The Knowledge Our Students Need

Apr 28, 13 The Knowledge Our Students Need

What are the big picture understandings about the world, their communities and themselves that young people will need to have in order to effectively participate in the future that we imagine?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with TVOntario producer Wodek Szemberg about his current work on the special year long series, Learning 2030, being developed and aired across the network. The series is an energetic attempt to imagine what our schools might look like when children born in the year 2013 graduate from school.

Many of our conversations about the future of education have tended to focus on the the skills and dispositions that we believe young people will need in order to effectively live and learn in the future. And while I realize that what we know is something that is always embodied and can never really separated from what we believe and, to a certain extent, what we can do, I think that Wodek’s attempt to shine a light on knowledge is valid and worthwhile!

So, I’ve started to circulate the question, hoping for some lively discussion that might enrich and deepen our thinking about change in our systems of education. Drawing from some of the thinking about deep learning that Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe were doing at the turn of the century, I’ve found it helpful to frame the conversation using a simple sentence starter:

In the year 2030, young people graduating from school should know that…

The simple insertion of the word that prevents us from simply responding with a list of facts. It forces us to get to the big picture understandings that might help us go deeper.

At a recent meeting of our local Socrates Café, I presented the question and the conversation that ensued was both interesting and knotty! After some grappling with the question of what we actually mean when we talk about knowledge, the group of 12 participants suggested that a knowledge of some of the following ideas would be important for graduating students and, indeed, for all citizens of a vibrant and responsive society. I’ll present them here as an initial response to the question.

We should understand that:

  • we are part of an interconnected and interdependent web of life
  • we live on a planet that is part of a larger universe, much of which is still unknown to us
  • global awareness does not diminish the importance of local action
  • our perspective on the world is not the only perspective on the world
  • living in a diverse society requires tolerance, understanding and empathy
  • there are no free lunches (!); our actions, our desires and needs all come with a cost
  • what we put into our bodies is important for health and well-being
  • we have a voice and our individual actions are important—we can make a difference
  • knowledge is socially constructed

In our conversation, there was a strong sense that it was important for young people to carry with them big picture understandings about how we fit into a larger universal context, as well as understandings about the importance and value of interpersonal connections and relationships and although the list may seem a little vague, its a start.

I invite you to think about the question yourself, and to circulate it widely among your colleagues, friends and family. Feel free to comment on what you see in this initial list, add your own ideas, and report on the responses from others! Feel free to comment on the nature of the question, itself!

What are the big picture understandings about the world, their communities and themselves that young people will need to have in order to effectively participate in the future that we imagine? Can we identify certain ideas, or knowledge that all citizens should have in order to be active contributors to the world?


About Stephen Hurley

I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at


  1. It’s most encouraging to learn that your Socrates Cafe ensemble is probing the depths of “deep learning” and attempting to forecast Learning 2030. That’s a little far out, even for me (Educhatter).

    I’m envious of you because you have managed to convene a Socrates Cafe and to turn it to some useful public purpose. The Ancients would heartily approve and likely include your group among the elect of Greek citizens.

    Alas, I must protest, a little. Your list of insights concludes with “knowledge” as if to treat it as a footnote. Presumably the “wisdom of the Ancients” qualifies as knowledge and may still be so regarded in 2030, even in the secular, student-obsessed educational West.

    A little knowledge will likely be a dangerous thing in 2030 because the global citizen will be drowning in a tide of information. “Knowledge is power,” as Sir Francis Bacon once said. It is certainly, as Socrates himself recognized, a useful deterrent to sheer ignorance and mindless speculation.

    Your group might also want to consider Samuel Johnson’s dictum that there are, in fact, two types of knowledge. “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” ( from Boswell’s Life of Johnson). Regrettably, Tony Wagner has perpetuated the fallacy that subject matter is superfluous and all knowledge can be easily retrieved from the Internet.

    For myself, I’ve always considered knowing something to be preferable to being an empty vessel. Substantive knowledge is socially constructed, I do concede, but there is surely a hierarchy of knowledge providing us with some insight into “what is worth knowing.” At the very least, sharing substantive knowledge makes for more interesting discourse and the odd scintillating conversation. Indeed, it might yield real conversations uninterrupted by people repeatedly checking their SMARTphones.

    • John Myers /

      Knowledge may be socially constructed but we do have widely agreed-upon rules (based on forms of knowledge- math, science, history, religion, etc.) that are designed to
      – help us make sense of the world
      – keep us from lying to each other
      So we must understand these rules- the grammar and syntax of knowledge in order to understand.

