Rethinking Curricula for the 21st Century #1

Here’s a very remarkable initiative — a global curriculum reform movement. It seems a revolution is brewing in some parts of mainstream higher education and this seems a significant piece:

A Science Daily article “Higher Education Curricula Not Keeping Pace With Societal, Tech Changes” describes this “global movement to abolish the archaic disciplinary isolation and static teaching practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, and replace them with pedagogy that addresses the complexity and diversity of perspective of a global community in the 21st century.”

The epicenter of this movement is A group of academics — from college students to university presidents — have created a Manifesto (see below) that has so far been endorsed by two universities in Europe and one in the U.S (Arizona State University, Jacobs University Bremen, and Leuphana Universität Lüneburg). These universities are now testing specific curricula based on the Manifesto’s principles.

I am extremely impressed with the principles these academic innovators have come up with. More information is available at their website, including some excellent comments following the Manifesto itself. If you are concerned about education and the state of the world, take a look, and spread the word…



Curriculum Reform Manifesto

Principles for Rethinking Undergraduate Curricula for the 21st Century:


…. Here we present a set of eleven overlapping principles designed to inform an international dialogue and to guide an experimental process of redesigning university undergraduate curricula worldwide. There can be no standard formula for implementation of these principles given the huge diversity of institutional structures and cultural differences amongst universities but these principles, we believe, provide the foundational concepts for what needs to be done.

  • As a central guideline teach disciplines rigorously in introductory courses together with a set of parallel seminars devoted to complex real life problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries. 
  • Teach knowledge in its social, cultural and political contexts. Teach not just the factual subject matter, but highlight the challenges, open questions and uncertainties of each discipline. 
  • Create awareness of the great problems humanity is facing (hunger, poverty, public health, sustainability, climate change, water resources, security, etc.) and show that no single discipline can adequately address any of them. 
  • Use these challenges to demonstrate and rigorously practice interdisciplinarity, avoiding the dangers of interdisciplinary dilettantism. 
  • Treat knowledge historically and examine critically how it is generated, acquired, and used. Emphasize that different cultures have their own traditions and different ways of knowing. Do not treat knowledge as static and embedded in a fixed canon. 
  • Provide all students with a fundamental understanding of the basics of the natural and the social sciences, as well as the humanities. Emphasize and illustrate the connections between these traditions of knowledge. 
  • Engage with the world’s complexity and messiness. This applies to the sciences as much as to the social, political and cultural dimensions of the world. Such an engagement will contribute to the education of concerned citizens. 
  • Emphasize a broad and inclusive evolutionary mode of thinking in all areas of the curriculum. 
  • Familiarize students with non-linear phenomena in all areas of knowledge. 
  • Fuse theory and analytic rigor with practice and the application of knowledge to real-world problems. 
  • Rethink the implications of modern communication and information technologies for education and the architecture of the university. 

Curricular changes of this magnitude and significance both require and produce changes in the structural arrangements and institutional profiles of universities. This is true for matters of governance, leadership, and finance as well as for systems of institutional rewards, assessment, and incentives; it is bound to have implications for the recruitment and evaluation of both professors and students as well as for the allocation of resources and the institutional practice of accountability. The experimental process of curriculum reform we hope to stimulate by offering these guiding principles will thus require the collaboration of scholars and educators willing to transform their scholarly and educational practices and of administrators willing to support experimentation and to provide the necessary structural conditions for it to succeed.

These principles are the conclusion of deliberations by a working group of scholars that met at theWissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin during the academic year 2009/10. Some were fellows at the Kolleg, others joined the group because of their interest in these issues. The Wissenschaftskolleg supported the work of its fellows. The principles have already been adopted by a first group of institutions as a blueprint for local curriculum reform. The group involved in drafting these principles represented diverse disciplines (from the natural and social sciences to the humanities), geographical origins (Europe, North America, and India) as well as career stages (from former university presidents to students). They invite their colleagues around the world to join in this effort of re-thinking and re-shaping teaching and learning for the university of the future.

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