on mindful, sustainable
behaviours that allow for a better world. This suggests something altogether more powerful
and ambitious than an education to promote technical skills in the workplace. In this
article, we use the term ‘‘competences’’ rather than ‘‘skills’’, as ‘‘competences’’ suggest
more than ‘‘skills’’: we are looking to a world where individuals can apply their knowledge
in humane and socially responsible and respectful ways. And we are looking beyond
efficiency towards sustainability.
One vision
We also raise another salient question: Can one set of guiding principles for a 21st-century
curriculum be used for every country? Or is each national context or regional region so
specific that we cannot achieve a common vision? Whatever the answer, principles guide
actions that should be designed, tailored and expressed in local terms.
We believe that a set of guiding principles for learning that influence curriculum design
are not only achievable but also desirable. As long as education systems seek to differentiate their goals, the interconnectedness of a 21st-century world will not resonate in the
systems that are currently educating young people. The 21st-century educational arena
should be one where we seek that which brings us together and meanwhile express our
cultural differences, thus enriching the world through diversity rather than casting us
Nearly two decades ago the Delors report pointed out some of the dichotomous tensions
that require a universal response for a sustainable future: global/local, universal/individual,
tradition/modernity, long-term/short-term considerations, competition/equal opportunity,
expansion of knowledge/capacity for assimilation, spiritual/material (Delors et al. 1996;
Tawil and Cougoureux 2013). Today’s challenges reiterate these tensions in a world where
offshoring, multilateral agreements, international political alliances, transnational social
media, and a generally globalised economy are increasingly prevalent and will only proliferate in the future.
An education that does not see these issues as relevant will not empower students to
reflect and then act on the world stage.
The guiding principles we argue for in the third section of this article are not prescriptive but catalytic (Baumfield, Hall, Higgins, and Wall 2009): different expressions of a
framework are possible and will depend on national and local contexts. However, if we are
to clearly identify the principles of learning in the 21st century, we must understand,
discuss, and incorporate specific ideas and ultimately use them to instigate deep reflection.
These are the ideas we develop throughout the remainder of this article.
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
Definitions of learning
Learning is envisioned as a development of progressive sophistication in understanding and skills within a domain. (Heritage 2008, p. 3)
As learning occurs, increasingly well-structured and qualitatively different organizations of knowledge develop. These structures enable individuals to build a representation or mental model that guides problem solution and further learning, avoid
trial-and-error solution strategies, and formulate analogies and draw inferences that
readily result in new learning and effective problem solving. (Glaser and Baxter
1999, p. 16)
Learning entails more than simply filling minds with information; it requires the
transformation of naive understanding into more complete and accurate comprehension. (Pellegrino, Chudowski, and Glaser 2001, p. 83)
A 21st-century curriculum should have a strong emphasis on learning, and on learning to
learn, as these stand at the centre of a meaningful education. Not only should the
curriculum allow clear learning progression in various domains that can be observed and
continuously improved; it should also strengthen in students the attitudes, strategies and
behaviours that will allow them to become lifelong learners with an ongoing curiosity, and
a capacity to continuously upgrade and adapt their skills. When learning occupies a central
place in the curriculum, it will influence the design of learning objectives, assessments and
classroom practice. In this section we review four vital perspectives and then suggest how
they can be integrated into the written curriculum. The four perspectives are as follows:
Learning as a model of cognition (with an architecture of short-term and long-term
memory organised in schemas according to subject domains and comparative levels of
expertise and learning styles)
Learning as a developmental progression (by age but also by subject domain,
involving characteristic threshold concepts and typical misconceptions)
Learning as a social activity with societal impact (face to face, Web 2.0, school
community projects, learning through language, culture and social values)
Learning as reflection (metacognition)
Learning as a model of cognition
We learn by listening, watching and copying. We learn much better by doing, modelling
and discussing. We check what we have learnt by writing, talking, doing and teaching.
Fundamentally, learning involves making connections and activating memory. Learning
says something about the ways our minds work and are structured.
In the research on learning, the mental processes involved are mainly described as
cognitive processes. The essential components of cognition are working memory (the
capacity to hold information in one’s mind) and long-term memory (concepts, skills and
knowledge one has assimilated over time and can call up).
Among the fundamental elements of cognition is the mind’s cognitive architecture,
which includes these two kinds of memory. Short-term memory is highly limited, but longterm memory can hold a virtually limitless store of knowledge. What matters in most
situations is how well one can evoke the knowledge stored in long-term memory and use it
to reason efficiently about current information and problems. Therefore, within the normal
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
range of cognitive abilities, estimates of how people organise information in their longterm memories are likely to be more important than estimates of their working memory
capacity (Pellegrino et al. 2001, p. 3).
People do learn differently; Coffield et al. (2004, p. 1) list 71 different models. But
academic subjects also cause us to organise information in different ways. Subject domains
such as mathematics and the sciences tend to be focussed on conceptual understanding
whereas the arts involve appreciation and mastery of technique whilst the humanities
involve analytical and reflective approaches. These applications are not exclusively
restricted to each domain but we should be aware of the role they play in each area and,
therefore, how we can expect cognition to develop in them. ‘‘While the contents include
both general and specific knowledge, much of what one knows is domain- and task-specific
and organised into structures known as schemas’’ (Pellegrino et al. 2001, p. 3). These
schemas are fundamental to learning, as they tell us how people think and learn.
