What Should Our Kids Know and Be Able to Do?

Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Wisconsin and author of 5 Myths About Classroom Technology and Digital Portfolios in the Classroom (both through ASCD). You can find more of Matt’s work at his newsletter, readbyexample.substack.com.

This post first appeared on Reading By Example and is reprinted with permission.

The art of reinvention will be the most critical skill of this century.

– Yuval Noah Harari

This is a question that my current district is wrestling with (along with everyone else?). I wrote an article that appeared in Choice Literacy’s newsletter today that briefly addressed this topic.

David Perkins describes a curriculum that is worth learning for today’s students as “lifeworthy.” Summarizing his book Future Wise for this Educational Leadership article, he breaks down lifeworthy learning into six descriptors.

  • Beyond content to 21st century skills and competencies.
  • Beyond local to global perspectives, problems, and studies.
  • Beyond topics to content as material for thinking and action.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond academic engagement to personal choice, significance, commitment, and passion.

Yet Perkins holds short of making specific recommendations for what students should know and able to do. “I don’t think there is a universal answer for every school and society in today’s diverse world.” Fair enough.


Yuval Noah Harari takes the torch from Perkins and does offer specificities regarding what kids need to learn to succeed in the near and distant future.

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari offers insights on what we might expect and what we as educators can do about it. He starts by delivering a hard pill to swallow for educators.


Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.

Harari is referring to many of the subject-specific topics and ideas about our world. Perkins alludes to this in his lifeworthy criteria, listing “competencies”, “perspectives”, and describing content as merely “material for thinking and action.” Harari agrees, pushing the reader to consider the larger, more intangible outcomes that we might expect of our students to acquire.

The last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and, above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

This shift from a “sit-and-get” approach to education to building knowledge and skills applicable to many areas is not new. The concept of constructivism (Piaget) has been around for decades. Maybe what is new is this sense of urgency we now feel in an age of complexity and not being able to predict even the near future. Harari himself concedes this reality.

Nobody can predict the specific changes we will witness in the future. Any particular scenario is likely to be far from the truth. If somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.

So if we had to focus on one thing for preparing our students for an unknown future, what might it be? For my money, I want to help kids develop a strong sense of personal identity within the context of a big world that has as many perspectives as it does communities and individuals.

For example, can students describe their beliefs and values and be able to revisit them over time in light of new information and different points of view? All while maintaining a strong sense of self? Being able to change one’s mind while maintaining our identity seems like a prerequisite skill for living and succeeding in this world.

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invest new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.

– Yuval Noah Harari

Final question: how can we foster this ability with our students? I believe it starts with ourselves. We need to model what it means to be a lifelong learner. Here is a list of questions to generate that can motivate self-discovery in all of us.

Questions for Reflecting on our Capacities as Learners
  1. Who am I as a learner? How do prefer to acquire information and build skills in order to grow and make sense of the world?
  2. Is the information I am accessing not only reliable but also balanced? Do I value diversity evident in my sources and ideas expressed?
  3. What do I do with ideas, both others and my own? How am I a part of a broader conversation on topics that matter to others and me?
  4. Am I mindful of different perspectives? Can I create new categories in order to better understand our connected world? 
  5. How do I respond when confronted with inaccurate and/or incomplete assertions from others? Do I seek to both understand and develop a common understanding?
  6. Do I value process as much as (or even more so) than product? Am I comfortable revealing myself as a mistake-maker and a learner?
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