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  • Writer's pictureTara O'Brien

Future-Focused Curricula

Innovation in education has led to a wealth of philosophies and models for curricula. Education for the “whole child” refers to curriculum design that supports and develops the cognitive, social-emotional, communicative, and physical development of learners. If the goal of 21st education is to educate the “whole child” and prepare students for the unique challenges of the future, which curriculum model best supports this goal? Research has measured the efficacy of curriculum models including concept driven curriculum focused on critical thinking skills, inquiry-based curriculum, problem-based learning, and the impacts of social-emotional learning programs.

Concept Driven Curriculum and Critical Thinking

Concept-based curricula (CDC) support the 21st century goals for educating the “whole child by emphasizing “big ideas” and transferable skills spanning multiple subjects, rather than only single-subject knowledge and skills. CDC lends itself well to transdisciplinary curricula organized by unit of inquiry, but can also be integrated into single subject content (Abrami, 2015). CDC is effective in developing higher-order thinking skills and critical thinking. “Critical thinking (CT) is purposeful, self-regulatory judgement that results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanations of the considerations on which that judgement is based” (Abrami, 2015, p. 1). Critical thinking is a collection of meta-cognitive skills supported by CBC. Woolfolk (1998) explained the importance of developing critical thinking and meta-cognitive skills and practicing to transfer these skills to new situations (Abrami, 2015). CDC and the development of critical thinking contribute to the development of the “whole child” as this framework supports the development of cognitive, communicative, and social-emotional skills.

Inquiry-Based Curriculum

Inquiry-based curriculum supports the development of the “whole child” by focusing on the cognitive, communicative, and social-emotional development of learners. Inquiry-based curriculum design involves the practice of teacher-guided inquiry and can take the form of transdisciplinary units, single subject units, or individual lessons. Inquiry-based learning began from the research of John Dewey, who considered the importance of skills-based and conceptually driven curricula in education (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016). The work of Bittinger (1968) and Hermann (1969) reinforced the theories of Dewey and found that inquiry-based learning is more effective in increasing learner outcomes than expository educational curricula and practices (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016). Lazonder and Harmsen (2016) cite the research of Freeman et al. (2014) demonstrating that student outcomes increase with greater student involvement in learning as compared to teacher-directed instruction (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016). Hemlo-Silver et al., (2007) found that when inquiry-based learning includes appropriate scaffolding, students make significant academic progress (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016). The research documents that inquiry-based curricula, when scaffolded and guided by skilled educators, can greatly support the development of the “whole child.”

Problem-Based Learning Curricula

Problem-based learning (PBL) is similar in structure and practice to inquiry-based learning and also supports the development of the “whole child” by focusing on supporting the cognitive, communicative, and social-emotional development of learners. William Kilpatrick (1921) first defined PBL as the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge, by solving a problem and creating a product (Jensen, 2015). The product does not serve as evidence of learning but is a part of the process of learning. Kilpatrick (1918) described this process as “purposing, planning, executing, and judging” and proposed that skills acquired during projects could be transferable to daily life (Jensen, 2015, p. 4). PBL supports the concept that “big ideas” and transferable skills can be used within and across subjects and applied to life outside of school. Dewey (1938) and Kilpatrick (1921) explain that the process of PBL is organized, facilitated, and scaffolded by the teacher in order to develop transferable skills and concepts (Jensen, 2015). Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) further define PBL as the process in which students participate in small collaborative groups to solve real-world and contextualized problems while developing higher-order thinking skills (Jensen, 2015). PBL creates a cooperative learning environment where students work together while developing their social and emotional competencies, communication, and cognitive skills.

Social Emotional Learning Curricula

Educational institutions, and curricula, must account for the social-emotional learning (SEL) of students as learning is a social endeavor. Social-emotional learning also accounts for one of the primary areas of education for the “whole child.” Elias et al. (1997) argue that social-emotional competency (SEC) affects how students learn as learning is a collaborative process (Durlak et al., 2011). Elias (1997) defines SEL as the process in which a child learns core competencies meant to assist in self-efficacy and self-regulation, perspective-taking, relationship management, and positive decision-making (Durlak et al., 2011). The Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2005) advocate for the integration of SEL programs into all school curricula (Durlak et al., 2011). SEL programs should include programming that develop competencies including self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. The work of Eisenburg (2006), Guerra and Bardsaw (2008), Masten and Coatsworth (1998), and Weissber and Greenberg (1998) show that SEC is associated with higher levels of well-being and academic performance while lower levels of SEC can result in academic, personal, and social problems (Durlak et al., 2011).


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