We should also be aware of the differences between experts and novices within subject
domains. By ‘‘novice’’ we mean learners who take an intuitive unchecked approach, as one
might play with the keyboard of a piano seeking melody; by ‘‘expert’’ we mean learners
who can draw from a repertoire of learnt strategies and conceptualisations, as a piano
player who understands harmonic progression might play fully developed chords and seek
melodies within the rules of harmony. ‘‘Experts in a subject domain typically organise
factual and procedural knowledge into schemas that support pattern recognition and the
rapid retrieval and application of knowledge’’ (Pellegrino et al. 2001, p. 4). Typically,
novices take longer to do this, as they have not developed the strategies that experts have.
For example, consider a student of French who has not been taught that être is an auxiliary
used to conjugate verbs of movement; that student may try to memorise all the verbs that
take être and find the process quite inefficient. But a student who has understood the
concept can apply it based on that single conceptual construct, and will be able to learn the
verbs far more efficiently.
Understanding the basics of the mind’s cognitive architecture and how this works in
different domains is vital for effective curriculum design, teaching and learning.
Learning as a developmental progression
An important idea behind the concept of learning is that it is developmental: children learn
in different ways as they grow up. Jean Piaget (1896–1980) divided the learning process
into four parts: the sensorimotor (age 0–2), where the child learns very basic physical
movements and remains focussed on his own needs and perceptions; the preoperational
(2–7), made up of unregulated, imaginary thinking and the acquisition of motor skills; the
concrete operational (7–11), where children think in simplistically and practically logical
ways; and the formal operational (11 onwards), where children can generalise their
thinking and can think in complex, abstract ways. What this means for curriculum is that
learning experiences for children should be age-appropriate.
Students learn new content over time, they find some concepts more difficult to master
than others and as they progress in a subject they move from intuitive, naı̈ve understanding
to more in-depth, expert understanding. Learning involves a ‘‘carefully sequenced set of
building blocks that students must master en route to a more distant curricular aim. The
building blocks consist of sub skills and bodies of enabling knowledge’’ (Popham 2007,
p. 83).
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
Learning progressions are not a series of smoothly articulated conceptualisations but a
series of important moments characterised by understanding and change—‘‘aha moments’’:
… they are transformative (occasioning a significant shift in the perception of a
subject), irreversible (unlikely to be forgotten, or unlearned only through considerable effort), and integrative (exposing the previously hidden interrelatedness of
something). They also entail a shift in learner subjectivity and an extended use of
discourse. (Land, Cousin, Meyer, and Davies 2005, p. 53)
This idea of learning as a shift from intuitive perception to a more rigorous system
entailing deep understanding is related to Karl Popper’s (1959) idea of falsifiability: as we
learn, we move from knowing through confirmation bias to deeper knowing through
Thus, it is critical to understand where a student is along a learning progression, but it is
equally important to be able to identify which moments in a learning journey are troublesome for students, and, of course, to recognise when and where their knowledge is at a
threshold stage.
Some errors are common in learning because they come about when the learner is faced
with concepts that are counterintuitive and rely on subjacent systems. Examples are
common in areas such as adding fractions or manipulating complex numbers, or understanding concepts such as gravity, buoyancy, metabolism or depreciation. Teachers should
identify common misconceptions, so they can work around them. In many ways, the true
goal of teaching is not to find the right answer but to know how to work around a wrong
answer and open pathways to better understanding. We should remember that learners may
misunderstand not because of cognition or the subject domain but because of the way the
material is presented to them. Indeed, many problems arise from knowledge being too tacit
and/or couched in difficult language.
Learning disabilities or special learning needs describe situations where students have
ways of learning that are different from those in the mainstream. They will typically
require special accommodations that can include modified learning materials, separate
learning settings and/or special tuition. We will return to this later.
Understanding students’ needs is not only confined to cognition: for teachers to chart
and scaffold the intellectual and social development of their students, they should
understand something of the students’ personal background including socioeconomic and
cultural details. Knowing where students come from contextualises the learning process.
Furthermore, good teachers should be mindful of the role emotion plays in learning, taking
into account the impact that their feedback can have on students’ motivation (Dweck
Being able to identify a student’s learning along a domain-specific learning progression
and against a developmental spectrum with understanding of special learning needs and
background is crucial for effective pedagogy and curriculum mapping.
Learning as a social activity
Students do not learn in isolation. Even the solitary reading of a book implies communication between two people and to test that they understand a book students must
describe, synthesise and conceptualise what they have read by communicating it to
someone else. Furthermore, students tend to learn best in groups where they can coconstruct knowledge through dialogue, discussion and sharing, provided that these groups
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
are given clear instructions on how to work together (Mercer, Dawes, Wegerif, and Sams
2004). The teacher must share many parts of the learning experience with the students
(expectations, criteria for success, feedback on performance) and they need to share their
learning with each other in well-designed group work, projects and discussion groups.
One of the earliest theories of learning, developed by the philosopher Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712–1778), was that learning should be relevant and situated within a meaningful, real-world context. This theory influenced many educators in the early 20th century,
such as John Dewey (1859–1952) and Maria Montessori (1870–1952), and led to inquirybased and discovery learning models such as those pioneered by members of the Rousseau
Institute that later became the International Bureau of Education (IBE), where educators
like Edouard Claparède (1873–1940), Pierre Bovet (1878–1965) and Adolphe Ferrière
(1879–1969) played pivotal roles. These educators were also closely related to the
beginning of the International School of Geneva, in 1924 (Hughes 2012), and were
members of the IBE, which was founded in 1925. Piaget was its first director after it
became the first intergovernmental organisation in education in 1929. The big idea here is
that we learn best when we can see the usefulness of what we learn and can connect it to
the real world.
Social constructivism, a school of thought developed by the psycholinguist Lev
Vygotsky (1896–1934), focusses on the importance of learning within a community.
