As technology continues to transform the skills that today’s students need to shape their future, many countries are responding by layering more content on top of their school curricula and timetables. Adding new subject material is an easy way for education systems to show that they are responding to emerging demands, but it is always harder to remove older material. As a result, teachers plough through a large amount of content, leaving students with a limited depth of understanding – one that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

In today’s technology-rich world, many schools have begun teaching coding, the language we use to instruct today’s computers. It’s a skill that is in high demand, and there are intriguing examples of schools across the world teaching it in ways that are relevant and engaging for students. But the risk is that we will again be teaching students today’s techniques to solve tomorrow’s problems; by the time today’s students graduate, these techniques might already be obsolete. We should instead focus on the computational thinking that underpins these techniques – and that students can use to shape the technologies of tomorrow.

We need to think more systematically about what we want to achieve from the design of curricula, rather than continuing to add more “stuff” to what is already being taught. Twenty-first-century curricula need to be characterised by rigour (building what is being taught on a high level of cognitive demand); by focus (prioritising depth over breadth of content to achieve conceptual understanding); and by coherence (sequencing instruction based on a scientific understanding of learning progressions and human development). Curricula need to remain true to the disciplines, while aiming at interdisciplinary learning and building students’ capacity to analyse problems through multiple lenses.

Curricula need to balance knowledge of discipline content with knowledge about the underlying nature and principles of disciplines. To help students address unknown future problems, curricula also need to focus on areas with the highest transfer value – in other words, they need to prioritise knowledge, skills and attitudes that can be learned in one context and applied to others. And to bring teachers along with this idea, they need to be explicit about the theory of action for how this transfer occurs. They need to balance the cognitive, social and emotional aspects of learning, and help teachers make shared responsibility among students part of the learning process. They need to frame learning in relevant and realistic contexts, and help teachers use approaches that are thematic, problem-based, project-based and centred around co-creation with their colleagues and their students. These are the principles against which we should assess any proposals to teach coding.

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