  2. I agree with much of what has already been said, especially with it being important to understand ourselves in a planetary or even cosmological context. While I do think all knowledge is context-dependent, that doesn’t mean that truth is culturally relative. Factoring in context brings things into greater focus, broadens perspectives and lends more objectivity, not less. There are better and worse beliefs, morals, political systems, etc. The mistake is to think we’ve landed on them or that our assessments are foolproof.

    1. Nothing is final.
    2. It’s important to avoid mistaking conceptual catalogues for reality.
    3. There is a difference between instrumental and intrinsic goals (not always clear, but keep clarifying).
    4. Curiosity and motivation are the drivers of pretty much all human activity so examine your motives often.
    5. We have a lot more to discover, not only about the world, but about ourselves, especially about all the aspects of our nature we don’t now bother to study because of intense Promethean bias or a vestigial sense of ourselves as transcending nature. (For example, the relationship between human instincts and mythological thinking.)
    6. Numerical precision does not equal precision or objectivity. It is a mistake to forgo understanding and rely too much on rote methods and processes. This should be borne in mind especially be evaluators in education.

  3. Exploring the cosmos sounds exciting, but might be risky for learners of 2030 without a little tribal wisdom. There may well be a marked tendency to “fly off madly in all directions.”

    • Paul, so you are saying that “tribal wisdom” keeps us grounded? I agree with that, and I think that it’s worth talking about what that wisdom is!

      • Tribal wisdom used to hinge on a shared responsibility of getting what we need together from nature in the little part of the world shared by members. There’s a lot of natural instinct and ritual embodied in that wisdom. Given we now have a global economy and so many are not rooted to the earth, ironically, it might be wiser to provide people with a broader sense of home – one that situates us in a broader time and space. Our little tribal narratives have become disconnected free-floating ungrounded memes, precisely because we are using old instincts to try to deal with new economic/ecological (place) realities.

        • I understand what Amanda is saying, but I’m thinking that, while to universal perspective is valuable, we still need a way to remain connected to our local communities. I’ve spent most of my life living in the suburbs, and I’ve noticed increasing sense of disconnect among people living next door to each other. I fly across the country to connect with people, but I don’t know my next door neighbours very well. Is there still value in the “intimacy of the neighbourhood”?

          • I think that the economy (working together in the world) is still what grounds connections and that you are connecting naturally with people who occupy complementary pieces of the economy even as you meet people flying across the country. Connection used to have much more of a correlation with place than it now does.

            When grounded productive connection is missing, I think people can tribalize around ideologies (from sports fandom to narrow interpretations of religion or academic schools of thought), which can be dangerous.

            People need meaningful connections and a grounded purpose and the two usually go together.

  4. On the one hand, I’m more than a little uncomfortable about the economy being our prime thread of connectivity. I understand that there is a whole web of relationships built around economic activities, but I don’t think that, in the end, this is what is going to hold us together.

    Can you elaborate on your thinking, or point me to some of your writing on this?

  5. By economy I only mean the way people work together to get and share what they need from nature. There are a bunch of political and power based memes superimposed on and obscuring that basic reality. It doesn’t need to mean manipulative marketing, rampant instrumentalism or conniving greed.

    • Phew! I’m not so naîve to misunderstand the importance of economic relationships, but I think that your expanded notion of economy (or perhaps, we’ve narrowed a term that was, at one time, much broader) moves us beyond the narrative that positions us as consumers and taxpayers. There’s a lesson in critical thinking hovering!

  6. John Myers /

    Even economic relationships vary throughout time and space.
    Maybe anthropology offers knowledge rules for making more accurate connections and positive predictions,
    but then again
    the history of anthropology has its share of racist myths.

    • There have been models and studies that link technology, geography, trade and cosmological belief systems. I’m thinking of Robert Bellah, Ian Morriss, Joseph Cambell and Karl Marx, and I’m sure many others. However, the key idea, to stay in line with the OP, is that our wisdom or belief systems or cosmologies and our communal rituals that keep us grounded have traditionally been grounded because our economic relationships are tied to a geographic location or range, while in the current economic system, they are not. We have ungrounded memes that tribalize ungroundedly and fanatically. On the other hand, we are more likely to interact meaningfully with collegial “neighbours” than geographic ones today, unless our work is resource based and locally distributed.

  7. John Myers /

    One of the great debates the Templeton Foundation has (google them) asks if economics and morality are linked? The answers are interesting and varied.

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