Vygotsky believed we learn primarily by building up knowledge as we interact with other
people through language. He introduced an important idea, the zone of proximal development. This is the area where the teacher should interact with students, taking them from
tasks they can accomplish independently to challenges just ahead of what they know or can
do, by actively guiding their learning to the next level of understanding. This kind of
teaching is called scaffolding. ‘‘The most effective learning environment is created when
learners’ thinking is being challenged, and the work is extending what the learners could
achieve independently’’ (CIE 2013, p. 12). Social constructivism is one of the most
influential theories of learning in the modern educational world.
Recent times have seen the explosion of social media in the classroom. These allow for
communication, either synchronous or asynchronous, around the world, despite geographical and time constraints. They also imply a new relationship between instructors and
knowledge: instructors may no longer be the students’ only access to knowledge and will
not necessarily control the pacing of learning the way they could before the advent of new
technologies. Today, students can share ideas with each other as they build up knowledge;
they can learn independently and form communities of learners in multiple ways. In this
new paradigm, teachers need to reposition themselves. Modern classrooms increasingly
include web-based communities of learners, and new technologies allow for innovative
learning environments; for example, in the flipped classroom, students can do more of their
learning at home and the classroom is used for revision and online learning through
software such as Blackboard, Moodle and YouTube tutorials.
It is important to also acknowledge the role schools play in local communities through
school community projects. These forge relationships between schools and local authorities, institutions and official or informal organisation, and teach students many social skills.
By reaching out to parents, graduates, former teachers and many other members of the
school and local community, students can consolidate their learning socially. For example,
a school involved in a local litter pick-up will teach children not only about litter but also
about responsibility and teamwork.
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
A 21st-century curriculum will take social constructivist theory into account in the light
of new technologies to allow students maximum opportunity for learning but will also
remember the essential role school and teachers play as socialising agencies.
Learning as reflection
It is critical for students to think back on what they have learnt, how they learnt it and what
conclusions they can draw from the process. When students do this, they also have an
opportunity to think about the values and assumptions associated with that learning. This
process develops a more critical approach to knowledge.
Learning does not happen in a vacuum; students need time for reflection, for the
opportunity to visualise themselves in the broader picture of learning. They should be
brought to reflect not only on what they have learnt but how they have learnt it and what
this tells them about their own strategies for learning.
Thinking about thinking is called metacognition (Flavell 1976). Metacognition can
include strategies for learning such as self-regulation, planning ahead and knowing when to
apply rules and make important decisions. Experts disagree on the extent to which
metacognition is general or domain specific.
Teachers should ensure that students are given adequate quality time to reflect meaningfully on their learning at each step.
Learning styles
There is some debate as to how much we can attribute learning styles to different individuals. Some say that the way we learn is a fixed trait (Dunn 1990) belonging to a
personality type, the most famous being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
developed in the 1940s as an extension of the work on personality by the Swiss psychologist Karl Gustav Jung. The MBTI places humans on a grid of various possible
positive or negative traits belonging to personality types. Despite numerous questions
about its validity, it is used in schools as a basis for career advising.
Others, such as David Kolb (2000), have developed theories to suggest that learning
style is not a fixed personality trait but more ‘‘a differential preference for learning, which
changes slightly from’’ one situation to another. ‘‘At the same time,’’ Kolb says, ‘‘there is
some long-term stability in learning style’’ (p. 8). He locates four main learning styles
(diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating) in a Learning Style Inventory
(LSI). An important feature of Kolb’s theory on learning styles is that it is inquiry-based:
we learn through experiential adaptation to the world.
Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of Multiple Intelligences suggests that we have at least
nine different intelligences (verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, musical, visual-spatial,
bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, existential). Art Costa’s (2013)
16 habits of mind further categorise the various dispositions that characterise learning.
Although these theories are not based on exhaustive empirical research, they remind us that
learning is not the same across the board and that different learners might prefer certain
strategies to learn best (visual strategies such as mind maps, verbal techniques such as group
discussion, recasting and/or so-called think-aloud protocols, logical organisers and so on).
They also suggest that any learner can try a variety of strategies to learn better.
Over the last 20 years, magnetic resonance imaging has allowed neuroscientists to
confirm and influence theories of learning, pointing to the importance of motivation,
emotion and neural connections (synapses) in the processes of learning. We also know that
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
bilingual education brings learners greater cognitive flexibility (Bialystok, Craik, and
Freedman 2007), that extensive reading helps prevent dementia in later life (Smith 1996)
and that certain learning difficulties such as dyslexia are linked, in part, to how well the
auditory associative and visual associative cortexes are functioning. Neuroscience, which
continues to advance at great speed, is informing our understanding and anticipation of
simple constituents of learning such as attention span, processing of focus information, and
the ways that diet, sleep and physical activity affect learning.
Learning at the centre of the curriculum
Schools need to view the curriculum as an integrated whole that addresses the entire
learning process. The curriculum is not merely a written document of the content to be
covered, but a vision of how the learning will take place. For this to happen, the teaching
and learning process—the ‘‘how’’—must feature as an integrated part of the ‘‘what’’. To
give an example, saying that at the end of a year students should know how to critically
evaluate a wide variety of sources in history does not tell us enough or give us any
guarantee that teachers will try to do this productively in the classroom. But we will have a
clearer idea of the vision if that learning objective is backed up by accounts of the types of
learning experiences that will lead up to it. And such accounts will give classroom practitioners the chance to make clear which theories of learning they are activating and what
the developmental progression of the learning will look like through a solid disciplinary
How should a written curriculum be organised?
When educators turn to the curriculum several dangers arise very quickly. The first danger
is that of scale: for the curriculum to have an applicable scope it must be detailed enough to
be meaningful but not so detailed that one loses the big picture. Writing a curriculum
requires powers of synthesis and abstraction: the curriculum designers have to be able to
articulate what students should be learning, how this will be taught and how it will be
assessed. We need to be careful not to write a document that is so long and detailed that
teachers shy away from reading it or feel that it is too prescriptive. At the same time, if the
curriculum is too vague, then there is little certainty that the learning will be deep or
coherent enough for students to meet standards in any meaningful way.
A second danger is failing to step back from units and topics, tasks and activities to see
the learning objectives: what we want the students to learn.
Curricula are often organised around scope and sequence charts that specify procedural objectives to be mastered at each grade. Usually, these are discrete objectives
and not connected to each other in a larger network of organising concepts … often
leading to superficial coverage of ideas without building connections between and
among them. (Heritage 2008, p. 2)
Fully understanding the difference between a learning objective and a learning experience
(a better term than ‘‘activity’’, a word that denotes little cognition) is crucial for effective
curriculum design.
A third danger involves sequence: most curricula plan students’ learning according to
subject matter in a sequence that does not accurately reflect the learning progression that
students experience developmentally and cognitively. Time is allocated to different sections of the curriculum without anyone stopping to reflect on the relative difficulty of the
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
material. Some ideas are more counterintuitive than others, so they may take longer to
absorb, such as grasping what it means to analyse a piece of literature. The curriculum
must take this into account. For a more detailed account of troublesome knowledge, see
Land et al. (2005).
A fourth danger involves assessment. Too often assessment is arbitrarily attached to
strands and standards; in fact, the type of assessment we select must be carefully calibrated
with the type of learning we are looking for. Multiple choice test items will suit a certain
set of learning objectives in a certain domain, but in other areas other items will work
better, including longer item responses, essays, commentaries, oral presentations, projects
and portfolios. Curriculum designers need to triangulate assessment with learning very
carefully to ensure that the assessment is appropriate to the purpose of each unit.
The fifth danger is that the written curriculum can remain in its own world, while the
taught curriculum goes off in another direction. This happens when communication breaks
down between curriculum designers and teachers: the curriculum should accurately reflect
what is happening in the classroom and teachers need to feel invested in documenting it,
reviewing it every year and seeing it as much more than boxes to be filled in to satisfy
The engine that drives the curriculum is the model of cognition that schools choose:
what we want students to know and do (Figure 1). The model of cognition will determine
the choice of assessment and classroom practice (what we call learning experiences).
For example, suppose the model of cognition we value is knowledge retention, such as
students learning multiplication tables or verb conjugations. Then the learning objectives
will use propositional language like ‘‘knows that’’, and assessments will have a summative
focus and will emphasise knowledge retrieval (testing factual knowledge, crystallised
intelligence and long-term memory, and being able to label, recount, produce correctly),
while the classroom practice will centre around the teacher broadcasting information and
sharing methods for students to code, store and retrieve information (prominent use of
lectures, the whiteboard, textual information and so on).
What if the model of cognition values competences such as analysis, application and
synthesis? Then the learning objectives will describe performance (‘‘can express’’, ‘‘is able to
synthesise’’, ‘‘successfully applies’’) while the assessment will focus on working memory and
performance; it will evaluate students’ ability to perform tasks, give detailed responses and
design projects. The teaching and learning will no doubt involve group work, independent
research and a co-constructivist approach. To give an example, such curriculum design might
be designed around commentary writing in literature and the humanities.
If you are designing a course around learning objectives that involve deep understanding, then they will use language such as ‘‘understands’’, ‘‘is able to justify’’ and ‘‘can
explain’’. Assessments will have a formative purpose and will involve informal practice
Fig. 1 The curriculum triangle
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
Table 1 Learning objectives
Confused learning objective
Clarified learning objective
Context of
To be able to write instructions on
how to change a bicycle tyre
To be able to write clear instructions
Changing a
bicycle tyre
To be able to present an argument for
or against assisted suicide
To be able to present an argument for or against
an emotionally charged proposition
Assisted suicide
To design an experiment to find out
what conditions pill bugs prefer
To design fair tests for scientific questions
habitat of pill
Source: Wiliam (2011, p. 61)
such as assessment conversations, where a teacher discusses items with students to build up
a picture of their understanding. It may also involve peer assessment, self-assessment, the
use of portfolios and so on. The teaching will place value on classroom talk, dialogic
practice and the Vygotskian scaffolding described above. This type of curriculum design
can be expected in subject areas such as the natural and social sciences where students are
brought to understand counterintuitive concepts such as gravity and depreciation.
Of course, these examples are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive; our point is that
curriculum designers should adhere to a coherent approach to the knowledge and competences being developed. Coherence is crucial to achieving a quality curriculum.
Curriculum learning objectives (Table 1) articulate the models of cognition that will
drive the assessment and task design. Learning objectives need to be clear enough for
teachers, students and parents to understand them fully.
Learning objectives should be attached to standards and summative assessment criteria.
In other words, whenever teachers design a task they should simultaneously think about
how it works towards the learning objective and which assessment will be designed to
bring out the necessary learning to move towards the objective.
Finally, learning objectives should be designed in a continuum that takes into account
troublesome knowledge and threshold concepts so that from year to year the students’
learning is moving forward. Time should be built into the lessons to make sure that the
students have mastered the material sufficiently before moving on to the next step. One
well-known method of designing curriculum is the backwards planning and understanding
by design developed by Wiggins and McTighe (1998); Margaret Heritage (2008) offers
another salient treatment of the subject with developed examples from across the globe.
Guiding principles for learning in the 21st century
Having discussed theories of learning and some essential principles of curriculum design,
the next big question is what it is we want our students to learn in the 21st century. The
principles for learning that we discuss in this third section of our article are suggestions
about some of the fundamental areas of knowledge (STEM learning, information literacy,
concepts-focussed learning), competences (creativity and critical thinking) and attitudes
(academic honesty, health and mindfulness, service learning) that should feature in a model
of cognition that responds to the challenges of rapidly transforming societies, workplaces
and environments. We also explain why we believe these areas are particularly important.
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
Furthermore, the principles offer a vision for the type of practice (learning support and
assessment) that can develop these knowledge areas, competences and attitudes (Figure 2).
Fundamental areas of knowledge of the 21st-century curriculum
STEM learning
Many of the world’s most pressing problems are so complex that they cannot be solved
from one epistemological framework: they require an interdisciplinary approach that draws
from different fields (Buchanan 1992). Examples of such problems are poverty (economics, politics, history, sociology), endangered humanity (history, anthropology, social
sciences) and environmental sustainability (sciences, mathematics, geography). Many
other relevant themes imply the involvement of multiple fields: gender and its implications
(psychology, biology, ethics, history, literature, sociology), and time (physics, linguistics,
ethnography, the arts, history), not to mention other areas, such as travel, trade, the family
and the future, all of which draw on multiple fields.
Many schools and universities teach integrated science or humanities courses and interdisciplinary study is increasingly being recognised as the site of 21st-century learning.
Interestingly, integrated humanities and science courses tend to be offered in primary and
middle schools, though some argue that they would be better positioned at the latter stages of
formal schooling, when students have enough subject-specific knowledge and can think
rigorously enough to engage in authentic interdisciplinary work: complex problem-solving
with an emphasis on ethical issues in the sciences (bioethics, scientific rigour in the name of
‘‘good science’’ despite economic and social pressure, genuine group work and peer review).
However, mathematics, which is implied and used extensively in the pure sciences, is
still taught as a discrete subject in the classroom and many, if not most, secondary schools
still separate the three pure sciences and teach them as discrete disciplines.
This is a curious state of affairs, especially when we consider how molecular biology,
astrophysics and biochemistry have developed in the last decades: mainly by breaking
down subject-specific boundaries and conventions. Moreover, developments in technology
Fig. 2 Guiding principles for learning in the 21st century
Source: Hughes and Acedo (2014)
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
have had significant effects on science; examples are computer coding, three-dimensional
printing, magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography. Furthermore, we
see good reason to believe that innovation in scientific thinking and experimentation will
allow humanity to find solutions to the multitudinous problems it faces.
Reasoning and problem solving, which lie at the heart of mathematics, have a core role
to play in learning science and technology. The 21st-century approach should take problems embedded in real-life scenarios, notably in engineering, and place them at the centre
of the learning of science, mathematics and technology, which should no longer be viewed
as separate domains with little crossover but as vital elements required in the solving of
complex problems.
Students should be brought to consider modern applications of sciences (in particular
physics and artificial intelligence), design technology (where contemporary development
in the areas of signal paths can supersede older, more elementary areas of circuit design)
and mathematics (where Boolean logic and functions can be used in more practical ways if
they are integrated into elements of programming).
For example, one salient way to create meaningful interdisciplinary STEM is a robotics
course that would lead students towards the relevant learning objectives through projectbased interdisciplinary learning (see Wallace, McCartney, and Russell 2010; Verner 2004).
In this course, students could group their learning around designing, creating, and programming a robot and then using it to collect data.
Assessments should take into account the collaborative, ethical and metacognitive
implications of this type of learning and students should be given feedback that allows
them to make connections between these areas. Of course, this is a difficult and ambitious
strategy to implement; it will require that teachers and administrators move out of their
comfort zones to a new way of thinking and working, but it can be achieved by breaking
down the walls between these subjects.
Where access to technology is limited, students can still be taught to make connections
between science, mathematics and technology by more deeply understanding real-world
problems while using the major principles of engineering and design. To give an example,
a simple but rich learning experience can be developed by hiding an object in a cardboard
box and asking students to guess what might be in there. The teacher uses postulates that
stretch students’ thinking across disciplines and help them gradually test their hypotheses
to drive them closer to the object they cannot see. Another learning experience might
involve a student competition to build a bridge using limited materials in a given time
frame, applying scientific modelling and mathematical reasoning. Indeed, STEM learning
can be done with low levels of technology.
Information literacy
Effective inquiry-based learning requires students who can use the information flow
confidently and fluently. Students need to understand the algorithmic nature of search
engines, what a database is and how it can be used effectively. This is a key 21st-century
competence, as it means detecting signals (important, salient information) from the surrounding noise (irrelevant information, misleading aggregates and information overflow)
in an age where the amount of data generated online is several petabytes (quadrillions of
bytes) per day. For more detail on noise and signals, see Silver (2012).
Students can develop synthesising minds (Gardner 2007) through well-designed courses
in which they learn information literacy as a regular feature of each year’s curriculum. The
curricula should emphasise and assess rigorous, creative and critical use of source material,
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
starting at an early age, with and through increased collaboration between classroom
teachers, librarians and coordinators of technology for learning.
Furthermore, each school should articulate a strong and clear vision of digital citizenship; that will let students harness all they can of the creative opportunities the
worldwide web offers, but still use its platform in discerning and judicious ways (Ohler
2011). Digital citizenship involves students being aware of the implications of activity on
social media (the repercussions of the digital footprint they leave behind them, appropriate
and ethical use of the Internet) and open-minded about the opportunities information
technology offers for problem solving and creative thinking (connected social networks,
sharing of ideas, synchronous and asynchronous communication).
Another important element of information literacy is media studies. Throughout the
curriculum, students should be stimulated to consider issues related to the media at ageappropriate levels; then they can develop a critical view on the role it plays in group
perceptions of reality, the global economic market and social norms. This is vital for
critical thinking in the 21st century, as the media plays such a large role in forming public
opinion (Halpern 1999; Herman and Chomsky 1988).
We must remember that, even if classrooms and schools have little or no Internet
access, they are still preparing students for an interconnected world where social media
play important roles. Therefore, learning experiences should make students aware of these
issues whether or not technology is used in school. To give an example, in a low-resource
context, students should be brought to work around newspaper clippings, easily accessible
examples of advertising and branding and human networks: one person in a community
might have discovered something on the Internet and passed that information on to others.
This will let them discuss how information is generated, mediated and consumed.
Concepts-focussed learning
Learning is most effective when it is articulated around concepts and not topics. This is
mainly because the mind retains information better when it is grouped into symbiotic
systems. For example, a young child can more easily remember the processes of condensation, precipitation and evaporation when they are linked to one another in the water
cycle; one can better understand subtraction in the context of addition than as a separate,
unrelated operation. Concepts-focussed learning creates deeper understanding because it is
based on cognitive structures. The water cycle is more than the sum of its parts: it is a
system that is part of a larger concept, the cycle. Similarly, addition, subtraction, division
and multiplication are part of a system (arithmetic) that relates to a broader concept of
quantity. If 21st-century education has learning at its centre, then a key objective will be
deep understanding since no one can learn effectively without understanding, and concepts-focussed learning enhances deep understanding.
Learning history is not a matter of assembling a series of dates but of organising them
around some fundamental concepts: revolution, war, persecution, trade, relationships,
power and economic movements, to mention a few. Likewise, the purpose of studying
history is not to learn facts by rote but to understand how they relate to one another in a
larger conceptual framework. For example, we teach the Holocaust for students to
understand the morphology of genocide so they will be able to recognise it under other
guises. An essential question for all teachers and students is why they learn what they do. A
question like this will force the learner to reflect beyond the immediate surface of the
learning experience to a deeper level. For example, in biology we learn about cells to
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
understand organic life; in human geography we learn about population demographics so
we better understand how the earth is populated and will grow over time, and so on.
When the teacher and the student look at learning experiences conceptually, their
perspective shifts, from disassociated pieces of knowledge to a group of broad categories
that share common features. For example, students studying the Primary Years Programme
of the International Baccalaureate (IB 2013) learn through the key concepts of form,
function, causation, change, connection, perspective, responsibility and reflection.
We should also recognise that some concepts are counterintuitive and therefore difficult
to master: fractions, algebra, complex numbers, gravity, metabolism, depreciation. A 21stcentury education that recognises the intricacies of learning through concepts will pay
attention to troublesome concepts to ensure that students can master them before moving
on to the next step of the learning.
Reflecting on concepts rather than topics allows for an interdisciplinary transfer of
learning: we can apply the principles of literary analysis to the appreciation of art, or the
tenets of scientific experimentation to the social sciences, and so on. However, transfer will
not happen of its own accord; the teacher must scaffold it carefully and mindfully to guide
students as they apply learning from one domain to another in meaningful ways. Helpful
work on concepts-focussed learning includes that of Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin (1967),
Land et al. (2005), and Lynn Erickson (2007).
21st-century competences: Creativity and critical thinking
Creativity and critical thinking intersect at the levels of problem solving, argument analysis
and decision-making: they are the habits of mind that students need to address high levels
of complexity, challenge and unfamiliarity.
The 21st-century citizen who can analyse situations critically is someone who can use
discernment, reason and judgement to draw conclusions in a world where corporations and
individuals seeking interest and gain saturate the public domain through information
technology and the media, often using misleading rhetorical strategies such as appeals to
authority (‘‘the research shows’’), misleading aggregates (statistics taken out of context and
presented as truth) and false personal interest to gain private information. Critical thinkers
will also use competences involving the future (making predictions, following up on
implications, evaluating likelihood and uncertainty) to make difficult decisions in an
environment of rapid and unpredictable change; they will find solutions to problems with
limited, confounding or unidentified variables.
People need creativity to rethink situations from new perspectives, to see approaches
that are not apparent at first and to respond to situations with elegance, utility and novelty.
The creative thinker will see hidden patterns, reconceptualise the fundaments of a state of
affairs, step back to see the big picture and entertain ideas that have not been thought of
before. Creative thinking is highly sought after in the job market: a recent IBM survey of
over 1500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide identified
creativity as the single most important leadership competency (IBM 2010). But more than
that, the human species will need creative thinking if it is to adapt to the changing
environment and therefore survive.
It is not always helpful to separate these competences from the subject domains where
students use them; they cannot be seen as standalones in any profound way. In fact some
authors, including Glaser (1984), have argued convincingly that critical thinking does not
transfer. At the same time, it is important to view them across disciplines, with strong
potential for development in each area of learning: creativity is not something that we only
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
find in the arts. Nor does critical thinking belong only to philosophy, mathematics and
some of the humanities. Indeed, the more we recognise the need to develop creativity and
critical thinking in each subject area, the stronger those abilities will be for teachers and
Creativity and critical thinking involve and imply careful task design, rich questions,
open-mindedness and challenge. A 21st-century curriculum will integrate creativity and
critical thinking into assessments and foster them in students through classroom practices
that model, nurture and extend learning. These competences have always been vital in
classical domains such as problem solving and reasoning in mathematics and philosophy,
but they are all the more central in today’s world (McWilliam 2008).
Academic honesty
A quality education in the 21st century cannot stop at competences, knowledge and concepts alone. It must also address the affective disposition of learners: their attitudes towards
themselves, the community and learning itself. The survival of the planet depends as much
on ethics as it does on competences. A value-based education is particularly necessary in
an age when ethical dilemmas are often either reduced to legal, technical questions in a
secularised model—which runs the risk of sterilising them—or radicalised through religious fundamentalist models where dogmatic moral absolutism is cast over rational and
empirical thought. The challenge facing schools in the modern era is to teach ethics
without straying too far on either side of this spectrum.
Academic honesty in a 21st-century world must take into account the opportunities and
dangers that new technologies represent: students should be educated to conduct research
more efficiently by using databases and software functions rather than mere commercial
search engines, whilst schools need to revisit the concepts of collusion and malpractice in
the light of social media and the worldwide web (Bertram Gallant 2011). This should be
done not only in schools that use technology in the classroom but also where hardware or
Internet access is scarce: students need to know how to deal with information ethically and
safely as they will all face those issues throughout their lives.
This is particularly salient in a digitised world since the concepts of plagiarism and
intellectual property have been blurred by easy access to open source material and few
people really understand copyright infringement. Schools need to pay special attention to
this by familiarising students with plagiarism software from an early age and encouraging
strong collaboration with the librarian. Indeed, librarians have new roles in the modern
educational setting: they can now direct students to relevant sources and give them the
means to research in appropriate ways.
Health and mindfulness
One result of high-stakes assessments in schools is the pressure it places on students, often
leading to too much stress and, in extreme cases, mental breakdown. The narrowing of an
educational experience to performance on terminal examinations not only impoverishes the
fabric and purpose of education but leads to high levels of anxiety that permeate the
student body, the school and the family. In the context of a world economic recession on an
overpopulated planet, the world that young people are being prepared for is at once
exhilarating and terrifying. Unemployment statistics loom large and any individual who
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
hopes to succeed must build up enormous resilience, inner strength and confidence, or what
is popularly referred to as ‘‘grit’’.
However, a globalised neo-liberal economic system, with its zero-sum game implications and its ruthless competition, does not necessarily encourage a humane attitude toward
self-preservation. If they are to conserve societal peace, schools must encourage students to
find spiritual, physical and mental pathways that build up their personal resources and
prepare them for life, and that teach them self-control without forsaking respect for others
and the ability to share.
In a world with an enormous amount of information noise, hyperactivity, competition
and, in many regards, a coarsening of society, a 21st-century curriculum must also allow
students opportunities to distil their thoughts, and seek silence and deep thought. They
must develop ways to bring their mind and body together in an attitude of oneness in which
they can focus their thoughts on the environment, self and others. A healthy life, spiritually
and physically, is an imperative for societal regeneration and peace.
Integrating health and mindfulness into education goes beyond the classroom; it
involves the ethos of the entire educational system. Students should be given ample
opportunity to exercise physically: WHO (2013, p. 1) says that ‘‘children and youth aged
5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical
activity daily’’. Equally important, the food they are served in cafeterias should be healthy,
as should the environment in which they are learning. Beyond this, we cannot expect
mindful behaviours from our students if the schools that are teaching them have disrespectful management systems and inhumane working conditions: in many ways the school
is a microcosm of the society that we aspire to and therefore attitudes of mindfulness
should be felt across the board just as they are needed at all levels of a healthy, humane
Service learning
Learning to live together, one of UNESCO’s pillars of education, implies that students
need to be brought to understand subtle ideas of reciprocity when dealing with others.
Service learning highlights the rights and responsibilities needed to live together in a better
The world economy of the 21st century is a troublesome paradigm that includes
inequality, a north-south divide and social turmoil. Curricula must address these issues by
ensuring that students understand their roles as citizens in a community and the roles they
can play in contributing to the planet’s social capital, but without becoming self-righteous.
Young people have potential roles to play in the societal renewal that is needed in postconflict zones, poverty-afflicted areas, homes for the elderly, hospitals, orphanages and
other public services. A holistic education that aims at a humane understanding of the
human condition should put students in situations where they consider reality from completely different perspectives, including those of people in difficult situations.
Service learning is related to citizenship education as it implies roles, rights and
responsibilities in local communities. Schools have a crucial role to play as community
leaders through the cultural activities they organise, the partnerships they establish with
local authorities and the way they work with their parent bodies to make an impact around
Students can be led to meaningful service learning by using detailed reflection cycles of
inquiry that involve investigating tensions within systems and between student systems,
conducting research before undertaking projects and sharing findings, assumptions and
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
discoveries with peers and teachers. Completing the cycle involves reflecting deeply after
the projects are finished. Useful designs of inquiry that can be used to structure service
learning include those developed by David Kolb (1984) and Short et al. (1996).
It is important to consider service learning as something that benefits the student and not
to give students the illusion that at young ages, with comparatively few socially valuable
competences, they can help people who are older and more experienced than they are. This
syndrome of self-importance can be exacerbated when learning experiences emphasise
charity fund-raising and field trips, particularly if they involve private school students from
comparatively wealthy backgrounds targeting service areas in the so-called developing
Service learning is an opportunity for young people to look at themselves, at those
around them and at the roles they have to play in the world, and do so with modesty and
humility; these are the qualities that will make service learning more meaningful and
educationally beneficial.
Learning support
Principles for learning in the 21st century imply new practices to meet the needs of students
in a changing landscape. Traditional classroom instruction—based on a knowledge
transmission model—is being challenged by personalised learning, which transcends the
school and implies new pedagogical strategies.
An area that is particularly interesting to investigate is learning support (also called
special educational needs), mainly because the strategies that have been developed in this
area of education apply to the needs of all students in a modern educational paradigm. To
give some examples, traditionally students with certified learning needs (diagnosed with
dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, autism and so on) have
been taught through accommodations (adjusting teaching practice to meet the learner’s
needs) or modifications (adapting the content of what is being taught). We see such
strategies as necessary elements of differentiated instruction for all learners, especially
with the advent of new technologies that allow for adapted online learning environments.
A typical process in learning support is the development of an individual education plan
(IEP) with specific learning goals for the student. This highly individualised approach to
learning should not be reserved just for those experiencing difficulties, but should form the
basis of general teaching and learning. All students should be considered worthy of an IEP.
Learning support remediation involves metacognition (learning about learning), scaffolding, mastery learning, high levels of feedback and multiple strategies for learning. In
many ways, this type of pedagogy is a distillation of the quality and excellence that should
be prevalent in all classrooms: all teachers should consider themselves specialists in
cognitive psychology rather than merely subject specialists. It is the psychology of learning
that should be promoted, if we are to rise to the challenge of providing students with an
education in which they can succeed.
Recent neurobiological progress has directed educational philosophy to the idea that
each individual learns differently and that differentiated instruction is vital if what we want
to achieve is not just getting the curriculum covered but seeing students truly master their
learning. Differentiation should not be considered a strategy that is used only under
exceptional circumstances; that implies that the norm is a one-size-fits-all approach in
which little attention is paid to the student’s specific needs.
C. Acedo, C. Hughes
When it comes to educational practices, schools need to revisit the way they interpret
special learning needs. A differentiated instructional programme is one where every
learner’s needs are met and there is no longer any such thing as a mainstream and a
separate group with special needs. All students’ needs are special. Schools in the 21st
century need to think about the model for cognition in their curriculum to ensure that it
encompasses a broad learning spectrum, and that different learning styles and theories of
cognition are encompassed, taught and assessed.
We have already argued that a quality curriculum is one that triangulates a model of
cognition with learning experiences and assessment. Learning must be constantly viewed
through this tiered model so that all parties work together to develop a coherent and
consistent relationship between the different facets of the curriculum (Pellegrino et al.
2001). In many ways, quality assessment is the guarantee of curriculum alignment.
Assessment lies at the heart of education and should be prominent in the minds of
students and teachers at all times. Assessment for learning is the pathway that will ensure
progress: it happens through feedback that is specific to the task and process, pedagogic
discourse based on questioning for understanding and carefully-designed follow-up,
scaffolding and personalised learning goals. Assessment should be varied, allowing students to draw from different strengths and learning styles.
From the outset, tasks should be designed to take summative assessments into account,
as tasks lead to assessment. Moreover, the nature of a learning experience should be strictly
aligned with the way it is assessed. Summative assessment should allow students with a
range of abilities and styles to demonstrate their conceptual generalisation of the learning,
but diagnostic assessment is crucial at the beginning of new learning experiences so the
teacher can see where to pitch the learning and how to develop it. Tasks and curricula can
only be designed well by those who clearly grasp the different purposes of assessment.
Schools need to think of ways to design assessments that use not only problem solving
and higher-order thinking but the more nebulous yet vitally important constructs of
metacognition, mindfulness, character and kindness.
If students are to take ownership of the learning process, they should understand the
science of assessment and have full access to assessment criteria whenever possible,
regularly engaging in peer- and self-assessment. In the 21st century, individuals have far
greater access to information than ever before and can follow quite considerable learning
paths on their own. Therefore, schools need to empower students with as much responsibility for their learning as possible, including the area of assessment.
The IBE reminds us of the foundation for lifelong learning:
A global agenda of common goals and targets to ensure equitable access to effective
and relevant learning for all certainly needs to be pursued as the foundation for
lifelong learning beyond 2015. This agenda, however, must be complemented by a
more flexible framework of inspirational principles that might guide our evolving
visions of relevant learning contents, processes and outcomes in a lifelong perspective. (UNESCO IBE 2013b, p. 5)
Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
We have proposed a ‘‘flexible framework of inspirational principles’’, by considering the
historical developments of pedagogy as well as the present and future challenges of
society. In the first section of this article, we argued for a vision of curriculum that
emphasises alignment with underlying goals for a peaceful, sustainable world with
balanced reflection on the roles of technology and wealth. We then defined learning and
elaborated on its centrality in the organisation of curriculum, and the third section brought
us to some fundamental areas for deep reflective practice, change and repositioning in
In this article, we have suggested the directions that a 21st-century curriculum could
take, building on cognitive psychology, established theories of teaching and learning and
identified social challenges that nation-states and individuals face in a complex world.
Curriculum design needs to address these in a vision for learning that is powerful and
relevant to multiple stakeholders, drawing from the past and the present.
However, frameworks can only go a certain distance. What is crucial is how they are
picked up and interpreted. At the centre of the curriculum are the teacher and the student;
yet, it is what lies between them—the quality of their interaction—that will ultimately
define the quality of learning.
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Principles for learning and competences in the 21st-century
Clementina Acedo (Venezuela) is director of Webster University Geneva. Between 2007 and 2014, she
was director of the UNESCO International Bureau of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in international and
comparative education and master’s degrees in philosophy and international development education from
Stanford University. She was director of the Institute for International Studies in Education (IISE) and
professor of comparative education at the University of Pittsburgh. Previously she worked for the World
Bank. She has published extensively on international educational policy, teacher education, education
reforms and curriculum development.
Conrad Hughes (South Africa) is director of education at the International School of Geneva, where he
also teaches Theory of Knowledge. He was educated in France, Swaziland, and South Africa, holds a Ph.D.
in English literature from the University of the Witwatersrand, and has worked in schools in France, the
Netherlands, and India. He has published articles in academic and educational journals, as well as an English
textbook, published by Pearson, for students pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma.