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Th

  e content of secondary 

education around the world:
present position 
and strategic choices

Secondary education in the twenty-

fi

 rst century

Th

 

e content of secondar

y education ar

ound the world: pr

esent position and strategic choices

“P

rimary education for young children concentrates on literacy and the 
acquisition of skills defi ned without giving rise to any controversy; higher 

education aims at specialized knowledge. What kind of education should be 
provided between these two stages? Th

  e predominant feeling at present is that this 

stage is of capital importance, since it is the stage at which the future worker, citizen 
and adult must be trained. Who, then, can deny that it would be a grave mistake to 
overlook the issue.”

Under the auspices of UNESCO’s Section for General Secondary Education, Roger-
François Gauthier analyses the content of secondary education around the world, 
illustrating how issues of content, long neglected or taken for granted, are in fact of 
strategic importance for the success of educational policies.

Th

  is work draws the attention of decision-makers and teachers to the vast scope 

and importance of a subject which must be dealt with clearly, methodically and by 
consensus if the young are to be provided with the best possible combination of 
knowledge, skills and values.

by

Roger-François Gauthier

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Th

  e designations employed and the presentation of material throughout 

this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever 
on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, 
territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation 
of its frontiers or boundaries.

Th

  e author is responsible for the choice and the presentation of the 

facts contained in this text and for the opinions expressed therein, 
which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the 
Organization.

Cover illustration: “Bookrest 1” by Gordana Dodig-Crnković 
(

oil painting)

Section for General Secondary Education

Contact:
Education Sector
Fax: +33 (0) 45 68 56 30
E-mail: s.bahri@unesco.org

Printing by UNESCO

ED-2007/WS/15 (CLD 629.7)

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THE CONTENT OF SECONDARY 

EDUCATION AROUND THE WORLD:

PRESENT POSITION AND STRATEGIC 

CHOICES

by

Roger-François Gauthier

© UNESCO 2006

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Foreword

What are young people being taught in secondary school today? 

Th

 e offi

  cial answer to this question may in most cases be found in the education 

policy of each country’s Ministry of Education, along with a more or less detailed list 
of the subjects taught; yet this does not always give a clear account of the knowledge 
and skills that young people are supposed to be acquiring, the objectives sought and 
the kind of person – as a worker, as a citizen and as an adult – that education is meant 
to produce. 

Indeed, though very many countries have in the past undertaken to reform their 

secondary education (many times, in some cases), these reforms have almost entirely 
concerned systems, structures and methods, while education policies generally fail 
to address educational content. When it is actually put into eff ect, the renewal of 
educational content often touches only the surface and continues to give pride of 
place to academic knowledge rather than to practical skills, especially those required 
for everyday life (or “life skills”).

Trying to explain this state of aff airs is no easy matter, especially at international 

level where situations diff er, sometimes immensely. Th

  ese questions are nonetheless 

important to an understanding of the present situation and a review of the content 
of secondary education. Th

 is requires consideration of the history of secondary 

education and its complex inheritance, and an analysis of the various education 
systems and policies, and their shortcomings.

One of the main goals of this work is to highlight the strategic importance of 

the content of secondary education. Its relevance to the needs of young people and 
to those of the society that they will have to build is crucial, especially against an 
international background of increasing globalization in which indispensable initiatives 
to promote sustainable development, combat poverty and build a knowledge-based 
society are now unanimously regarded as priorities for all.

Th

  e fact is that the number of young people enrolled in secondary education 

has risen sharply in recent years while the quality of education remains a major issue. 
It is quite evident that quality education will never be achieved unless a policy is in 
place to reform its content. Furthermore, as the author shows, many systems have 
failed to reform education because the question of content had not been addressed 
seriously; secondary school pupils become bored and many of them fall behind. It all 
wastes resources, puts children off  school and harms a country’s people.

UNESCO is the lead organization for coordinating the EFA movement – 

education for all. Its mission includes, accordingly, commitment to quality education 
and the provision of intellectual and technical assistance to its Member States so that 
they may develop innovative societies that build solid foundations in education and 

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4

training and invest in people and skills. Th

  at commitment naturally puts particular 

emphasis on the younger generation, and this means that the content of secondary 
education must be examined in depth.

Roger-François Gauthier brings to this task a wealth of experience in dealing 

with secondary education in his own country, as well as his internationally recognized 
expertise in this as in other fi elds of education, illustrating his comments on successful 
experiments and “classic” mistakes and drawing on the work and publications of 
UNESCO, IBE, OECD, the Council of Europe and other international organizations. 
Here he both analyses and overviews content and reform of secondary education; he 
describes current international trends and the main challenges faced.

Last, and this is no doubt the work’s essential aim, he lays down a sound basis 

for further thinking and off ers some pointers and practical guidance which, we hope, 
will be of immediate use to national authorities, especially curriculum planners who 
want to succeed in reforming the content of secondary education.

Sonia Bahri

Chief of Section

Section for General Secondary Education

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Contents

1

 

WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?  9

Indiff erence rooted in the past: a challenge for today… 

10

A partial explanation: selection has often been more important than learning…  11

Secondary education often deaf to calls for knowledge or from the outside world 

12

A media environment which exalts ever-changing “form” 
over never-changing “content” 

15

An unfavourable intellectual climate 

16

2.

 

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”? 

19

Th

  e importance and boundaries of “strategic” concerns in education 

20

Th

  e content of secondary education: a core issue of the “knowledge society” 

21

Meeting the most pressing challenges on the knowledge front 

23

Secondary education: a worldwide social challenge 

27

Conditions for the emergence of strategic considerations 

30

3.

 

EDUCATIONAL  HERITAGE AND THE  DUTY TO TAKE  STOCK 

33

Education and the past: continuity and discontinuities 

34

Th

  e complex heritage of secondary education 

35

Patterns of thought that need reconsidering 

38

What to do with “disciplines”? 

39

Inventing intergenerational time 

43

4.

 

REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE 

45

Th

  e highs and lows of the State as an educator 

46

Global Utopia – to benefi t people or the market? 

52

Decentralization and related ambiguities 

55

Content with multiple references 

58

Step by step towards universality 

59

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5.

 

EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL 
6.

 

EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING 
8.

 

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL 
9.

 

CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE  SUCCESS 

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10.

 

SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES 
AND TECHNICAL  PRECAUTIONS 

123

Making the content of education the strategic core of quality: what are the policy 
implications of such a resolution? 

124

Creating favourable conditions for decision-making on educational content 

126

Implementing new patterns for handling content: how to increase their impact  130

BIBLIOGRAPHY 133

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8

LIST OF TEXT BOXES

1. Th

  e legitimacy and value of academic knowledge 

15

2. Science 

challenged 

17

3. 

Secondary schooling – a crucially important stage 

23

4. 

New pupils: a challenge for schools 

24

5. 

Protection from the dangers of extremism 

24

6. 

An invitation to share in human knowledge 

28

7. 

Changing content that fosters prejudice 

29

8. Th

  e exorbitant cost of inadequate content 

31

9. 

Conservatism and renewal 

35

10. 

An inheritance to be mistrusted 

36

11. 

Bringing together rather than separating forms of knowledge 

39

12. 

Knowledge must refer to something concrete 

43

13. Centralization 

of 

content 

48

14. Th

  e danger of politicizing knowledge 

50

15. Th

 e International 

Baccalaureat 52

16. 

Avoiding “Balkanization” while retaining respect 

 

for “local” considerations 

54

17. 

Some disturbing questions 

59

18. Justifi cations for secondary education 

72

19. 

Connections between branches of knowledge 

79

20. Th

  e realm of debate and tolerance 

80

21. 

Which life skills? 

87

22. 

Learning a language – looking beyond oneself 

96

23. 

Secondary education often fails to teach about action 

100

24. 

Art at the centre of secondary education 

102

25. 

Is content transparent? 

117

26. Implementation 

issues 

121

27. Implementation 

questions 

126

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9

1

 WHY 

DO 

EDUCATION 
POLICIES 
CONSTANTLY 
NEGLECT 
CONTENT?

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10

WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

Indifference rooted in the past: a challenge for today …

Many people in the past, and even today, do not consider the content of 

secondary education to be a particularly important or particularly diffi

  cult education 

policy issue. Often the prevailing wisdom is that decisions about content are a matter 
of “common sense” and call for no particular discussion: secondary education, often 
of a long-established pattern, is just “there”, generally arranged in “disciplines” 
which are regarded and viewed as “self-evident”; in a sense, many people feel that 
educational reform should not include educational content.

Everyone recognizes genuine issues such as the provision of secondary education 

to a particular new section of the school-age population, selection in grouping pupils 
together, streaming and the age at which the core curriculum gives way to specialized 
tracks, but the question of what content should be taught within these structures is, 
by contrast, far more seldom and far less readily discussed.

Th

  e overall purpose of this book is to show in what respect the question of 

secondary education content, though complex, is of strategic importance in most 
of the world’s countries and that the illusory belief that it can be neglected may, all 
things considered, prove extremely costly and have harmful consequences on pupils 
who will fail in huge numbers. Th

  e relevant question is what lies behind this apparent 

lack of interest.

A relatively new question

Th

 e fi rst point is that in many education systems the issue is a relatively new 

one: primary education has, indeed, been established without the question of 
content ever being specifi cally raised. It is not that it has taken exactly the same 
form everywhere or at all times, or that there have been no hesitations (in European 
primary schools, for example, it was long a matter of debate whether writing should 
be taught or whether reading was enough); rather, in most countries a balance was 
often struck among the “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic. Admittedly 
there is still some debate in many countries about the appropriateness of an initial 
introduction to science, for instance, or of learning a foreign language in primary 
schools, but such discussions hardly disturb the hard core of relative certainty about 
the three rudiments. And it is those practical skills, denoted by the three Rs, rather 
than any particular factual knowledge, which are targeted.

In secondary education, the question of content is immediately and objectively 

more complex, and is a new issue for many countries, as they develop their education 
systems and start to put secondary education in place, whose offi

  cials have not always 

been prepared to address such matters.

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

Rare moments of inventiveness

Th

  is observed diffi

  culty and lack of familiarity, however, cannot on their own 

explain the relative lack of interest in the issue of content, for the same phenomenon is 
generally found both in countries with long-standing secondary education traditions 
and in those where such education is more recent.

Th

  e explanation is no doubt both systemic and historical: in many civilizations 

secondary education was viewed as preparation for higher education, and had no 
real content-defi ning status of its own; there have even been civilizations such as that 
of Islam which developed a widely admired higher education very early on, without 
fi nding it necessary to defi ne any particular model of secondary education.

True, in various eras and places in history, people have invented and innovated 

in designing content for the secondary level: in the sixteenth century, for instance, 
the Catholic Jesuit order established “colleges” worldwide, taking no account of 
nationality and defi ning content in a “syllabus” (the 

ratio atque institutio studiorum 

of 1599); at the time of the French Revolution, Joseph Lakanal and others set up 
“central schools” in 1795 which were the fi rst to place emphasis on science rather than 
Greek and Latin. Such moments were rare, however, for the “central schools” were 
a failure precisely because their novel content was deemed unacceptable, while the 
Jesuit colleges “succeeded” by setting a model curriculum that remained unchanged 
for centuries! Generally speaking, there have been few occasions in history of open 
discussion about the content of secondary education.

Why? Is this mere chance or, on the contrary, a highly signifi cant fact?

A partial explanation: selection has often been more 
important than learning …

Th

  e main reason why little importance has been ascribed in education policies 

to the content of secondary education must seemingly be sought not in the vagaries 
of history but much more deeply, in a matter of direct importance to today’s policy-
makers: secondary education has often, in various countries, fulfi lled a fundamentally 
social function discharged by neither primary nor higher education – that of selecting 
the elite.

From their emergence, at diff erent dates and in diff erent parts of the world, 

industrialized societies with their attendant bureaucracies had to create and legitimize 
various new forms of hierarchy; as primary education clearly could not perform this 
role, secondary education has often been organized in such a way that it established 
cultural and social hierarchies through a whole system of streams, levels (if only 
between “junior” and “senior” secondary levels) and certifi cates.

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

Emphasis was on sorting…

No thought was given to content for this reason: in many cases, the important 

thing in secondary schooling – historically, but its memory is still very much alive in 
the tradition – was not so much to provide content-specifi c training to a population 
(or even a section thereof ), but rather to sift that population to fi nd a potential 
elite on the basis of various assessed abilities. Th

  is does not mean that the sorting 

was done badly – far from it; it means that sorting – classifi cation into a hierarchy 
– was indeed eff ected. Th

  e question of content, controlled more or less to permit 

hierarchical classifi cation, became secondary, indeed superfl uous. Moreover, once 
selected, the pupil could simply forget everything learned.

or on mental exercise…

In a more democratic society such as that of the United States of America, 

where secondary education has long been more open than in most countries in the 
European tradition, some people also felt that it was most important for secondary 
school pupils, not so much to learn facts or acquire “useful” skills – which may 
seem paradoxical since the country is generally regarded as pragmatic, but to develop 
intellectual strength, so to speak, through mental “muscle-building” exercises: it 
mattered little which exercise the pupil used to develop mental “muscle”, as content 
in this setting was merely the exercise.

Th

 e fi rst consequence of this relative disparagement was naturally a rapid and 

unimpeded obsolescence of such content, often to the point of being utterly out of 
date, which apparently did not trouble the authorities in many societies at all.

Secondary education often deaf to calls for knowledge or 
from the outside world

Yet that approach to secondary education, designed to last forever as long as it 

discharged its function, was challenged and strongly criticized. In all countries there 
was a pressing need for knowledge and people began to think that young people 
in secondary schools should learn science or modern languages – and not only the 
classics – or acquire, for instance, some preparatory vocational skills.

Accumulation rather than reform

Subsequently – and this still obtains today – as no one had the key to the 

box of content taught and no one could reset the list of requisite disciplines whose 
justifi cation was lost in the mists of tradition, new content and new disciplines were 
simply added from time to time. As the absurdity of this development was often 
quite obvious, some offi

  cials attempted to act on teaching methods, as if they could 

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

somehow make a menu, composed by merely combining dishes and without taking 
any dietary rules into account, more digestible.

Th

  e historical circumstance which caused, and still causes, the greatest problems 

for secondary education was not so much the explosive growth of the knowledge 
that had to be assimilated, but rather the opening of secondary education to new 
sectors of the public. Neither the long-standing debate on the “democratization” 
of secondary education which is still under way in many countries, nor the ways 
in which it was resisted, primarily through the lingering claim that the mass of the 
people or some people or some categories of people could not be educated, shall be 
discussed here. Nor shall the way in which the role of secondary education in basic 
education has occasionally been downplayed, even at the international level.

1

 Only 

the approach taken in addressing these issues from the standpoint of educational 
content will be considered.

Doors opened, but content unchanged

Th

  e most signifi cant feature of the democratic opening of the door to secondary 

education is that the process has been carried out without any consideration being 
given to how content should be changed. It was indeed somewhat absurd, not to 
say negligent, to act as if the new pupils, from social backgrounds untouched by 
modern forms of knowledge transmitted by schools, would be moulded readily 
to an alien culture. Even in South Africa after the end of apartheid the heads of 
educational institutions, most of whom had agreed to open their schools to black 
pupils, considered that this should lead to no change in the existing curriculum and 
clung to the idea of integration in terms of intake only.

Not only was this opportunity for rethinking content generally missed, but 

there was also a general refusal to consider the new pupils’ relationship to knowledge; 
that relationship was by defi nition foreign to the view of content that had been the 
tacit but shared understanding of most traditional secondary pupils that its primary 
purpose was selective. As more pupils gained access to increasingly “comprehensive” 
secondary schools, educational content grew in importance as the selective function 
gradually lost ground.

In some countries the illusion that the wider spread of knowledge was merely 

a matter of pupil numbers has been the underlying cause of some highly persistent 
diffi

  culties: newly independent countries have not been eager to discontinue and 

reconsider secondary education content inherited from colonial times, apart from a 
few untenably inadequate disciplines.

1  

Colin Power, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, said in 1999: “We in UNESCO 
have put much emphasis into basic and higher education, and have neglected the young people in the 
middle”. Th

  e World Bank, by contrast, has taken even longer to recognize the importance of secondary 

education.

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

No one was trained in that fi eld and even the international technical assistance 

from the North has not always provided the necessary tools for these countries to win 
their independence in the domain of the curriculum.

Secondary education is no abstraction: in every country there are men and 

women who may have been secondary pupils, professionals, such as teachers, who are 
involved in secondary education day by day, and a number of advisers with varying 
degrees of expertise, either subject specialists or more wide-ranging intellectuals. 
Whatever their political commitments, this relatively well-organized public opinion 
is conservative on the subject of content and not disposed to reconsider what is often 
regarded as its heritage, which should not be touched.

Nevertheless, in regard to the content of education, one may well feel that in 

many countries secondary education has been opened up to the masses under an 
illusion that it was enough “to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic”. Th

 ere have 

been, and there still are, many victims.

Inventing a “comprehensive” culture is no easy matter

Th

 e question of secondary education content has often been avoided or 

circumvented by policy-makers no doubt because it is one of the most intractable 
issues that could ever arise, for it is, more than any other policy issue, concomitantly 
burdened by the weight of the past, since one of the functions of education is obviously 
the transmission of culture from one generation to the next, and the future, since it 
determines the knowledge and skills that children and young people will acquire.

Economic and social developments and the drive for knowledge have gradually 

obliged secondary education in more and more countries to cater for all young 
people and not for a social or academic elite only: change has sometimes been fast, 
but often extremely slow (in France, for instance, it took almost the whole of the 
twentieth century to fi nally settle the political debate about opening the “junior 
secondary” school to all) even for a structural change only and a decision simply to 
“open a door”. Where education has opened up – with secondary education for all 
becoming a reality in more and more places – curriculum goals and the reference 
culture have not in many cases been eff ectively redefi ned. A “comprehensive” culture 
is even more diffi

  cult to defi ne and establish than a “comprehensive” school because 

it is at this point that the cultural diff erences among communities, the various forms 
of social selfi shness, the ideological choices of individual groups, and the diff erent 
ways of relating to knowledge and schooling fi nally come to light.

Th

 e diffi

  culty of the issue will only be highlighted at this stage, before any 

attempt to analyse or resolve it. It will be recalled that many people believed, at least 
ostensibly, that education could be developed and, in particular, be opened up to 
new sectors of the public, without changing its content.

Th

  e question was not one of working out basic tools (as in the case of primary 

education), or of following the logic of the development of scientifi c research (as in 

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15

WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

the universities), or even of closely following the evolving skills required for a craft 
or profession (as in vocational training), but rather of attempting to defi ne  what 
humanizes human beings, individually and collectively, to the utmost.

Could any task be more ambitious, diffi

  cult and necessary?

A media environment which exalts ever-changing “form” 
over never-changing “content”

Th

 e attention paid by societies to what is taught in their schools varies 

considerably depending, fi rstly, on their conception of education and, secondly, 
on the extent to which that conception is consistent with predominant cultural 
ideas. Th

  ere have been times when society and schools have developed in step, in a 

relationship of mutual “osmosis”.

Educational content and the culture of zapping

Many no doubt deplorable 

but nevertheless real aspects of the 
globalization of a mass “culture” 
consist of the proliferation of 
communication “signs” and media 
(including television, advertising, 
digital networks and the organization 
of world sport, show business, 
or meretricious adulation of the 
celebrities of the moment) which 
matter more than the content 
conveyed. Marshall McLuhan’s idea 
that the medium itself is increasingly 
the real message which our societies 
exchange, though old now, has 
come true and it is thus increasingly 
diffi

  cult for education to continue in 

such circumstances to transmit not 
only a “form” but above all “content” which it regards as important and purportedly 
defi nes irrespective of the tools used to convey it. As the curricula used in schools 
in the various countries always champion particular values and determine which 
concepts and skills are indispensable, are highly distinctive in a world whose discourse 
generally “zaps” constantly from one source of information to another and form one 
opinion to another, generally with immediate results. In a world where change for its 
own sake is becoming a value, there is little objective support for education, which 

The legitimacy and value 

of academic knowledge

Th

 e situation here is more complex 

nowadays: in most countries, secondary 
school enjoys a high status with the 
public, which wants its children to 
have a school education and is easily 
upset and frightened by the spectre of 
“academic failure”; at the same time 
the perceived legitimacy and value of 
“academic knowledge” in society are low 
by comparison, for instance, with those 
of “the news” disseminated by the media 
or the “information” conveyed by the 
other main vehicles of mass culture.

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

must on the contrary ensure that particular knowledge or values endure, when it 
comes to “legislating” on the content of such enduring material.

An unfavourable intellectual climate

The “philosophies of suspicion”

Since the nineteenth century various philosophers have, from their standpoints, 

taught us to doubt the apparent meaning of words: ever since Freud has shown that 
thoughts could be dictated by the subconscious, and Marx that they refl ect  one’s 
position in the organization of wealth production, while Bourdieu has explained 
that, under cover of its supposedly liberating, or at least neutral, content, education 
was in fact a mechanism of social reproduction, it has clearly become harder to 
support the rationale behind educational content.

Similarly, a number of sociological customs and methods may be mentioned, 

such as questions asked to gain insights into what permits educational progress 
– about the “institution eff ect”, the “teacher eff ect”, the “class eff ect” and so on, 
sometimes obscuring the fact that what the pupils learn does not depend only on the 
people involved, but also on the quality and relevance of the content taught.

Th

  e philosophies of suspicion have thus also raised doubts about the assurance 

with which schools seek to transmit knowledge, spread values and champion and 
illustrate ideas. Th

  ese currents of thought ought not to dissuade us from acting: 

while they appear to make our task harder, or have perhaps helped occasionally to 
raise doubts in schools about what they want to teach, our problems in this area must 
nevertheless become our friends – and they can.

For, all in all, what could be better than to have to teach content that has 

fi rst been scrutinized by such philosophies and has thus been “purifi ed”, critically 
evaluated and even “renewed”.

“Postmodernism”

It is generally accepted, however, that support for the rationale behind 

“educational content” is threatened by another type of relativism which arises not so 
much from the impact of ideologies that sought to explain the world as from their 
decline. Th

  e fall of the Berlin Wall and the somewhat rash proclamation of the fi nal 

triumph of a market economy defi ned according to laissez-faire dogma have led some 
to believe in the “end of history”. More generally, the “postmodern” environment is 
marked by the end of those grand goal-oriented historical “narratives” such as that of 
scientifi c progress as liberator or the Revolution. While it is true that some religious 
movements today may in some cases take the place of the great ideologies that have 
marked modernism, the spirit of the age is often one of relativism and an inward-

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WHY DO EDUCATION POLICIES CONSTANTLY NEGLECT CONTENT?

looking individualism – which does not make it any easier to defi ne collective and 
reasonably self-assured educational content.

Irresponsible science?

Science itself, which education 

might well expect to be its natural 
ally, is not without responsibility 
here, for it now fosters hyper-
specialization among its devotees 
and often seems to have adapted to 
“progress in knowledge of the parts 
and paradoxical ignorance of the 
whole”.

2

 It often seems to disregard 

moral and civic issues, oblivious to 
François Rabelais’s warning that 
“science without conscience is but 
the ruin of the soul”. It is precisely 
secondary education, which provides pupils with an all-round education, which 
touches the conscience and addresses the meaning of knowledge.

Here again, perception of diffi

  culties should not engender paralysis; rather, it 

should serve as support in determining exactly what can and should be expected 
from education in these circumstances.

Should schools be abolished because they seem to be increasingly distant 

from the discourse of the world or because science does not always shoulder its 
responsibilities? Or has the time come to understand better than ever before just in 
what respect education is indispensable and what should be taught? Or of seeing how 
strategically important educational content is today during the adolescent years, the 
best time for people to become human?

Science challenged

Science often seems to disregard moral 
or political issues, oblivious to François 
Rabelais’s warning that “science without 
conscience is but the ruin of the soul”. 
It is precisely secondary education, 
which provides pupils with an all-
round education, which touches the 
conscience and addresses the meaning of 
knowledge.

2  

Edgar Morin, 

Seven complex lessons in education for the future, UNESCO, 2001.

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19

2

 

HOW IS THE ISSUE 
OF CONTENT 
“STRATEGIC”?

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20

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

The importance and boundaries of “strategic” concerns in 
education

“Strategic” is a term that should always be used with care – especially in 

education. Th

  e educational action of any community is seemingly always “strategic” 

since it is goal-oriented. Th

  is is all the more so in regard to educational content, 

as the policy-making body in question may well regard as “strategic” its intention 
to make radical changes to the knowledge, skills or even the state of mind of the 
population that it serves.

The importance of goal-orientation

It is important that this should be so and there is no question of denying the 

importance of goal-oriented positions which are indeed strategic in nature. Th

 e 

Preamble to the UNESCO Constitution provides a good example of strategic goal 
orientation when it declares that since “wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the 
minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

Th

  e risk, however, is that education may attempt to advance too quickly in the 

belief that, as it is to mould tomorrow’s adults, it can achieve everything and that, all 
over the world, offi

  cials in charge of secondary education, in which enrolment rose 

from 40 million to 500 million pupils in the last 60 years, hold the keys to the world 
in their hands!

School does not act alone

It is true that education is enormously infl uential and instils many skills and 

“ways of thinking, feeling and speaking”

3

 which characterize a society as a whole 

and structure it by diff erentiation into individuals and groups. Nevertheless, the 
impact of educational content on population groups is usually associated with many 
other non-educational policy decisions, which are not always taken at the same level, 
and with the cultural, media and scientifi c environment as a whole. Of course, the 
school system and decisions on content may aff ect the economy, the dissemination 
of techniques, the attention paid to the environment, the quality of the democratic 
process, public health, relations among groups and peoples and so on, but education 
always acts “in context” in the various fi elds: its achievements are important, but do 
not include full employment, the establishment of healthcare, poverty reduction or 
the administration of justice. 

In determining educational content, offi

  cials exercise to some extent powers with 

which they have been vested. If they were to open educational content more to, say, 
considerations of justice, its limits would soon be reached: a school system can remain 
wholly unjust despite content that addresses justice and, above all, such content cannot 
reduce injustice in the world, whether the school system is unjust or not. 

3  

Jerome Bruner, Culture, Mind and Education, in Moon, Bob, op. cit.

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21

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

Even though the exercise of the school’s content-derived strategic function is 

thus linked to a decision-making context, the outcome of the school’s failure to use 
its strategic position to the full, in particular to anticipate, is often perceived to be 
negative. Failure by the education system to perform its strategic function entails, 
for instance, ignoring the issue of the relationship between a country’s dominant 
educational culture and the culture of minorities or vulnerable groups and being 
forced to improvise, for lack of foresight, as in the United Kingdom in 1981, after the 
Brixton riots, when a multicultural dimension was added to curricula. Again, failure 
by the education system to recognize its strategic position means that it will not deal 
preventively with the countless issues that society, in all its diversity, expects to be 
“added” to its educational content, which then resembles a supermarket shopping 
list.

Th

 e strategic position of education in regard to the content of secondary 

education may be determined precisely under three headings, namely the advent of 
the “knowledge society”, educational challenges relating to the issue of knowledge 
and the education system’s capacity to promote greater justice.

The content of secondary education: a core issue of 
the “knowledge  society”

If a “knowledge society” must emerge or is emerging at the international or at a 

lower level, does education have a part to play in that development, or not?

Education for all: a right to content

If “knowledge society” means one whose aim is to “spread” knowledge to 

everyone, then it can indeed have major implications for education: it clearly means 
that all forms of education – that is, both the structure of education systems and the 
content taught, which is under consideration here – whose sole function is to select 
a small group of pupils who alone are to receive the knowledge that matters must 
very shortly be wiped off  the map. Th

  e notion of “knowledge society” can be found 

in the context of education for all, as proclaimed in the 1990 World Declaration on 
Education for All (Jomtien, Th

  ailand), which rests on the Universal Declaration of 

Human Rights. Under this concept, the knowledge and skills widely disseminated 
in a given society should meet “basic” educational needs. By no means limited to 
primary education,

4

 the needs defi ned at Jomtien raise the issue of education content 

in each context, a question that automatically becomes a strategic one.

4  

Jomtien Declaration: “Basic learning needs comprise both essential learning tools […] and the basic 
learning content (such as the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to 
survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, 
to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning.”

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22

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

Th

  e concept of education for all (EFA) refers not merely to a fi xed target in 

terms of number of years’ schooling but also to an expected outcome that is necessary 
for all, which means EFA content becomes a right, and this gives it a much more 
central status.

The content of initial education in the context of lifelong education

Th

 e “lifelong education” project, launched by UNESCO since the 1970s, 

which has since developed gradually into “lifelong learning”, is part of the knowledge 
society project and increases the importance of the content of secondary education, 
in that such content is no longer deemed to lead only to a qualifi cation that gives 
access to work or further education, but constitutes the foundation for and key to 
later “lifelong” learning. Moreover, does it not presage a reduction in the importance 
of diplomas for life and in the emphasis in initial education of the selective function 
which, as indicated above, has often drawn offi

  cials’ and stakeholders’ attention away 

from educational content?

Competitive effi ciency or fairness?

No doubt the concept of knowledge society is fairly complex ideologically in 

that it is mentioned in various, even divergent situations. Th

  e approach to educational 

content under the concept, in the two scenarios usually adopted by education 
systems, will now be considered.

•  In the fi rst scenario, education systems seek to facilitate the establishment 

of the knowledge society by developing competition among systems, 
establishments and pupils: they are thus concerned about the quality of 
education and learning and the educational content that will assure the 
quality sought.

•  In the second scenario, education systems consider that it is both more 

eff ective and more effi

  cient to redouble eff orts to achieve greater justice 

by giving access to secondary education to sectors of the population who 
previously had no access, since such investments have a higher rate of return 
than investments on population groups that are already enrolled. A system 
that takes such a course of action cannot fail to be aware of the core issues 
that the goal of justices raises in regard to educational content.

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23

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

In short, every coun-

try encounters a serious 
diffi

  culty  which  perme-

ates the whole issue of the 
content of secondary edu-
cation, as soon as it seeks 
to assert its place within 
an international soci-
ety increasingly known as 
“knowledge societies” (the 
concept is of course too 
loose, but the diffi

  culty is 

real enough nevertheless).

Meeting the most pressing challenges on the knowledge 
front

Th

  ere is nothing ethereal about the knowledge that secondary schools can 

consider teaching: questions about them arise in several contexts, three of which are: 
general history, epistemology and science.

It will not be claimed here that secondary education was designed easily in other 

epochs; from Ignatius of Loyola to Auguste Comte, to mention but two dissimilar 
Western traditions, human ability to determine which forms of knowledge should be 
taught to deal with the problems of the times has been remarkable.

Th

  e situation today is diffi

  cult because it is unprecedented on at least two fronts:

•  secondary education now serves new sectors of the public more varied 

than any order of teachers has had to cope with ever in the past, anywhere 
in the world;

•  people, having woken up from a variety of great Utopian dreams, aware 

of how complex the world is and exposed to many sources of information, 
have never been so sceptical about the way in which schools explain the 
world.

Making room for the new clientele in teaching content

Of course, the extraordinary increase in the diversity of persons served aff ords 

an opportunity for education to place greater emphasis on humanity. It is also a great 
challenge and a heavy responsibility.

Th

 e organizations which handle education in post-confl ict situations or 

refugee camps

5

 often point out that their pupils, who have just emerged from or 

Secondary schooling – a crucially 

important stage

Primary education for young children concentrates 
on literacy and the acquisition of skills defi ned 
without giving rise to any controversy while higher 
education aims rather at specialized knowledge. 
What kind of education should be provided between 
these two stages? Th

  e predominant feeling at present 

is that this stage is of capital importance since it is 
the stage at which the future worker, citizen and 
adult must be trained. Who, then, can deny that it 
would be a grave mistake to overlook the issue?

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24

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

live in nearly intolerable conditions are 
urgently looking for education which 
gives meaning to a world that no longer 
seems meaningful. 

For instance, they express a greatly 

heightened sense of fairness, to which 
educational content must be responsive.

It is supremely important not to 

disappoint them; but it is not easy.

Our schools face demands for an 

explanation of the world

On another scale, the new phase of 

human history which began at the end of the Cold War has rendered the need for 
societies to make decisions on educational content even more fearsomely agonizing 
than before. Th

  e Cold War, by dividing the post-Yalta (1945) world into two blocs 

with opposing ideologies, provided each 
bloc with a relatively simple world view. 
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 
ending that system and the “balance 
of terror”, many local confl icts  fl ared 
up in Europe, Asia and Africa, so that 
stakeholders faced less urgent problems 
than in the previous 50 years such as 
nationalism of various kinds and inter-
ethnic confl icts. Th

  e world has become 

an enduringly more complicated place: 
so too have the task and responsibility of 
those whose duty is to explain the world 
to the younger generations.

More generally, the collapse or at 

least the erosion of the major world explanatory systems mentioned above – the 
account of unending human progress through science and technology, for instance, 
or through the predicted victory of a particular political ideology – is a hallmark of 
our age and, as a result, people are in a sense no longer “sheltered from reality” by 
these major systems. Th

  is in itself increases the responsibility of education systems.

Paradoxically, while advocates of “the market” or even of democracy – which 

cannot be placed on the same footing – appear to be in the ascendancy in the world 
today, they do not provide an account of the world that satisfi es young minds: 

New pupils: a challenge for 

schools

Children and young people from 
poor backgrounds, for instance, are 
now reaching secondary education, at 
least in the countries where enrolment 
is very high; they bring with them 
questions and demands about what 
they learn at school which are often 
far more disruptive than those of the 
traditional secondary pupils from 
more sheltered backgrounds.

Protection from the dangers 

of extremism

Now that the systems no longer off er 
pupils a plausible account of the world, 
young minds no longer “protected” by 
them are in danger, in some cases, of 
signing up to one desperate extremism 
or another. Proper secondary content 
should whenever possible shelter the 
world’s youth from these counsels of 
despair.

5  

See UNESCO’s Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).

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25

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

neither of these accounts can, for instance, hide the fact that they constantly increase 
inequalities, in the case of the market, or that they often fail to combat injustice 
eff ectively, in the case of democracy. Th

 e systems that dominate today’s world 

experience great diffi

  culty in providing satisfactory explanations of the world and in 

responding in terms of values. Th

  is further increases the responsibility to be borne 

by education.

Education to counter the excesses of mass culture

In regard to the way in which people now relate to available knowledge, the task 

of secondary education has also become more demanding. Today’s schools are active 
in an epistemic landscape that is more complex than ever before. Whereas in the 
past, the school’s only possible “competitors”, though not in all cases, were religion 
or the family, there is now an undefi ned “mass culture”, monitored by no authority 
and most often the outcome of market forces alone, which constantly competes with 
education.

Mass culture is no stranger to the world of knowledge: it gives an idea of one 

kind of relationship with that world, one that is seemingly often easy, immediately 
gratifying, free from the burden of knowledge systems devised by human beings and 
from academic constraints and timetables.

Th

  e aim of mass culture is not to further human progress or to answer questions 

raised by humanity, but to meet cultural consumer needs artifi cially created for market 
purposes. If education offi

  cials fail to deal eff ectively with the issue of educational 

content, then the content of mass culture, with all its irresponsible seductions and 
zapping-mode off ers of the moment, will fi ll the void left by the public authorities.

Now while the content of mass culture should not be regarded as unworthy of 

notice, as will be noted below, it is strongly felt that it should not be allowed readily 
to exert any monopolistic infl uence on the public mind.

Secondary education does more than provide basic tools

Another danger is that if offi

  cials fail to address the content of secondary 

education in the light of its strategic importance, a host of false solutions will be 
proposed which could commit education systems to paths whose dangers may not 
be immediately apparent. Th

  e conception of knowledge for secondary education 

consisting, for instance, of a small number of “basic skills”, barely distinguishable 
from those to be acquired during primary education, poses a real and insidious threat: 
it is not irrelevant, however, that some schools systems, traumatized in some cases by 
the glaring failure of secondary education to serve some sectors of the public, react by 
calling for education to go “back to basics”, symptomatic of a lack of understanding 
of the issues. 

Th

  is book’s realistic explanation of issues will dissuade offi

  cials from taking any 

approach to secondary education that entails such a conception.

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26

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

The task of identifying and organizing academic knowledge

Th

  e empire building of mass culture or the legitimation of third-rate education 

are dangers that must always be considered whenever offi

  cials have an insuffi

  cient 

grasp of the issues relating to the content of secondary education – the most pressing 
issues arise from the very heart of the adventure of human knowledge. Secondary 
education is indeed in an ambivalent position: in one sense it has a fi rm hold on 
knowledge that it helps to disseminate, while being highly dependent on the state 
of such knowledge, and in particular on its educational value, which may be more 
or less assured. Two strategically relevant characteristics of contemporary knowledge 
may be mentioned in that regard.

•  Firstly, the huge mass of rapidly growing human knowledge has quite recently 

been characterized by multiformity and fl uidity, but the days are gone when a 
small number of universities and libraries could function as both conservatory 
and reasonably comprehensive laboratory of all available knowledge. Th

 e 

presentation – and above all the circulation – of the elements of knowledge 
by means of electronic networks produce complex and constantly changing 
knowledge maps: secondary education has long had the duty, which will be 
discussed below, of selecting and transposing from the body of academic 
knowledge, ultimately defi ning knowledge to be learnt in school. 

Th

  is issue is a strategic one today, for if secondary education, whose primary 

objective is training, does not acquire the means of fi nding its bearings in the world 
of academic knowledge, continually reshaped by electronic networks, then the 
knowledge disseminated by its schools is unlikely to be anything but arbitrary. Th

 e 

task of navigating and mapping out content selections required in every education 
system involves a considerable amount of work and might gain from some sharing 
between systems, perhaps using major documentation tools that organizations such 
as UNESCO might be commissioned to produce.

•  Secondly, the feature of contemporary knowledge which poses a problem 

regarding the content of secondary education is its extreme Balkanization. 
Th

  e world of academic knowledge is not organized according to educational 

goals but according to research goals that are generally highly specialized, 
and this has been criticized repeatedly by Edgar Morin.

6

 Th

  e gap between 

research and teaching is wider than ever before: research is no longer made 
available to education systems as a coherent and consistent whole; the school 
system therefore now has the great responsibility of not only establishing 
benchmarks but also of building relationships – which used to come ready-
made – among the highly Balkanized items of research knowledge and will 
be obliged to secure a coherent body of knowledge for education purposes.

Th

  e world of education has a high level of accountability which it cannot 

discharge properly unless it introduces new functions to ensure that there is mediation 

6  

Edgar Morin, 

Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future, op. cit.

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HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

between the worlds of research and education; such functions might, here again, 
advantageously be shared, on account of the cost involved.

Science education is a strategic issue in itself

In dealing with knowledge, other strategic issues are linked more directly to 

scientifi c content: if virtually all human communities agree on the importance of 
secondary education, it is indeed because, in the main, science and technology can 
legitimately be expected to provide a number of solutions to the problems facing 
today’s world. Th

  is applies to many problems to which technological developments 

wrought by the human species has given rise. Science education must be developed 
everywhere, and this raises a universal strategic question, as does the widely 
canvassed issue of sustainable development. Humanity’s ability to deal with some of 
its most serious problems largely depends, then, on the future content of secondary 
education and on its ability to guide the fi nest minds towards the sciences and 
sustainable development and to use its talent to transform science education to make 
it stimulating and relevant to existing problems.

Secondary education: a worldwide social challenge

•  Important though they may be, the strategic challenges in regard to the 

content of secondary education in view of the advent of the yet ill-defi ned 
“knowledge society” and the questions raised about knowledge pale to 
insignifi cance beside the issue, which has major social implications, of 
whether secondary education, as it develops, should be marked by more 
inequalities and injustice among individuals, social classes, nations and 
regions of the world or whether justice, or at least equity, should be included 
in its curriculum. What is the importance of content in this regard?

An immense promise to a vulnerable sector of the public

Even where secondary education is developed because the authorities see 

it primarily as a factor of economic development, capable of providing a labour 
force endowed with the skills and fl exibility that will raise productivity,

7

 secondary 

education has yet another function: it proposes, for the fi rst time in human history, 
to invite all young people, whatever their gender, social class, family wealth, religious 
identity, caste, nationality, family origin or primary education attainment, to share in 
human knowledge, complex skills, enlightened citizenship and culture!

7  

As mentioned above, in economic terms the highest returns have been yielded by investments in 
education for the most disadvantaged groups: see Martin Carnoy, 

Globalization and Educational 

Reform, IIEP-UNESCO, Paris, 1999.

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28

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

Th

  e responsibility, for those who open these doors, is an enormous one, for 

it amounts to a revolutionary promise to all young people, who take heed, that 
education will give them the right to enter the Human City to work, make decisions 
and promote human development. Th

  is promise cannot go unnoticed by those who 

have previously been excluded, not only from a minimum of material comfort, access 
to knowledge, skills, culture, work and social mobility, but also from the exercise of 
citizenship and the awareness of their rights.

Secondary education’s new clientele is often composed of young people who 

have become very vulnerable owing to the interplay of social and international fac-
tors and, at the same time, they 
constitute a clientele of strategic 
importance: their enrolment 
will largely determine oppor-
tunities for humanity to make 
progress in improving mutual 
understanding and in avoiding 
outbreaks of violence within or 
among nations which would be 
unleashed if such youth were 
rejected.

Instances of injustice in 

the world are countless, aff ecting whole regions, economically exploited social groups, 
various minorities, girls, migrants, refugees, disabled pupils, and others. Education is 
not, of course, at fault, but it must be understood that it could easily be at fault if it 
does nothing to use the tools at its disposal to combat injustice.

Ensuring that democratization causes no more injustice

Th

  e problem is that all too often one thinks that education will promote justice 

through structural decisions, individual pupil attention, good teaching methods and 
so on, losing sight, here again, of the strategic character of educational content. How 
can the next two diffi

  culties not be evident?:

•  Many research fi ndings have shown that if the “democratic” widening of 

the secondary education intake is not matched by a proportionate increase 
in employment or higher education opportunities, the result is often fi ercer 
competition and anxiety among pupils, as the children of economically 
modest and culturally ill-prepared families are not assisted as the others are 
and fail more often at school. Such “failure”, if measures are not taken to 
guard against it, is caused by the mismanagement of democratization!

•  Paradoxically, when secondary education is no longer the preserve of an 

academic and/or social elite, its role becomes increasingly clearly one of 
selection, previously wrought by social forces. Th

  is means that failure, if no 

An invitation to share in human 

knowledge

Secondary education has yet another function: 
it proposes, for the fi rst time in human history, 
to invite all young people, whatever their 
gender, social class, family wealth, religious 
identity, caste, nationality, family origin or 
primary education attainment, to share in 
human knowledge, complex skills, enlightened 
citizenship and culture!

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29

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

preventive action is taken, is not systemic, akin to a one-off  manufacturing 
defect, but entirely component-related!

If education is to avoid increasing injustice in the world, it has to struggle 

against itself as much as against the world. It is clearly the content of education that 
will be impugned on the ground that the content of secondary education, inherited 
all too often from a time when democratic values formed no part of the secondary 
school ethos, has not been miraculously transformed in the interim.

Academic failure, which primarily aff ects pupils from vulnerable groups, takes 

a variety of forms but stem mainly, according to the pupils themselves, from disaf-
fection with what they consider to be pointless and unnecessary knowledge and 
culture transmitted by schools. Conversely, their vision of the world as “poor” peo-
ple or minorities, their language, their migrant culture and their artistic practices 
are all ignored or regarded as 
matters to be kept apart from 
the “real” content of secondary 
education. Moreover, second-
ary education does not readily 
hand over its keys, leaves many 
of the skills needed for success 
unmentioned, inexplicit, since 
they are assumed to have been 
acquired elsewhere. Content 
that is required but not taught 
is a source of injustice.

Th

 e more favoured parts 

of the school intake, on the other hand, are readier to accept the school curriculum 
without asking too many questions, for two sometimes contradictory reasons: some 
of them have understood that education is designed primarily for selection and that 
whatever the content, good marks and good results in the various selection tests are 
of the essence, while others become interested in knowledge in and for itself.

Th

 e “newcomers” realize that in the selection process they are seriously 

disadvantaged economically, socially and culturally and that, instead of endeavouring 
to provide them with adequate intellectual nourishment, the education system all 
too often seems to give up off ering them anything but scraps of knowledge, rote 
learning and the daily accomplishment of “tasks” as pupils.

Violence is often done to the more vulnerable pupils by the very content of 

education and on the basis of the type of relationship to knowledge proposed: for 
many of them boredom, failure, increasing truancy and in the end “dropping out”

8

 

without any qualifi cation, are often the hallmarks of failure at school, in society and 
in life.

Changing content that fosters 

prejudice

Th

 e educational content of former colonies 

and of countries where secondary education 
has for decades primarily been a “certifi cate 
of bourgeoisie” often still spreads the same 
prejudices and the same closed cultural 
views, thus constituting the source of much 
of the diffi

  culty faced  by “new” pupils from 

communities that have never endorsed the 
content selected.

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HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

Among countries and in each country, there is a need for justice and the very 

extension of education holds out an even stronger promise that the need will be met. 
Disregard of the fact that education holds out an idea of justice in the content it 
imparts and in the relationship that it creates between pupils and knowledge amounts 
to creating conditions for academic failure as educators and to preparing the ground 
in various societies for violence, which in some cases might even seem justifi ed.

Conditions for the emergence of strategic considerations

Many countries or educational authorities have long been aware of all these 

issues for years: the United Kingdom, quite against its educational traditions, decided 
to establish a National Curriculum in 1986; Estonia has changed its curriculum three 
times in a decade; Latin American and African countries have earnestly engaged with 
these issues; and UNESCO’s Member States have raised the issue of the content and 
quality of secondary education again and again at the 43rd International Conference 
on Education (Geneva, Autumn 2004); Madagascar and Italy, among others, have 
expressed new, and even iconoclastic,

9

 opinions: all this is clearly evidence that greater 

attention is being paid to these matters.

Many countries see, moreover, that the quality of their secondary education 

also determines the quality of training received by primary school teachers and that 
the educational content imparted to secondary school pupils will determine whether 
they are capable of planning the further development of primary education. France, 
for instance, continues to teach science to the non-science streams in secondary 
schools on the grounds that many future primary school teachers opt for those 
streams and it is therefore desirable that they should be reasonably familiar with the 
experimental sciences.

International comparisons of performance: an insuffi cient basis for 

strategies on content

Some do take the view that one can concentrate very pragmatically on the 

quality of education without dwelling too much on “content” in the abstract. 
A growing number of countries would therefore rather measure “results” or 
“capabilities” domestically and indeed internationally, especially in the light of work 
done by OECD. Such surveys obviously provide interesting pointers, but owing to 
their focus on quantifi able comparison, the data are not all-inclusive: for the sake of 

8  

French speakers are probably more familiar with the English term “dropping out” than with the 
suggestive expression “décrochage” or “getting off  the peg” popularized by French speakers from 
Quebec.

9  

Th

  e Italian President of the Council, in defi ning educational content, at least showed that he appreciated 

some of the issues and stressed the guiding role of the three “I”s: “impresa” (enterprise), “inglese” 
(English) and the “Internet”! Most signifi cantly, “Italia” was not included.

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31

HOW IS THE ISSUE OF CONTENT “STRATEGIC”?

comparability, especially across countries, only very general outputs may be shown 
and thus, here again, the researchers’ and policy-makers’ attention is directed more to 
comparable educational conditions, structures, the management of pupil fl ows, and 
so on, than to the selection of educational content.

If a survey is confi ned to these indicators, one is likely to lose one’s bearings: 

after their dismal results in the TIMSS

10

 mathematics survey, the United Kingdom 

and Australia decided to bolster their rather rigid prescriptions on the content of 
mathematics in the hope of catching up with South Korea and Singapore … just 
as those countries were phasing out those mathematics yardsticks which, it was felt, 
stifl ed pupils’ creativity!

Secondary education systems are unlikely to achieve their organizational goal 

(of enrolling 500 million young people and work eff ectively with them) or their 
social objective (of accommodating a very wide variety of pupils, often from areas 
far away from the prevailing culture in which secondary education is provided) un-
less everyone fully recognizes 
two facts: fi rst, that secondary 
education can only succeed if 
its agenda includes quality and 
specifi cally, that the quality of 
the content taught and learnt 
is of the essence; and secondly, 
that the need for equity, the 
goal of justice are likewise of 
central importance and per-
force require consideration of 
educational content.

The exorbitant cost of inadequate 

content

Nothing costs more than inadequate content. 
It is costly for the system, which spends its 
resources on it ineffi

  ciently, costly for the 

pupils who waste their time on it or drop 
out of school early, costly for society and 
the economy which derive no benefi t  from 
knowledge untaught and the skills unlearnt. 
Eff ective content has development and above 
all implementation and support costs that 
are not commensurate with the waste caused 
by irrelevant content that either prevent real 
learning or lead to insuffi

  cient learning.

10  

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

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33

3

 EDUCATIONAL 

HERITAGE AND 
THE DUTY TO TAKE 
STOCK

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34

EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

Education and the past: continuity and discontinuities

Education, as with all human activity, never writes about its developments on 

a blank page: it must on the contrary display awareness of the past whose action it 
carries forward, and evince understanding of that past, to which it is not bound.

In education, however, relations with the past are particularly complicated and 

offi

  cials must be particularly aware of this, if they are not to lose a fi rm hold on the 

future because of an ill-digested past.

The two things that need to be handed on

Education systems very often require schools to transmit knowledge, skills 

and values from one generation to the next. Th

  is is by no means anecdotal or old-

fashioned: schooling, just like the learning done at home, is designed to give children 
the rules of various codes, including language, on the one hand, and to relay to them 
such knowledge of the world as the grown-ups have managed to gather and preserve, 
on the other.

In the case of the codes and the rules governing life in society, it is obvious that 

such transmission is essential and that the school is not being asked to change the 
code in any way but to teach it: the product of the past quite properly constitutes 
the law in this area.

In regard to the transmission of knowledge, here again, no school can work 

as from a clean slate, for it is defi nitely one of the school’s tasks to help the minds 
entrusted to its care to scramble onto “the shoulders of giants” – all those inventors, 
scholars and explorers from the past. Transmission of heritage is arguably one of 
the school’s core functions in all those societies where families have become used to 
delegating it to the school, and have themselves lost the art in consequence.

Th

  is is, then, a feature of the human condition that education, and in regard 

to knowledge, secondary education, must accommodate: the responsibility of the 
human species not only to “train” the young, but also to transmit a great deal to 
them, is far greater than that of any other species.

“Transmission” – a cause of conservatism or a leaven for innovation?

One could, however, make a variety of inferences from this: if human beings 

do aim, in virtually all historical situations, to transmit all that is necessary to their 
children, this means that each generation can make its mark on what is handed on, 
so that it will never be exactly the same in any two generations.

Th

  is is powerful leaven for innovation, conducive to transmission. Would it be 

understandable if, for instance, secondary education in the early twenty-fi rst century 
were not only to ignore the scientifi c developments of the last generation, but also 
fail to teach pupils about the totalitarian ideologies that loomed so large over the 

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

previous century, or the crimes of “ethnic cleansing” which marked the previous 
decade? Here, too, safeguards are available.

Insightful inventory of the heritage

Th

  e heritage, in terms of educational content, currently held by secondary 

education offi

  cials worldwide will thus be reviewed with these considerations in 

mind. Th

  e dominant impression is not one of pellucid transmission of a recently 

updated corpus compiled in a manner and for reasons known to all, but a much 
more frustrating transmission of heritage whose origin is not really understood by 
stakeholders, which looks more like a mere accumulation transmitted witlessly and 
without change for generations, all rank and order lost!

In some cases, often in 

regard to content and options 
off 

ered at upper secondary 

level, fl 

uctuations within a 

single system may give cause for 
concern. It is therefore necessary 
to take stock of everything 
off ered under the banner of 
“heritage” so as to bring it back 
to life: content is so important a matter, so crucial to the success or failure of entire 
systems in which communities, sometimes the poorest communities, invest so much 
of their resources, that for this reason alone nothing should be accepted without 
scrutiny.

The complex heritage of secondary education

Th

 e fi rst point regarding the heritage in terms of form and content is that “the” 

inherited content of secondary education is narrow and meagre and at the same 
time rich, varied and easily contradictory. Narrow and meagre, because it has been 
produced and used as educational content by civilizations, societies and social groups 
which represent only a fairly small portion of human experience; but rich, varied and 
contradictory because those same civilizations, societies and groups have amassed a 
range of experiences and built up a range of ways for pupils to relate to knowledge, 
without any stock-taking by each and every generation.

Th

  e point is one generation does not inherit only lessons to which it may add 

its own content; it inherits complex layers of content that have not been questioned, 
re-organized, sorted or rearranged clearly for centuries.

Conservatism and renewal

“Do you have anything at all to hand on from 
one generation to the next?” one is tempted to 
ask offi

  cials who are in such a hurry to change 

everything or make everything optional! 
Unreasoned conservatism should give as much 
cause for concern as pointless innovation.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

A heritage with a particular history

Th

  is inherited content, which has put its stamp so unmistakably on secondary 

education, comprises fi rst of all content inherited from the history of knowledge 
within the civilization of Europe, the model shared or imposed around the world ever 
since the great European expansion during the Renaissance. Th

  at content is urban, 

rather than rural, sustained by enthusiasm aroused by the development of science 
and technology, an enthusiasm that on occasion turned into scientistic delusions; it 
is content “of the North”, rather than “of the South”, and in many countries, content 
that belonged to the colonizing power.

Th

  is “European” content became established and recognized in Europe’s day of 

triumph, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age of European powers 
with their warmongering nationalism. Such content can easily become dangerous, 
for it is potentially full of nationalist, white-supremacist and colonialist scientistic 
and industrialist references.

In those days secondary education in European countries was only for the 

more privileged social groups, for whom it served the purposes of selection and 
recognition, and so the content that has been inherited is also the content “of the 
rich”, socially distinguished but ignorant of popular cultures in the rich countries 
and of the cultures of peoples subjugated by or remote from the European “centre”. 
It is content for pupils whose studies are perceived not as directly useful, but as 
falling within the ancient category of “leisure”

11

 and benefi cial for the heirs of earlier 

aristocracies.

In many countries, also, 

the content of secondary edu-
cation has been developed in 
a secularized setting, as if mat-
ters of religious faith had been 
driven out of the public sphere: 
but the reality is that this (in-
herited) conception of educa-
tion that takes no account of 
religion has perhaps no univer-
sal or defi nitive value.

Lastly, whenever a con-

fl ict came to an end, the “vic-
tors’ content” came to the fore 
among European countries 
themselves, or between them and colonized nations. When Europe gave the world 
a model of secondary education, which many regions have adopted, it did not also 

An inheritance to be mistrusted

With the benefi t of hindsight, it is now 
obvious for the fi rst time that the very 
European nations which had invented the 
main forms of knowledge dissemination 
by secondary education among their elites 
were also the nations which in the twentieth 
century organized not only the massacre 
of the First World War, but also the most 
disastrous totalitarian regimes in the whole of 
human history: there is indeed every reason to 
mistrust the heritage received from such times 
and peoples!

11  

Th

  e Greek word from which our “school”, “école”, “schüle”, “scuola” and others are derived is “scholè”, 

and it means “leisure”.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

give it the “antibodies” to ensure, for instance, that the syllabus of some disciplines 
in post-confl ict situations would not shore up and give legitimacy to what has been 
won by force.

The tradition of “liberal culture”

Another element of the heritage, in part combined with the fi rst, is of course 

that of Humanism, or the “liberal” culture,

12

 a tradition followed by the social elite 

but which became prized well beyond its original social setting.

According to the humanist tradition, pupils stand to gain if they maximize their 

experience, in particular by becoming familiar with the great works of literature since 
these are true distillations of experience. As they do so, they learn about the world 
and about morality. Mastery of desire is manifestly more important than knowledge, 
and the aim is to “manufacture” a Human Being who knows what is Good and 
is capable of speaking well in public debate.

13

 Th

  is tradition of knowledge that is 

“impractical” but enables people to engage in skill-building human experiences is 
perfectly illustrated, for instance, by the defi nition of the prerequisites for the Indian 
Civil Service in the British Empire, namely “a fairly good instruction in Latin and 
Greek and a facility for composing verses in those languages … and a good training 
in horsemanship”. It took the United Kingdom a very long time to discard the 
humanist and anti-pragmatic model of culture so characteristic of the Victorian era, 
after its adverse eff ects on economic growth became obvious.

Several strands of the heritage, linked to the ones above, involve the long-held 

contrary view that the acquisition of “knowledge” was the ultimate goal of secondary 
education.

Traditions geared to the transmission of knowledge

Th

 e fi rst point is that the cognitive goal, which seems to be taken for granted 

in many systems today, is in fact a feature of particular historical circumstance and 
has appeared in a considerable variety of guises: secondary education offi

  cials  in 

the twenty-fi rst century encounter words such as “encyclopaedic”, “classic(al)” and 
“disciplines” whose past should be examined to determine how they may be used 
today.

• One ancient model of knowledge with a most illustrious lineage is 

“encyclopaedism”. “Encyclopaedic” is often used to describe pointlessly 
cumbersome disciplinary content, cluttered with “untouchable” irrelevantly 
and unreasonably accumulated facts from a mythical period when secondary 
education was inconceivable without a weighty corpus of subject matter. 

12  

“Artes liberales” and “technaï eleutheraï” are the terms used in Antiquity and, 

mutatis mutandis, are 

covered by the concept of “culture générale” in French, “bildung” in German, or “learning for its own 
sake”, which are all part of the anti-utilitarian tradition.

13  

Th

  e standard Latin formula is “

vir bonus atque dicendi peritus” (the respectable and articulate man).

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

“Encyclopaedism”, which originated in the Hellenistic Schools, did not, 
on the contrary, involve teaching a “discipline”, but the idea that the pupil 
should study round a “circle” of subjects in order to acquire a general “all-
round” culture from fi elds of knowledge that were “equal” in status rather 
than organized in a hierarchy.

•  Another major feature of the educational legacy is the notion of “(the) 

classics”, works that are suitable for “classes” since they represent a heritage 
that the school is required to transmit. Th

  is reference to works that also 

permit communal self-rediscovery and self-recognition is interesting in itself: 
suffi

  ce it to consider its origins – young Greeks studied Homer’s works as 

“classics” because of their value as poetry, certainly, but at least as much 
because they could learn about the world, from astronomy to navigation, 
“scientifi c” education being unknown at the time. Th

  is type of relationship 

to reference literary works is now utterly out of date, of course, in that 
schools teach science in a diff erent and better way today. Th

 is means that 

when offi

  cials call for “the classics” to be included in the compulsory syllabus 

as part of their “heritage”, it is necessary at the very least for them to state 
their goals clearly.

Patterns of thought that need reconsidering

In addition to the major models of transmission inherited from bygone 

educational worlds whose echoes can still be clearly heard in today’s debates, content 
designers and education stakeholders have often inherited a number of mental and 
cultural maps which are highly infl uential but do not always give an accurate account 
of the issues at stake, or any reliable assessment of their merits.

•  For example, a distinction is traditionally drawn between content for 

“primary”, “secondary” and “higher” education. Between the primary and 
lower secondary levels, for instance, approaches to the various fi elds  of 
knowledge may diff er quite considerably. In some systems failure rates are 
very high during the fi rst year of lower secondary school. Th

  e same applies 

between secondary school and the fi rst few years of higher education. Th

 is 

is not to say that there can be no healthy break in the academic system, for 
growth, indeed life itself, is marked by discontinuities. It must be ascertained, 
however, that such breaks exist because they are required for the learning 
process itself and not merely because “that’s how it’s always been done”. In 
fact, it is probably necessary to identify substantive changes to the content of 
basic education at any given point, perhaps even more forcefully, drastically 
and explicitly than at present; but in this as in other matters addressed in 
this book, the worst happens when reality is set in stone because it is not 
understood.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

•  It is also noticeable that policy is infl uenced by a number of major dichotomies 

imposed on educational content, apparently due to the power of tradition: 
in some countries, for instance, it seems “natural” (in accordance with an 
age-old practice and people’s mental characteristics and besides it matches 
the ways diff erent minds work) to have “literary” content distinct from 
“scientifi c” content. In this regard, as on the others, it is not for this book 
to decide matters, without considering the various contexts; attention is 
merely being drawn to the potentially negative impact of such patterns on 
the overall quality of an education.

What to do with “disciplines”?

Nevertheless, the most 

characteristic way in which 
tradition governs the struc-
ture of secondary education is, 
of course, by arranging it by 
discipline. Th

 is must be ad-

dressed in greater depth. While 
“disciplines” are much less in 
evidence in primary education, 
which concentrates on “rudi-
ments”, and play no structural 
role in higher education, which 
consists of courses, disciplines 
feature and pose problems in 
virtually all secondary education systems: but also appears to cause them some dif-
fi culty: an astonishing number of words have been coined in order to avoid them, so 
that it is now necessary to defi ne “interdisciplinary”, “multidisciplinary”, “transdisci-
plinary” or “metadisciplinary”.

Where do these diffi

  culties come from? In many situations education is 

structured as from the lower secondary level, around a dozen “disciplines”, which 
are shown on pupils’ timetables and are regarded as part of the educational heritage, 
claiming as such to be entitled to a “place in the sun” in secondary education.

In many cases, teachers specialize in one or two disciplines, and even where 

this is not the case, the secondary teacher is “identifi ed” primarily in relation to a 
discipline: such a teacher is, in many systems, fi rst a “mathematics teacher” and then 
a “teacher”.

It must be emphasized that these disciplines which are often claimed to be 

“natural” or derived directly from the architecture of human knowledge are in fact 

Bringing together rather than 

separating forms of knowledge

It will be seen that the separation between 
“academic” and “technical” or “abstract” and 
“practical” content produces serious gaps in 
pupils’ skills, even stunting disciplines such 
as sciences that provoke no thought about the 
world; and it is particularly vacuous to argue 
such situations persist because of “tradition”, 
since history shows that, on the contrary, 
people in the past were educated fi rst in the 
arts and then in the sciences.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

endogenous to secondary education and are not, strictly speaking, creatures of the 
world of science, culture or economics.

It may be necessary to make a cost/benefi t assessment of such use of 

disciplines.

The basic ambiguity in the notion of a “discipline”

Th

 e word “discipline” (like its counterparts in other languages) is used 

concurrently with the word “subject”; but “discipline” in itself says a good deal 
about the conception of knowledge it implies, since it denotes a form of “intellectual 
gymnastics” rather than a division of the real world that is to be taught. Herein 
lies a fundamental ambiguity, since one never knows whether “discipline” refers to 
mental “muscle-building” exercises, for which any exercise could basically be used, 
or to the acquisition of specifi c knowledge or skills in a particular “discipline”. Th

 is 

ambiguity contributes signifi cantly to the diffi

  culty encountered in refl ection on the 

disciplinary heritage. What, then, is to be expected?

The advantage of such structural arrangements…

Disciplines, however, have the advantage of providing a complete frame of 

reference, with its own set of rules, vocabulary, well-identifi ed exercises and the halo of 
antiquity. Th

  is framework has been transmitted from one generation to another, and 

sometimes from one country to another,

14

 and accordingly constitutes a reference for 

families and pupils in that they know whether or not the curriculum includes physics 
or the fi ne arts. Th

  e main idea is that working at a discipline increases one’s mental 

experience and ability to think, and such acquisitions are worth much more than 
the discipline itself, the discipline being both epistemic (targeting the acquisition 
of specifi c knowledge and skills) and “formative”·(targeting intellectual acquisitions 
that are expected to be reinvested elsewhere).

…and the charge sheet

Th

  e list of faults found in the structuring of secondary education by discipline 

looks longer:

• fi rst, there are without doubt too many disciplines, within the heritage itself, 

which leaves little room to cater for new requirements and even prevent 
the introduction of a new discipline! In many countries, economics, law, 
sociology and geology are waiting in the wings, ready to join the dozen or so 
recognized “disciplines”;

14  

Some disciplines have spread throughout the world and are practically identical everywhere. However, 
the deceptively similar names often hide signifi cant cultural diff erences that illustrate how diff erent 
systems have created their own authentic versions, or interesting “creole” forms, of the various 
disciplines.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

•  secondary teaching appears to be a juxtaposition of disciplines, yet, it has 

often been noted that no one has addressed the synthesis, specifi c to each 
pupil, that results from exposure to all of these disciplines and constitutes 
the pupil’s knowledge or culture; such synthesis will never be eff ected by 
many pupils and the subjects learnt will remain discrete rather than a body 
of knowledge that is unifi ed or is at least becoming unifi ed;

•  as they have emerged from a context that was concerned with liberal exercises 

and have not been designed in terms of objectives, disciplines do not facilitate 
the task of those who are endeavouring to reorganize secondary education so 
that it may attain set objectives;

•  as they are relatively closed units with well-defi ned concepts and aims, new 

subjects or themes cannot be addressed within the disciplines, even in an 
emergency. Th

  e rudiments of nutrition and agriculture, for instance, are only 

very rarely addressed because teachers are not trained in such subjects and, 
above all, because such subjects cannot be included in any discipline at the 
secondary level;

•  the same is often true of health: traditionally, the natural sciences are taught 

to instil knowledge and methods relating to life and the human body, not to 
give pupils control over their health, and that has now become indefensible; 
here too, the available stock of knowledge held by a school’s teachers is often 
limited to the sum of knowledge of the various disciplines, with yawning gaps 
in relation to subjects that do not fall strictly within specifi c disciplines;

•  disciplines are generally by nature geared to the teaching of abstract rather 

than applied science, though this tendency to the abstract is more marked in 
some countries than in others. Th

  ey tend to widen the gap between science 

and application, which is dangerous; the same is true of the political or moral 
implications of knowledge, which they hardly address since they are all more 
or less amoral in principle;

•  there is sometimes a tendency at the heart of secondary education to see each 

discipline as an end in itself and to regard the mental exercise aspect that 
characterized its ambiguity: as a result they either take a higher-education 
approach – too abstract, and sometimes confi ned to scientism – or a strange 
approach to pre-vocational training, as if history, physics or literature were 
learnt in secondary schools in preparation for a career as a historian, physicist 
or writer and to acquire the main skills of those professions;

•  as units with their component timetables, weighting factors and well-

informed teachers, disciplines are easily subject to lobbying within the system 
on issues that refl ect the selfi sh concerns of institutional groups rather than 
the interests of pupils;

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

•  the timetable requirements and examination weighting factors have often 

resulted in a hierarchy emerging more or less unconsciously and rather 
infelicitously among the disciplines: art, for instance, is thus often taught 
as a token subject because it is allotted very little time on the timetable and 
low weighting factors. Opinions are shaped in depth by such a state of aff airs 
and it is known that knowledge hierarchies often serve to disguise social 
hierarchies;

•  as disciplines are “inherited” and have inherited, as indicated above, a 

canon of classroom experiments and exercises, they do little on their own 
to encourage innovation; on the contrary, they encourage conformism and 
parroting of the same old formulae; they are not usually assessed (as to 
whether they achieve their goals, promote fairness, entrench cultural and 
academic inequalities, or arouse and hold pupils’ interest), which makes 
them a “blind spot” in the vision of education designers;

•  even though their discourse always rests on their original ambiguity – aiming 

at restricted fi elds of knowledge but also providing a mental toolkit that 
will be useful outside those fi elds – there is seldom any proof of this being 
done. In that regard, it is advisable to be very modest and to observe pupils’ 
learning attainments experimentally, but there is no proof that a particular 
form of reasoning or intellectual attitude cultivated within a discipline can 
readily be applied elsewhere. Yet the illusion that they can have sometimes 
been pushed very far indeed by the champions of tradition, who have 
for instance argued the necessity of acquiring language profi ciency in the 
Classics (in the “European” past, Latin and Greek; but the same questions 
must be raised regarding other traditions extolling classical languages, such 
as Sanskrit or classical Arabic) in order to develop similar profi ciency  in 
modern languages;

•  disciplines may also be criticized because they stand as fully constituted bodies 

of knowledge and encourage the belief that they are taught in a continuum 
with higher education: they are quite ready to “erase” all the necessary work 
of transposition between “academic knowledge” and “school learning”, a 
transposition which in fact often amounts to a thorough reorganization.

After this indictment, no argument will now be advanced in defence of 

disciplines; it will simply be acknowledged that they exist and dominate the structure 
of secondary education to such an extent that very few decision-makers question 
their continuance, even if it were desirable to do so. Furthermore, there has so far 
been little proof that such an organization by disciplines can be discarded: when 
systems have, on occasion, opened the door to other forms of learning, they have 
brought in elements that have seemed to have even more layers than the traditional 
disciplines, without making the whole more meaningful.

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EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE AND THE DUTY TO TAKE STOCK

Conversely, awareness of the dangers of a structure based on disciplines can 

assist in averting its adverse eff ects and in devising counter measures. Yes, they are 
often outdated, frozen in time; yes, they are often sadly unaware of their own history; 
but it is felt that the only tenable position that may be taken in regard to disciplines is 
to refuse to give them the key to the house and to do so by placing them within the 
much wider objectives of education (see Chapter 6), while giving teachers control 
over them once more and showing that they are not an untouchable heritage that 
must be upheld whatever the cost, but an artifi cial construct that may be adapted to 
meet pupils’ educational needs.

Inventing intergenerational time

Th

  e above has shown how much the educational agenda is burdened by its 

complex past, and how important it is to think about this in order to be free from its 
most negative forms of interference. In addition to this indispensable critical stock-
taking, it is also necessary for content developers to take a long-term view in their 
work, for they must have background knowledge of school learning, as a lack of such 
knowledge will aff ect and hinder their action. Th

  ey must also call constantly into 

question transmission from one generation to the other and should thus challenge 
the heritage in the light of future needs.

As Michel Fabre has felicitously stated, it is the duty of education offi

  cials to 

avoid nominalizing the verb “to know”, making it into a noun, which can easily be 
mythifi ed and become practically untouchable.

Knowledge must refer to something concrete

What needs to be known?

Why does it need to be known?

What is the history of this particular area of knowledge?

Which world issues has this knowledge helped people to defi ne?

Which pupils can it help to gain a better understanding of the world and their 
interactions with it?

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45

4

 REARRANGING 

THE DELIVERY 
OF ACADEMIC 
KNOWLEDGE

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

How confused twenty-fi rst century geography is – and how confusing! Th

 is 

is not the fault of education: our age is no longer the age of States, nor is it that 
of Empires, nor is it certain to become the age of some “global village”, or that of 
“Regions” or even that of “small countries” with brightly coloured maps. Yet States 
have never had so many responsibilities, Empires have never been so powerful and 
sure about their model, and no one knows whether the “global village” – on its 
advent – will be a market without trust or law or a place fi t for humans, or whether 
new “regions” might lead to some new feudal division.

Th

  ese questions will be left to others. Th

  e question that will be addressed is 

whether such uncertainty and vagueness do not make it highly desirable for people 
to be forthrightly initiated into the complexity of geographical organization: the 
school is no doubt the cornerstone here as well, at least in preventing the minds it 
trains from uninformedly or unthinkingly supporting a simplistic and inappropriate 
model. Th

  e aim, however, is not to consider who “ought” to manage the world’s 

education systems, but to promote refl ection, in regard to educational content and 
the complexity of entities involved in that context, on the most appropriate levels at 
which it could be developed, on the models available, whether they are competitively 
exclusive and whether combinations are conceivable.

The highs and lows of the State as an educator

An astonishing call for State intervention today

All over the world, the State is generally becoming weaker, both internationally, 

much to the benefi t of several categories of international organization or the market 
and its destablizing fl uctuations, and internally through challenges to the Welfare 
State model and through the emergence of new levels of decentralization such as the 
European Union “regions”. Conversely, for the purposes of determining educational 
content, the State is increasingly being called upon to act.

Th

  is call for State action is of course understandable in the case of new or 

fairly new countries: a newly independent country faces an objective need to become 
master of its own education system without neglecting educational content. It will 
be recalled that Julius Nyerere stated in 1971 in Tanzania, “If I leave to others the 
building of our elementary school system, they [the people] will abandon me as their 
responsible national leader”.

Th

 e call to strengthen the State’s role in regard to the curriculum in the 

developed countries is more surprising. Th

  e United Kingdom adopted a National 

Curriculum in 1986, which had previously been considered unthinkable. Denmark 
has had national curricula since 2000, when the State took over a responsibility 
previously held by local authorities. Even in the United States of America, it is not 

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47

REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

rare for offi

  cials to regret that each of 15,000 districts may select its own content for 

each subject.

Th

  is is due, no doubt, to a variety of reasons. In some of the world’s regions, 

societies are faced with a particularly fast-growing and diverse intermingling of 
population groups owing to various migration fl ows triggered by economic need, 
the misfortunes of war, persecution, or the opening up of borders within regions 
or continents: ethnic diversity immediately raises questions about educational 
content since it can endanger social cohesion at least temporarily, make the existing 
social contract meaningless or even expose old social hypocrisies that the national 
discourse had concealed. States, as in the old days, even rely on educational content 
of education to help them to revive foundational myths or, in a more forward-
looking way, to form a new social contract. Several countries are producing goal-
oriented content more than in the past to ensure that community values are learnt 
at school: Sweden, for instance, has recently incorporated its own value system into 
curriculum, establishing such principles as the inviolability of human life, individual 
freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality, solidarity with the weak 
and vulnerable, understanding, compassion, free discussion, internationalization of 
Swedish society and empathy with the values and condition of others.

International economic competition, which to some extent works to weaken 

States and diminish the importance of borders for the benefi t of multinational or 
stateless enterprises, also does the reverse in some ways: concern about possible 
unemployment often turn into individual concerns about access to good vocational 
qualifi cations and at an earlier stage to good training to enhance job market 
opportunities, whatever the uncertainties. Th

 ough major economic interests are 

often not held by States today, only national governments may in many cases provide 
education (and make war); their citizens insist more impatiently than ever, therefore, 
that they give young people access to the desired qualifi cation, which means that they 
should fi rst be given the best possible general education or vocational training, just 
as the British visitors to the Paris International Exhibition in 1867 realized that they 
had to revise their system of technical training and just as the Sputnik orbital fl ight 
in 1957 spurred the United States of America on to overhaul its school organization, 
so too is economic competition encouraging States today to pay attention to their 
people’s skills and knowledge now that States are feeling the brunt of economic 
competition! When the European Union decided on the goals of the Lisbon strategy 
in March 2000, it stated, albeit at the supranational level, its ambition to develop 
“the most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy in the world, capable of 
sustainable economic growth”, but in fact required its Member States to compete 
in the fi rst place among themselves, under a sophisticated benchmarking system, 
through their diverse approaches to schooling, so that they would all be stronger 
against the rest of the world.

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

The advantages of content determined by the State

Hereafter, the term “State” will refer to political entities with general powers, 

whether the State be centralized, federated or even federal.

First of all, the designation of a high political authority to take responsibility 

for the content of secondary education is desirable in the view of all those who 
think that one of the functions of education is to unify the society, as stressed by 
Durkheim. Th

  is advantage is all the greater where the society is breaking up, which 

occurs frequently when trade and economics slip away from national control, when 
the labour market becomes international and when, whether as a consequence of 
these two developments or not, domestic injustices increase.

Th

  e State determines only 

those aspects of content explic-
itly concerned with inculcating 
the country’s shared values in 
some cases and determines all 
educational content in others, 
the idea being that if a society is 
to be fl uid and not merely a fi c-
tion, it is vital that a common 
core of knowledge be acquired 
up to the end of secondary edu-
cation. Th

  e proponents of this 

view maintain that for the sake of fairness and social cohesion, for instance, everyone 
should be equipped with the means of taking part in civic life and major political 
debates on certain fundamental issues (basic familiarity with economics, ecology, 
science, social codes of behaviour and, above all, languages); but it is also in the in-
terest of vocational training after secondary education and the quality of the labour 
market. Education and market stakeholders appreciate the guarantees extended to 
the entire population regarding knowledge and skills acquired in secondary schools.

It should be noted, though that the practical value of these advantages may vary: 

if the State determines only the fi nal outcome of education in terms of “output”, 
and schools are free, as is often desirable, to determine the various stages and how 
the objectives are to be built into the school career, then some of the benefi t  of 
centralization in terms of family mobility will be lost. Likewise, it is not certain that 
a centralized system is as coherent as claimed or hoped: it may very well fail, for 
various reasons, to bring together the various approaches to teaching in particular 
types of institution or at particular levels of education (primary school, for instance, 
or upper secondary) which have diff erent historical or social roots.

Parents, too, may perhaps feel that when content is determined by the 

appropriate public authority they are entitled to contribute to the process, since it is 
public sector matter and therefore transparent: here again, there is no guarantee that 

Centralization of content

Th

 e advantages of centralizing content are 

clear to users, too: standardization throughout 
the country is assured, enabling families to 
relocate for work without prejudice to the 
children’s education since they fi nd  things 
familiar despite the move; a smooth continuity 
throughout the school career is also assured, 
because the curriculum is designed as a 
coherent whole.

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

the advantage will be enjoyed in all cases, for, in this “republicanization”,

15

 there is 

nothing to prevent vested interests from taking control of educational content and 
removing it from civic scrutiny.

Another advantage of centralizing content is the clear benefi t in terms of 

management:

•  it becomes possible to compare schools, which can help to improve them;

•  teacher training can be designed in a standardized way, and experimental 

schemes set up as necessary: this is often a strategic aspect;

•  pupils’ performance can be studied on a signifi cant scale and a population’s 

average performance identifi ed as well as the extremes (best- and worst-
performing groups); this allows more informed and possibly more eff ective 
policy-making.

Th

  ere is also a political advantage which should not be overlooked: if the issue 

of content is indeed regarded as strategic by the education authorities, this means 
that educational content itself will be a subject of political debate. Such debate, 
even if attended by all the guarantees mentioned in Chapter 8, will not permit an 
eff ective consensus in every case: there may come a point at which particular sensitive 
questions have to be settled by taking a democratic stand – or even a vote, with 
winners and losers. What other authority, apart from the State, can guarantee that 
such a debate will take place, will be democratic, and that the majority decision will 
be taken without either crushing or disparaging the minority point of view?

The dangers of State intervention: nationalism and abuse of power

It is well known from history, however, that the State is seldom an abstract entity: 

it is embodied, it appears in diff erent guises and it is used by various interests.

In many instances the State has been given the historic duty of bearing the 

idea of a nation as well as that of the “res publica”. Since “nation states” are often in 
fact artifi cial constructions based, as the case may be, on a shared history, language, 
ethnicity, religion and so on, it is not surprising that the “State as educator” has often 
been used to give them legitimacy in people’s eyes: on various occasions the nation 
has been brought in either to promote unifi cation and respect for complex human 
realities or, on the contrary, to build intolerance or hatred of domestic or external 
enemies.

Moral awareness, as confi rmed by the wars in the former Yugoslavia, of the 

extent to which nationalism can relieve its servants of all moral awareness of their 
actions, provides some measure of the scale of the absolute danger that the State can 
pose in regard to educational content, if it disguises its nationalistic stance. As people 
need myths in order to make progress, especially if their real goals are in fact clouded 

15  

Th

  is refers, of course, to “republic” in the etymological sense of “matter of public concern” and not to 

any type of political organization of powers.

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

by uncertainty and hard to 
outline scientifi cally, it seems 
particularly important to 
protect educational content 
from the enduring attention 
of constantly renewed myth-
making. Action currently be-
ing taken, both in Brussels 
and in individual European 
Union Member States, to 
encourage European citizens 
to support Europe, involves 
use of the old methods which 
consist in imagining the past 
that Europe has never had as 
justifi cation for Europe as it stands today.

Th

  e other question concerns the exercise of these powers within the State. 

Situations vary depending on whether the executive or the legislature deals with 
content and whether the government is democratic or not. In any event, State powers 
are never exercised in a disembodied way, but always within the context of party 
politics and according to changing political fortunes. When Mrs Margaret Th

 atcher’s 

government decided to establish a National Curriculum, there were, of course, the 
avowed reasons relating to a “new deal” for learning in the United Kingdom, but 
there was also the aim of wresting control of schools from the Local Education 
Authorities, over which the Labour Party exerted considerable infl uence.

Th

  ere is an evident danger of “politicizing” knowledge, that is, subjecting it 

not to the outcome of discussions conducted in the fi nest traditions of political 
debate, but to partisan preferences. Th

  is would clearly have adverse eff ects if, for 

example, educational content were conceivably to change whenever there was a 
change of government. Th

  at would clearly be unacceptable, if only because content 

would then be reduced to the status of an utterly subordinate set of rules without 
the slightest scientifi c or moral legitimacy and thus totally ineff ective in any event 
because educational content cannot be time-bound.

In fact, there are situations in which the State has responsibility for content but 

protects itself against some of the vicissitudes of politics by vesting that responsibility 
in the legislature, as is the case in Japan. In such circumstances, content does not 
fl uctuate, but it is particularly diffi

  cult to make changes, since a parliamentary 

decision is required.

Other countries where content is centralized, such as France, have surprisingly 

opted to give this responsibility to the most ephemeral, and easily the most partisan, 
of public authorities, the government and, indeed within the government, to the 
Minister of Education alone. In general, prudence prevails and, for various reasons 

The danger of politicizing knowledge

Various forms of nationalism have at diff erent 
times used educational content to spread 
prejudice and national or ethnic hatred: that 
was achieved either through particular subjects 
such as history and geography, which are more 
susceptible to such distortion and can be used as a 
basis for mythical stories or mythical boundaries, 
or through all subjects generally and even in the 
justifi cation of subject-matter taught to pupils 
when the avowed objective is to prepare, as a 
community, to be stronger in order to fi ght 
against the hereditary enemy.

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related to the give and take of politics, it cannot be said that in France the executive 
abuses its power to “write the curriculum”. Yet paradoxically it is in France that 
the legislature, which is not usually concerned with content though there is no 
constitutional rule forbidding it to do so, has recently acted in a way that threatens 
the scientifi c character of educational content: 

on 23 February 2005, the French 

National Assembly passed a law providing that “ … curricula shall in particular 
recognize the positive role of the French presence overseas, in particular in North 
Africa, and shall give the history and sacrifi ces of those from overseas territories 
who fought in the armed forces of France the place of honour to which they are 
entitled”.

16

Th

  e conventional objection to centralized educational content is of course that, 

contrary to the requirements of good teaching, it is rigid. Th

  e question of “adapting” 

content to the diversity of local circumstances will be addressed later.

Perhaps the two greatest potential dangers in State determination of content, 

though, lie less in these fairly visible risks than in two more insidious phenomena 
which stem not so much from occasional perversions of this State function as from 
its existence in the fi rst place:

•  when an authority of any kind has a monopoly in a given fi eld, the system 

it manages is not particularly likely to innovate since innovation quite often 
involves struggling against the entire establishment, whose parts tend to 
close ranks in mutual support;

•  if issues concerning educational content are all dealt with outside the school, 

this obviously simplifi es the teachers’ tasks since they are not bound to be 
individually creative, but the long-term consequence of this could be a lack 
of teacher accountability or even the deprofessionalization of teachers, for 
they may lose control over content management which is currently their 
only means of adapting their teaching in response to their pupils’ specifi c 
characters.

Th

  e merits or demerits of national educational content will not and cannot be 

determined here: situations vary and working methods used in one context may be 
inappropriate in another. It is advisable, however, to:

•  monitor State action when the State acts as Educator, bearing in mind the 

mistakes that can on occasion be committed in its name;

•  be demanding on the State when it is involved, insisting that education be 

truly a “public matter”, open to guidance in the general interest and through 
democratic means: if the public authorities are to provide educational content, 
then it may justifi ably be required to provide the best and, in particular, to 
ensure that content is wholly permeated by perception of the general interest 

16  

Th

  is led to protest by historians and secondary school teachers, oddly enough, against the very principle 

of the legislature’s action on the issue, but not against continuous action on the same issue in the same 
country by the executive! Th

  e article was subsequently removed from the Act.

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and against not only special interests, negative traditions, and the various 
lobbies, but also against the lies in the name of “the nation” or “society”. Is 
government capable of inventing a genuine education system or does it only 
manage forms, and sometimes empty forms, of an education system?

Global Utopia – to benefi t people or the market?

Globalist traditions

Education has long been familiar with the paradigm of “globalization”; whether 

within the remit of a particular State or of bodies which themselves had a worldwide 
mission, education has on many occasions off ered models designed by persons who 
could not reasonably have intended them to apply to only one part of the world. Th

 e 

“nationalist” content of French education at the end of the nineteenth century was 
“globalized” throughout France’s colonial empire and the great religions – Islam or 
Christianity for instance – have for their part generated many models of education 
down the centuries which they have established or at least sought to establish 
throughout the world. Soviet socialism exported specifi c educational content to 
many regions of the world and, strangely enough, even when such movements have 
historically ceased to exist they 
have sometimes left their mark 
deep within the various systems: 
the underlying inspiration of 
the culture disseminated by 
the “lycée” of the sovereign 
republican France of 2005 can 
be traced back to a religious, 
royalist and internationalist 
institution, the Jesuit “college”.

Again, the changes in 

Europe which began with 
gradual advances known as “the 
Renaissance(s)”, based largely 
on the achievements of Arab 
scholars who bridged the gap 
between the ancient and modern 
worlds, thus transcending the 
restrictions imposed on human 
curiosity during the Middle 
Ages, led gradually to the development of non-religious educational projects with a 
worldwide mission. 

The International Baccalaureat

Th

  e slow development in the twentieth century 

of an international society designed to counter 
exacerbated nationalism and work for peace 
and development has, under the infl uence of 
the International Bureau of Education, initially 
part of the League of Nations and now part 
of UNESCO, led to other considerations and 
proposals tending to challenge the national 
character of educational content. Th

 is  is 

true of all organizations, both governmental 
and non-governmental, which deal with 
education and exert infl uence to make the 
content of education more homogeneous. In 
this context, for instance, the “international 
baccalaureat” open to pupils from all countries 
and containing no “national” references, was 
established in Geneva in the late 1960s.

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As early as the seventeenth century, the Czech philosopher Comenius 

advocated a worldwide education system in his “Panorthosia” or “universal reform”. 
Scientifi c knowledge, in turn addressing reason rather than the conversion of the 
will, “naturally” laid claim to universality.

Paolo Freire’s teaching philosophy, from its home in Brazil’s North-Eastern 

province, claims in another manner to be applicable not only to the Latin American 
context where it began but also to the industrialized countries, because its eff orts 
concern the most human aspects of every human being and because oppression does 
not diff er by nature in the North and in the South even if it takes diff erent forms.

However, while reviewing the main features of the various currents of 

civilization or culture which have off ered schemes of “worldwide content”, the limits 
of such developments must be borne in mind: indeed, the major continent-wide 
bodies emerging around the world, such as the European Union, which deal with 
education, are particularly cautious about the internationalization of content. Th

 e 

tacit understanding is that “content” is riddled with unavoidable national peculiarities, 
though these are assumed rather than empirically demonstrated, and feature more in 
design than in practice: discourse continues to relate to the sovereignty of each State 
which settles educational content issues as it sees fi t.

The de facto globalization of some content

Some educational content crosses national borders and oceans in a most 

pragmatic way:

•  this has long been true of the content of science education, whose development 

is certainly more closely watched by the academic community;

•  it is also true of content connected with modern learning techniques 

involving information and communication technology (ICT);

•  it is increasingly true of the educational content of modern foreign languages: 

it is even becoming generally accepted that the level of profi ciency expected in 
a language learned as a foreign one should not vary from country to country, 
and even that those countries where the language in question is the native 
tongue may contribute to the setting of profi ciency levels; this gives many 
closed and inward-looking education systems one of their fi rst opportunities 
to make comparisons with the wider world;

•  furthermore, English is also increasingly taught throughout the world as a 

result of the globalization of educational content, and this trend is quite 
strong in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

It is doubtful whether these developments will continue to be isolated instances: 

whatever those in charge of national systems may decide, nothing can prevent their 
people – especially, in many countries, the better-off , who often set trends that others 
then follow – from showing how interested they are in the globalization of content:

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•  the issue is raised through demand for educational qualifi cations likely 

to be of value in the world labour market, access to that market being 
conditional on content. Such qualifi cations are generally issued in a 
particular country, bear its “brand” and can be a means of spreading its 
infl uence; but it is arguable that they will increasingly involve “off -shore” 
content, for instance, from agencies and universities whose primary aim 
is to sell courses and certifi cates;

• 

accelerating globalization also results from the means by which knowledge 
is spread today; traditional publishers can make savings whenever 
textbooks, which require major production investment, can be marketed 
in more than one country and when content is disseminated online which, 
by defi nition, encourages use that disregards State borders.

Why is globalization of content not an appropriate solution at this stage?

For centuries, many people have dreamed of a way of educating children that 

would break out of the narrow boundaries that restrict human lives and history. 
Today there have been real advances towards the international determination of 
content – yet national systems still are, and no doubt must for a long time remain, 
the norm. Why is that?

•  First, it is illusory to believe that a change of scale is in itself benefi cial: the 

problems faced by all communities in ensuring that everyone has access to 
knowledge and basic education are not abstract problems, but arise in very 
diff erent cultural, economic and social settings, and will surely be better handled 
as closely to the people as possible. Th

  e very idea that some “world content” 

might be the answer for 
everyone fl ies in the face 
of our human diversity, 
which demands a 
diversity of responses to 
its education problems.

• Th

 

e preparation of 

“world content” would 
presuppose the exist-
ence of some authority 
capable of specifying 
such content – that is 
technically conceivable, 
with UNESCO – but 
more importantly of 
imposing it; and inter-
national society appar-
ently is not yet ready 

Avoiding “Balkanization”  while 

retaining respect for “local” 

considerations

Dangerous tensions are emerging in connection 
with issues relating to ethnicity, language and 
history. Th

  e danger is that communities may 

similarly become inward-looking in relation 
to educational content, losing sight of the fact 
that education and knowledge are of greatest 
value only if they aff ord pupils an opportunity 
to rise above their immediate surroundings, 
discard clannish prejudices and stand back 
from local views. How can proper provision 
be made in these circumstances for people’s 
diff ering concerns for “local” issues at various 
local echelons.

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for the emergence of what would actually amount to a function of world 
government, not even in an area such as education, in which at least all gov-
ernments agreed on the priorities.

• Th

  ere is also a case for saying that it could be dangerous for content to be 

specifi ed by 

any world authority, however excellent, since this would reduce 

educational diversity and would ultimately aggravate the risks mentioned 
above in connection with State centralization; it might be preferable to try 
to improve the quality of educational content by drawing on experiments 
conducted in the great worldwide laboratory, namely today’s diverse systems. 
Th

  is book is designed primarily to assist States and other stakeholders in the 

transition from a mere 

de facto diversity to diversity that is more accountable 

and of a better quality.

•  Above all, the present context of globalization – through economics and the 

market – does not create the right conditions for identifying and handling 
this kind of problem. In fact, there is every reason to fear that any accelerated 
globalization of content would be geared to the widespread competition 
among individuals and systems that characterizes liberal discourse. Th

 ere 

is no adequate counterweight to this ideology internationally although 
countervailing arguments emerge more naturally within States.

Th

  e concept of a “knowledge economy” is too vague at present to provide an 

adequate specifi cation of content. If liberal thought has the fi eld to itself, it may very 
well favour competition over standards, on the one hand, and “skills” dissociated from 
cultural knowledge on the other. Yet, as noted above, humanity requires that pupils 
learn referential content that permit much more than a headlong fl ight designed to 
outstrip neighbours, whether they be persons or countries.

Decentralization and related ambiguities

“Globalization”, inapprehensible, yet pressing ahead, as all can see, amid 

confusion, contradiction and even anarchy, has brought immediately in its train the 
challenging of States and widening economic and cultural divides among the world’s 
various regions.

As countless groups and individuals face the uncertainties and hazards 

wrought by relatively unregulated market forces, the consequences are a worryingly 
fragmented society and the adoption of an inward-looking stance by individuals and 
small communities, in short a “Balkanization” of the world.

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The pupil as the ultimate educational fractal

At the other end of the globalization spectrum, while the idea of setting the 

same learning targets for all of the world’s youth is viewed not only as Utopian but 
dangerous in that, however pure its intentions, it is portentously totalitarian, there 
is a host of educational theories that champion the notion of the individual pupil’s 
absolute independence of world forces.

Th

  is model has, of course, its own historical antecedents and philosophical 

justifi cations and it brings to mind both the education provided to the aristocracy in 
the past by personal tutors and the longstanding educational method that prevailed 
in the United States of America, requiring pupils to progress individually as they 
thought best with the help of textbooks. Th

  is also reminds one of Émile, through 

whom Jean-Jacques Rousseau defended the legitimacy of curricula tailored to the 
individual – it should be noted, however, that he did this mainly because he lived 
in a despotic society in which public authorities could hardly be trusted to educate 
people to be virtuous and free.

Curricula designed by reference to each pupil are increasingly frequent today 

for the following reasons:

•  digital communication media give access to such a mass of resources that 

pupils may conceivably determine the sequence of their studies themselves 
online, without constraint; the growing popularity of “home schooling” is in 
part a step in this direction;

•  the grip of some aspects of mass culture broadcast worldwide is such that 

some people feel the need for some counterbalancing diversity;

•  the theme of education tailored to the individual also shows that people no 

longer support the collective signifi cance of education: everyone would thus 
be free in the jungle of available knowledge and skills, freedom being the 
ultimate determinant.

What is one to think of these ideas and trends?

• Th

 e anarchism (literally) in regard to content is of course sustained by 

illusions about the practical feasibility of such a project for the millions of 
pupils enrolled worldwide who are the fi rst in their families to go to school. 
Such solutions obviously deepen inequalities in circumstances in that some 
pupils would turn the jungle into a paradise of independent learning, while 
others would simply lose their way and drop out.

•  At the same time, as these ideas do express a real concern, it should be 

remembered that the pupils’ progress through collectively determined content 
must be planned at the echelon that is closest to the individual. Educational 
outputs diff er from pupil to pupil across the world and such diff erences are 
not gaps to be closed but a rich resource in themselves. Countries, such as 
Japan, in which secondary education has long been excessively uniform, have 

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

experienced the adverse eff ects of such uniformity, in terms of dropping out, 
loss of pupil interest and lack of originality or creativity among school-leavers. 
Serious thought should be given to the possibility of every curriculum being 
refi ned, adapted and, within limits, negotiated with each pupil considered 
as a unique individual: education must encourage, within the common core, 
the diversity of individual paths.

Community-wide solutions

Owing to their concern about education, people expect more from the State, 

call for the globalization of content or to home schooling. In many cases they express 
their distress and confusion by turning to “communities” whose main feature is that 
they are distinct from the general public in that they bring together families which 
share a common religion, origin, language, ethnicity or way of life. Some communities 
have been formed by history, as in French-speaking Belgium, for instance, or in the 
Netherlands, and are relatively stable and habitually involved in education, others, 
such as the community of families that choose a particular type of school for their 
children on no other grounds than the likelihood of better treatment, are less clearly 
defi ned: in post-communist Hungary there are those who actually want the State 
to disengage itself from education, to “liberalize” the system entirely; the exercise 
of responsibility for education in the absence of pre-existing communities would 
thus become a matter for each “customer base” consisting of the users of a particular 
school.

Th

  ere are both advantages and limitations to such solutions.

•  In many cases, families are not such strangers to the school under these 

arrangements; they take an interest in it and their voice is heard; schools 
organized in this way are likely to “talk to” their pupils more easily.

• Th

  e main danger, though, is that such a mode of functioning only involves 

one part of the population, while other parts cannot always fi t into the 
“community” structure. Now that world trends are leading to growing 
individualism, it may be paradoxical to think that people can identify with 
communities, except in an artifi cial way.

• Th

  e biggest risk arises, of course, from the fact that educational content in 

such an arrangement relates to a closed society, the law of the clan, and issues 
by defi nition will not be addressed in terms of citizenship: if the community 
in question cultivates a high awareness of the needs of society as a whole, then 
such educational content may be salutary; but nothing guarantees that it will 
be the case if a community decides to cut itself off  through sectarianism, 
intolerance or general unawareness. It is a dangerous means of avoiding 
debate on the content required for all: people individually withdraw into 
themselves, education is impoverished by intellectual and cultural inbreeding, 

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and society runs the risk of being able to deal with diff erences only through 
confl ict.

“Adapting” content to “local requirements” – from the region to the 

school

Owing to the concern that content should be “close” to the people for whom 

it is intended, solutions have been sought by maintaining, when implementing 
nationally determined content, for example, a “local adaptation” element, but in 
a public rather than a community framework: France and Argentina have both 
conducted experiments along these lines, with rather little success in general, for 
once initial enthusiasm has died down, local offi

  cials do not always succeed in giving 

direction to the adaptation of content. Th

  ings are diff erent, of course, when such 

developments coincide with emergent or resurgent expressions of national feeling, as 
in Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain, for instance.

Th

  e important question is not so much whether historical or mathematical 

content can be “adapted” to a particular “region”, but to think about how to leave 
room for action by individual schools entailing a high level of responsibility for 
educational content.

If decentralization is necessary, is the school not the appropriate level?

On this point systems which hold schools responsible for fi ne-tuning  a 

curriculum that has been broadly laid down in external directives may be distinguished 
from those in which individual schools have no curriculum-related responsibilities 
at all because content is determined in detail elsewhere. Th

  e latter generally reduces 

and adversely aff ects learning outcomes.

Content with multiple references

The school and the image of “the other”: a vital concern

Th

  e geography of schooling is therefore tentative. Th

  ose in charge cannot wait 

for human geography to become “tidier”, for decisions must be taken on solutions to 
the above issues concerning educational content. It may, however, be concluded that 
while the idea of “worldwide” content does not seem the right choice at this stage, it 
is at least a known fact that the specifi cation of content at any given geographical level 
(the State, the community, an entire continent, etc.) entails the risk of “excluding”, 
even unintentionally, those pupils who do not belong at that level, or have not 
belonged there for long enough. 

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A set of complex, interlocking references

Th

  e certainty is that there is no point to endless debate on which geographical 

benchmark, from the family to the whole world, ought to be chosen as the reference for 
pupils. Th

  e point, albeit not new 

in itself, is to be considered in a 
new light given the proportions 
of the population that are now 
concerned in these times of 
geographical disarray: people’s 
identities consist of increasingly 
complex combinations, often 
with tension between them, of 
multiple identities.

Th

 e young Punjabi who 

goes to school in Glasgow 
will have a Scottish identity, a 
Punjabi identity, and will feel 
Indian, but outside the United 
Kingdom will be a Briton 
fi rst and foremost. A young 
Berber in a Marseille school is 
concomitantly Berber, Muslim, 
Algerian, Arab (in others’ eyes), French, Mediterranean, European – and a Marseille 
Olympique fan. Th

 ese situations, previously the exception, have now become 

the norm. Is it not pointless to discuss endlessly which of these identities should 
structurally determine the content of school education, when the real issue is how 
education can help pupils to cope with complexity and combine diff erent identities 
together? It can do so by providing the necessary knowledge and references.

Step by step towards universality

Th

  is study does not point to a single solution to the question of overlapping 

educational authorities, but it points to the need for a critical approach to the 
advantages and limitations of each authority. While solutions may not yet be 
applicable worldwide, the questions addressed to content designers, whether at 
national, community or school level, must be universal.

Promotion of “subsidiary” sovereignty

It would be worthwhile for each level at which content is determined to consider 

in a resourceful and informed manner the question of whether a particular type of 

Some disturbing questions

How much room is made for foreign or 
diff erent cultures in general, by comparison 
with the standard culture?

How much room is made for the culture of the 
foreign children actually attending the school?

How much room is there for cultures which 
are not those of the dominant group(s)?

How much room is there for the poor?

How much room is there for religious beliefs 
or philosophical views other than those of the 
dominant groups?

Disturbing questions for nearly every system; 
but it is well worth being open to disturbance!

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REARRANGING THE DELIVERY OF ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE

content should be determined at its level or whether it would be advantageous to 
take as a reference a slightly broader geographical level without any loss of wealth.

In determining the content of history education in Bavaria, should decisions be 

taken at the Bavaria Land level or would a broader, more comprehensive view with a 
richer content of human experience not be achieved if it were determined in Berlin? 
Or perhaps it is risky to lay too much stress on German history and disparage other 
inputs. In Brussels, then? It does not yet have the competence to do so, and there is 
also the risk that content would then be tilted towards European references that are 
more mythical than historical. Conversely, while a number of European countries are 
ready to think about a shared history syllabus, that is certainly an interesting prospect, 
as borne out by the recent French/German history textbook experiment. Similarly in 
the Balkans the Council of Europe’s initiative concerning a joint history curriculum 
for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia is slowly 
gaining ground.

Th

  e idea, then, would be to achieve a sort of “inverted subsidiarity”: instead of 

specifying content at the State level – with a few exceptions, diffi

  cult to justify and 

implement, of content designed on a broader geographical scale – each authority 
responsible would have to produce suffi

  cient justifi cation, at least to itself, whenever 

it chose to act otherwise and to use its own rather than the common content.

Promotion of inclusive rather than exclusive knowledge

Th

  e important thing at this stage is perhaps not so much that content should 

be determined at a diff erent geographical level (as noted above, every level has its 
particular interests and limitations), but rather that offi

  cials should become aware 

of the limitations of the current method so that they may redress its adverse eff ects. 
For instance, the UNESCO-led development of international, interregional and 
intercommunal comparison of content is important and forms part of strategies to 
understand the Other and oneself that everyone needs in this context.

Education authorities may thus eff ectively assist communities in ending the 

isolation that often restricts educational content and in determining on an ongoing 
basis whether the knowledge taught is indeed inclusive knowledge whenever they 
can avoid exclusive knowledge.

17

17  

Jean-Louis Derouet, 

Les politiques des savoirs, réfl exions croisées, in Franco-American Conversations on 

Education Research III, INRP/CPRE, Lyon, 23-27 May 2005, unpublished.

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61

5

 EDUCATION 

POLICY: 
QUESTIONS ON 
THE GENERAL 
STRUCTURE OF 
CONTENT

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

Content within general education policy

The concept of an “education system”

It can be too easy, by talk of “the school system”, to give the impression that the 

schools on off er to the people of a given area form a set of components designed to 
work together as a coherent whole. Th

  is is seldom the real position, partly because 

in many regions there is more than one school organization belonging to more than 
one authority (national or local government, religious bodies, incorporated private 
interests, etc.), but above all because only very rarely have all the functions which go 
to make up “education” been conceived as a whole, or designed on one occasion with 
one clear logical vision that embraces every level. In many cases there is only a set of 
items which “make up a system”, or in other words work out their own combination 
without any organizing authority to impose consistency, which, in order to do so, 
have adapted, modifi ed and sometimes even perverted their own vocations: these 
“pseudosystems” are in fact the commonest condition for educational structures. 

So far as content is concerned, the problem is that if it is designed without being 

coordinated with certain other functions, then education policies will assuredly fail. 
Policy-makers have many decisions to take because an entire education policy is a 
complex thing; and it is no part of the present work to prescribe what the very fi rst 
decisions should be, the ones which are to order the chain of decision-making: here 
everything must depend on place and circumstances, which are infi nitely variable. 
For instance, decisions to open up access to secondary education, or to put off  subject 
specialization until the higher secondary level, are truly “prior” policy decisions, for 
social, political and fi nancial reasons: such decisions are understandably made before 
the authorities turn to the question of content, and therefore have no place in the 
present discussion. 

Upstream and related decisions 

In considering the ways in which education policy and content policy interact, 

the distinctions below must be drawn.

• Th

 ere are situations where the authorities take general education policy 

decisions without considering content, that is, without taking account of 
the fact that education policy decisions must immediately be followed by the 
question of what is to be taught within the new framework. Th

 e question 

indeed is whether it would not be preferable for a community to decide 
what it wants its members’ common knowledge, skills and values to be 

before 

structural educational policy decisions are made.

18

 At the very least decisions 

18  

Th

  e way in which international institutions such as the Council of Europe, UNESCO, OECD or, to a 

lesser extent, the European Union make recommendations to national governments on issues concerning 
values, content or skills to be taught whatever the countries’ chosen education structure or policy decisions 
may not be regarded as heralding in or as a move towards the organization of systems by content.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

about content which the authorities have recognized as strategic ought not 
to be at variance with general policy. 

• Th

  ere are situations where policies on content are not necessarily at variance 

with general education policy decisions, but are not supported by other 
decisions on related matters which are necessary if the policies on content 
are not to fail and cause the general education policy to fail as well. Th

 ese 

may include policies on the training of teachers and administrators, on the 
development of materials and education resources and on pupil assessment.

Should content be universal or diversifi ed?

One general education policy issue specifi c to secondary education is, of course, 

that of curriculum diversifi cation.

•  Systems can readily be categorized according to the age at which pupils are 

separated into diff erent subject streams – earlier, as in the school systems 
based on the German tradition, or later, as in those of Scandinavia.

•  Another distinction is between those systems which at the specialization stage 

allow pupils to choose among many diff erent subjects, in any combination 
(the English A-level course is a typical example), and those in which pupils 
specialize in one of several predetermined routes, as in the countries which 
hold 

baccalauréat examinations.

Th

  ese issues are in which both structure and content are relevant. If they are 

addressed in terms of content, two other problems emerge: fi rstly, if diff erentiated 
streams are introduced at a particular point, does it matter what content is selected 
for teaching before diff erentiation occurs? Secondly, when specialization occurs, is it 
desirable to off er a particularly wide choice?

Determination of common knowledge and skills

It has been thought, in various societies and at diff erent times, that a common 

core of subjects could be taught only to a cohort of children learning the rudiments 
of education in primary schools. Th

  e idea has gradually been accepted, however, that 

the aims of general welfare, economic growth and personal fulfi lment require basic 
education for all beyond primary education. Educational policy has however been 
very hesitant in deciding whether secondary education for all entailed, even at its 
earliest stage, the provision of the same content for all.

Some systems, as mentioned above, have decided on an early choice among 

diff erent study paths (as early as the age of 10), but even for those which have opted 
for a common core syllabus, in the lower secondary at least, the problem has not, 
however, been solved. Th

 e question is whether the content of lower secondary 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

education should be determined with a view to the requirements of future upper 
secondary education, the risk being that the prerequisites applied will be those of 
the most elitist stream, or whether “middle schools”, as they are known in Italy, for 
instance, should provide genuinely secondary education content for all, whatever 
their future educational choices.

19

 

Th

  e universal provision of even lower secondary education without explicitly 

raising the question of common content for all would seem to be a misguided 
educational policy and a paradigm factor of academic failure. Th

  e next two chapters 

will discuss the possible content of such a common education core: the point made 
here is that whatever the secondary education policy adopted, a common core 
syllabus is essential.

20

 Th

  is is so because:

•  it would be wrong to consider that society’s unifying task based on common 

values is over at the end of primary education, before the major questions 
that inevitably come with adolescence arise;

•  it would be wrong to consider that at the end of primary school there are 

no more areas of knowledge and skill that all pupils must develop, however 
varied their future walks of life;

•  it is precisely through the content that is not automatically identifi ed with 

the cognitive or cultural development of an elite that all the pupils in a 
cohort have an opportunity to feel more involved in learning and are thus 
more likely to succeed;

•  if the common core of secondary education is primarily concerned with 

access to this shared knowledge and skills, pupils will have fairer opportunities 
when they are required at the end of the common core to follow specialized 
courses.

Th

  e concept of teaching a common core of knowledge and skills to all secondary 

pupils performs an outstanding function as a reference for a secondary education 
system, and indeed for a society in that it indicates directly the baggage without which 
private occupational and civic life in a given society may be extremely diffi

  cult.

Th

  e dangers inherent in applying this idea must, however, be identifi ed, as set 

out below:

•  as mentioned above, the concept could lead to emphasis being placed on 

instrumental knowledge;

•  consequently the concept, meant to be a tool for rationalization and 

democracy, might be understood in some schools as covering knowledge and 
skills to be acquired as quickly as possible by all capable pupils, as the others 

19  

Th

  e question is easier to answer, of course, in the Scandinavian systems, where the fully-integrated (or 

“comprehensive”) option has been chosen for all of compulsory schooling.

20   Even if – to take the most extreme case – this common syllabus is actually taught in diff erent 

establishments.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

are not invited to venture beyond this minimal and no doubt uninspiring 
off ering;

•  even more seriously, the common core of knowledge and skills may even 

constitute not a genuine “common minimum” but a special menu for those 
who will go no further. Th

  is is particularly true of social or personal “life 

skills” or very general pre-vocational skills that may quite appropriately be 
included in the common core of knowledge: families whose children seem to 
be destined for higher education and have been academically committed and 
socially competitive from a very early age tend to consider that such content 
is not for their children, and this is a crucial point;

• the specifi cation of such common knowledge and skills may de facto exclude 

those who cannot acquire them as quickly or by the same age as others;

•  conversely, the concept may simply cover curricula previously taught to the 

elites, under another guise.

To conclude, a further two points may be made on the idea of a common core 

of knowledge and skills:

•  they must genuinely be knowledge and skills determined for and consistent 

with the goals of secondary education: a community that builds a good 
common core may conceivably use it not only for lower secondary but also 
for the whole of secondary education;

•  the more people realize that the social, cognitive, symbolic and cultural 

functions of secondary education are so important that they ought to account 
for most of the syllabus up to the age of 18, the more necessary it will be to 
off er, at least after a few years of secondary school, options “in addition” to 
the subjects taught in the common core. Th

  at issue will now be addressed.

What choice of content should pupils have?

Th

  e reasons for leaving secondary pupils a wide choice in what they have to 

learn are well known.

• Th

  e purpose of secondary education is not only to train pupils, but also to 

help them to choose from a variety of study and career opportunities and, 
consequently, to allow pupils either to try particular areas of knowledge and 
skill before making a decision, or to start learning in the fi eld chosen.

•  Can pupils be better motivated than by choosing, on the basis of their 

own personal tastes, talents or career ambitions, what they want to learn? 
Can educators trust their emerging independence of mind? in the “central 
schools” established in France during the Revolution, pupils were free to 
“pick” subjects, in view of the very liberal approach taken to education.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

Th

  e degrees of choice off ered by education systems in fact vary greatly: utterly 

free choice of subjects, choice among more or less narrowly defi ned “streams”, choice 
of optional subjects in addition to the common core, options in addition to the 
chosen “stream” and so on. Some options are “compulsory” (the pupil is obliged 
to choose an “option”) or “voluntary” (the pupil is free to chose no “option” at 
all); choices are sometimes free (pupils are free to follow their tastes and interests), 
sometimes restricted by the institution (which makes the choices instead of the 
pupil, in accordance with institutional capacity or, more usually, various selection 
criteria).

Th

  e problem is that the way to hell is paved with good intentions, and extreme 

caution is of the essence when choices are being broadened.

•  Are these choices indeed being made at a point at which indispensable 

common knowledge and skills have really been acquired, or will acquisition 
be deferred under a quasi-contractual plan between the pupil and the 
school?

•  Have these choices indeed been suffi

  ciently weighed up, and are they being 

made for good reasons? Some disciplines are often in vogue, which can 
ultimately produce bottlenecks or unemployment or “distinctive” eff ects 
which can make pupils choose “glamorous” options which serve only as a 
tacit sign of acceptance by a social elite or, conversely, a “resignation” eff ect: 
“choice” is sometimes used to designate consent in the absence of “guidance” 
and thus does not amount to any real motivation and is bound to lead in 
many cases to failure.

•  Has care been taken to ensure that the results of pupils’ choices, within a 

given school or among the schools in a given area, do not surreptitiously 
rank the various pupil groups into a value hierarchy and in the end destroy 
all eff orts to make secondary education fair? For in such a situation not only 
are the pupils in danger of being eff ectively “judged” prematurely without 
having time to make a proper choice, but also it is now recognized that 
the self-image of those initially in the lowest-rated groups, in the scale of 
academic and social values, is damaged as a result, which has adverse eff ects 
on the learning outcomes of those who are already the weakest, since they are 
isolated and stigmatized.

Another point to be taken into account is that giving pupils choice generally 

entails high educational organization cost, since it involves remunerating small 
groups whose demand for new options is likely to grow. Th

  ese are therefore rather 

“deluxe” solutions, and their benefi ts may be highly uncertain, depending on the 
situation.

All in all, it would seem that pupils can be off ered a choice of content, within 

fi nancially acceptable limits, provided every precaution is taken and all assessments 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

made to avoid the above-mentioned perverse eff ects that often undermine a system’s 
balance.

Th

  e more successful education systems are in dealing with the common core of 

knowledge and skills, the more transparently, fairly and properly study options will 
be chosen, and the more, accordingly, they will be able play their part in motivating, 
forming character, and mapping out school careers. 

Only avoidance of contradictions between the function of the common core 

and that of optional content will ensure the quality of education systems, and 
this should be achieved by clearly specifying what is expected of each of these two 
educational aspects.

Diversity in vocational training or convergence of content?

Th

  e issue of whether content should be standardized or diff erentiated is naturally 

even thornier when it comes to vocational training: some countries have opted in 
the past almost exclusively for “general” secondary education, leaving the provision 
of vocational training either to employers (this was long the predominant situation 
in Japan, for instance) or to specialist schools; conversely, many countries developed 
early vocational training systems, taking in pupils at a particular stage of secondary 
education. Policies vary greatly in other ways, from the German “sandwich” system, 
providing most vocational training in fi rms while pupils continue to attend a school 
or college part-time, to the system found in France and elsewhere, in which the 
schools provide vocational training, with relatively little recourse to employers, since 
they have their own workshops which “imitate” real work situations.

In almost every case, the start of vocational training mainly involves specializing 

in a trade or profession, while undiff erentiated learning known as “general education” 
is discontinued. A system of trade-oriented vocational training will therefore develop 
and off er a whole range of courses and qualifi cations – many hundreds of diff erent 
diplomas, for instance, in the case of France; and such a range is most attractive 
on the surface, for it suggests that ideally there will be a shoe to fi t every foot. Th

 is 

diversity of vocational training nevertheless raises a number of problems, quite apart 
from the problem of cost, which will not be considered here.

•  When they enter vocational training, pupils quite often do not feel that 

they are making the most of themselves by specializing, but rather that they 
are narrowing their horizons compared with other pupils who remain in 
the general stream: a vocational choice is good when properly weighted and 
desired, but bad if it is imposed or taken up by default – and that is often the 
case with early vocational training choices. 

•  Employment-geared training provided by education systems is increasingly 

a never-ending race: vocational skills change fast and are less and less tied to 
a specifi c trade or profession; the acquisition of highly specialized skills was 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

an indisputable advantage in the old days, but today only worsens exposure 
to the risk of unemployment.

•  Likewise, in countries with developing economies, the requirements of 

the world of work are mainly informal and cannot be encapsulated in the 
detailed specifi cation of vocational skills: as in the more developed countries, 
advanced skills are worthless if they are not built on a more widely applicable 
foundation.

Th

  e reality today is that in most situations the primary qualities required in a 

particular job often apply to a whole spectrum of professions and include problem-
solving skills, initiative, creativity in designing new procedures and activities, ability 
to fi nd necessary information, eff ective communication with others, use of modern 
communication techniques and teamwork. Th

  ese skills are strangely similar to those 

that general education aims to develop and, as recently recommended by UNESCO,

21

 

it could be suggested that, instead of depleting their resources by building specialized 
vocational training, which is likely to lag constantly behind technological progress 
or changes in the labour market, the system’s offi

  cials should aim at convergence 

between “general” education content and the acquisition of the kind of vocational 
skills mentioned above. Th

  at would of course mean opening up general education to 

these less than strictly academic skills.

Th

  e provision of common content to all pupils for the longest possible time 

seems therefore to be an aim which would improve fairness, through greater equality 
of opportunities, and quality for all.

The question of the “ultimate” standard

What should be “central”?

Th

  is question has been asked for as long as people have considered what should 

be taught. Th

  ere is no need, though, to describe its long history, but rather to look at 

the way it arises in most systems today. 

It is usual to contrast the following ideological outlines.

• Th

  e traditional position is that content itself is “central”, defi ned essentially 

in the form of bodies of knowledge: the function of schools is to transmit 
a requisite body of knowledge, arranged in disciplines and supported by 
closely related canonical exercises. Oddly enough, this conception which 
appears closely connected with content studied “for its own sake” is often 
mainly concerned in fact with cultivating the intellectual faculties. It rests on 

21  

UNESCO, Secondary Education Reform, 

Towards a Convergence of Knowledge Acquisition and Skills 

Development, UNESCO 2005.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

a particular view of the pupil as the master’s disciple who undergoes a course 
of learning and exercise with a view to mastering a fi eld of knowledge which 
will eventually rise to the level of independent thought. Success eventually 
brings independence. Academic failure is no rare occurrence, no doubt, since 
content is imposed and sometimes inaccessible, but it is not highly visible: 
one mounts higher or less high, but is never an utter failure. 

•  For some time, under the combined infl uence of certain trends in psychology 

and certain skill-teaching procedures in the world of work, there have been 
attempts to defi ne learning on the basis of “targets” set outside the school system. 
Th

  e main concern is for the usefulness of what is acquired, the aim being to meet 

the needs of society, or of the individual, or of the labour market. Syllabuses 
are designed to reach these targets, and content is less important for itself than 
as instrumental in reaching them. Now “targets” entail measurements to show 
how far they have been met in each individual situation: and such procedures 
are bound by their very nature to identify failing pupils, or even to manufacture 
failure. Whereas in the earlier model the idea was not to discuss content, which 
was a fi xed canon, the “targets” of this second model are not necessarily the same 
for all, and it is even possible to imagine pupils being given a say in the choice of 
their targets – which would imply a relative “independence”, in quite a diff erent 
sense from that of the fi rst model. 

• Th

  e third model is that of pupil-centred content, in the tradition that began 

with Rousseau; knowledge is not handed down by a master but is built up by the 
pupil with the teacher’s assistance: a grasp of method is more important than the 
actual knowledge or skill itself. Th

  e pupils’ independence (in yet another sense) 

is central. Weaker pupils can easily be put in a diffi

  cult position by this system, 

which requires personal talents and a desire to learn which not everyone has. 

Th

  e above overview shows that none of these three approaches is an ideal response: 

neither the quality of the resulting knowledge nor its fair distribution can be automatically 
assured in any of the models. In practical terms, it can only be regretted, therefore, that 
they have been allowed so often in history to indulge in full ideological war with each 
other, with talk of putting “knowledge at the centre” or “pupils at the centre” or “skills at 
the centre”, as with various occasionally intolerant or irreconcilable religions. 

In fact it seems these three models are all mistaken in regard to decision-making; in 

the case of the ill-defi ned subject of the supposedly pupil-centred model, the canonical 
content of the next model, or the readily measurable targets of the third, the relevant 
question may well be what constitutes the ultimate basis for a decision. It is a delusion to 
think that everything can come from the pupil when the task is to teach the pupil about 
the world; it is a mistake to believe in any canon of content with a truly transcendent 
legitimacy and it is folly to think that an eclectic collection of targets could ever amount 
to education. 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

Neither the pupil, nor any pre-existing body of knowledge, nor any collection 

of requirements can suffi

  ce as a basis on which the authorities may decide on content: 

the question must be put at a higher level, which will really consider rather than 
circumvent the issues. 

Targets, standards and pupil outcomes as criteria

While seeking valid criteria – or, as it were, justifi cation – for their content 

choices, education authorities often have another concern which interacts with that 
initial one: they need to work out criteria by which to assess “learning outcomes”. 

Questions of assessment (of pupils and of systems) will be dealt with in Chapter 

9; at this point, however, it would be as well to introduce a few concepts which are 
often used in education systems and which serve retroactively in the construction of 
criteria for content. 

• Th

  e idea of “targets” feature here also: there is a temptation for those concerned 

with assessment to think of content in terms of targets, since it simplifi es 
evaluation, which then concerns simple skills. Th

  e same temptation applies 

to those who organize teaching methods: for if there are clear targets and 
modes of assessment it will be easy to distribute relatively standardized tools 
to help teachers to succeed. 

Th

 e diffi

  culty is that over-emphasis on what can be evaluated ultimately leads 

to total neglect of what is less, or less easily, or less “scientifi cally”  amenable  to 
evaluation; also, if learning is presented to pupils as a set of targets merely placed side 
by side with no interconnections in terms of meaning, the overall result is likely to 
be highly demotivating.

•  Another approach is to prepare for assessment by making content specifi cation 

part of the logic of “standards”. Th

  ese standards may be concerned with 

knowledge, methods that are to be learned, or levels of performance, each 
of which can involve a specifi c body of relevant information: they are 
simple “statements” of what must be achieved, or what in French are called 
programmes d’enseignement, while in the United States the actual word used 
in this sense is “standard”. 

Now whereas in the case of “targets” evaluation is naturally defi ned in terms 

of criteria that match the targets, the forms of evaluation possible in the case of 
standards can vary from system to system: they may be defi ned beforehand, as in 
the case of the American “standards” or the “programmes” of those countries which 
use that technique; or they may be deduced from the observation of real pupils’ 
capabilities and possibilities;

22

 they may be absolute (though defi ned on the basis 

of experience, standards in England become absolute once used for preparing tests), 

22  

Th

  at is the sense of “standards” used in the United Kingdom, where there is talk of “raising the 

standard” if earlier results allow.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

or they may be determined by reference to an average,

23

 as they are for instance in 

French practice (in which a given pupil is assessed by comparison with the mean 
performance of the others, and a given school by comparison with the mean of other 
schools, etc.).

In both cases (targets and standards) there are external criteria, though, and 

a fairly mechanical conception of teaching and learning: pupils acquire knowledge 
(according to standards of content, or targets which are more skill-oriented); pupils 
have knowledge and are assessed on the knowledge they have learnt. 

Unfortunately this neat mechanism does not at all refl ect how real learning 

actually works and the real goals of secondary education. 

In regard to the kind of results that school activities aim to achieve, the notion 

of “outcome” seems useful. Th

  is notion is meant, according to Colin J. Marsh,

24

 

to denote a broad description of students’ capabilities which refl ect their long-
term learning and the meaning of such learning beyond the school. Th

 ose whose 

interest in the effi

  ciency of education systems is rather short term generally object 

to the attention that is drawn to education outcomes, that do not enter into their 
calculations; but the next chapter will try to show how secondary education can and 
absolutely must equip pupils to understand the point of what they learn, and to put 
their eff orts into applying it throughout their lives. 

It should be clearly understood that these limitations of pupil-centredness, 

or of a collection of targets, or of imposed content or standards, are in no way to 
be regarded as reasons for eliminating these notions: depending on the systems, 
they can indeed be useful. Th

  e point is rather that the secondary education which 

humanity needs cannot let itself be restricted by any reductionist straitjacket. 
Secondary education costs a great deal of taxpayers’ and families’ money: expected 
returns on this investment must be high, and should not be limited according to the 
assumptions of any particular ideology or to what is most readily quantifi able.

23  

A critical examination of such references to others’ average results will be found in the French general 
inspectorate’s report listed in the bibliography.

24  

Op. cit., see bibliography.

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Enlightenment through objectives

If humanity really believes that the knowledge, skills and values learnt by billions 

of young people in the coming decades are of truly strategic importance and will really 
aff ect the chances of a fairer, more peaceful and happier world, then it can surely agree 
that the basic principles underlying the choice of content that its education systems 
teach must be a matter of the 
very highest consideration. 

It is time for education 

authorities to give a central 
position – as they did in those 
times and places at which the 
great cultural exemplars sought 
answers to the world issues 
– not to mere training targets, 
but to the ultimate objectives 
assigned to education. 

Th

 ese objectives can and 

indeed must, if they are genuine, 
vary from one community to 
another, but the important 
thing is that they should exist to 
provide landmarks of principle 
by which to guide decisions about education, all the way down to the most practical 
level. 

Every community of human beings constantly selects from among the various 

value systems in the world those by which it wishes to live. Th

  e relative weight it 

wishes to give to the value of “performance”, for instance, as it is advocated by the 
organizers of production, or to the value of “competition” praised by the marketeers, 
or the “virtue” canvassed by moralists, the “holiness” by which the religious set such 
great store, the “creativity” held up by the world of art and culture as an example, 
and the concept of “the general interest” which is supposed to fl ourish in civic life 
– and there are others. 

Th

  e present question is whether, when a community chooses the content of its 

secondary education, it submits that choice entirely to its system of values or whether 
content is relatively autonomous and has its own value system. Th

  e following two 

ideas might assist in tackling this question. 

•  First, every community needs at least to ask itself the question “Do we or 

do we not agree that there may be certain meta-values that might, like the 
keystone of an arch, be set above our proposed secondary education?”. One 
might then think of projects such as cultivating the repulsion of anything 
that is inhuman, or fostering constructive eff orts to develop happiness, or an 

Justifi cations for secondary education

What is the objective of this “service” which is 
provided during seven or eight years of every 
young person’s life? On this point, it is vital to 
avoid:

•  the facile solution: avoiding controversy by 

drawing up a “list” of content that makes 
no reference to any explicit values;

•  referring to values that too readily claim 

universality, when they are in fact just the 
product of one civilization out of the many 
that constitute humanity and belong to 
particular economic, ideological or religious 
groupings.

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interest in reciprocal communication, or the courage to do one’s duty both 
private and public, or a taste for truth and self-awareness in relation to others, 
especially historical self-awareness. Certainly if the community establishes 
one or another of these projects as an educational objective it will fi nd its 
subsequent path smoother. It is also very possible that the community will 
not recognize any such values, or will not regard them as suffi

  ciently practical 

to serve as guides for building its future. 

•  Second, it might be better in that case to say more pragmatically that if 

the community is to spend money on building up secondary education 
together, it is entitled to require that the pupils enrolled receive baggage – a 
set of accomplishments and tools – that lasts. For the young people who 
benefi t from it, as for the society which funds it, secondary education has a 
cost in terms of suspending the work of production, consumption and the 
satisfaction of wants. Might the objective not be to obtain some return on 
these investments? 

It is this way of thinking which is central, and must be the fi rst question: what 

lasting preparation can be found for the young, that will justify the individual and 
collective sacrifi ce that secondary education represents? After all, if the objective is 
merely to give the young the knowledge and skills they need until the end of the 
year, to meet their momentary needs, then there is no need to invest in secondary 
education; the objective, on the contrary, is to equip them for life, through all of those 
vital lessons learnt after infancy. Infancy has been a time for learning instrumental 
lessons and also those things learned at one’s mother’s knee: language, religion 
perhaps, daily habits and, most importantly of all, emotions. Th

  e question that needs 

to be asked is “What should the rest of the equipment be?”. One thing is known: 
the extension of “education for life” to the whole of humankind has now helped to 
change the situation. 

Only a clear vision of an overarching project for education will allow eff ective 

thinking about the educational mandate of the various parts of this whole, and 
the various constructions needed within secondary education, whether in terms of 
capability or knowledge objectives, or of “disciplines”. 

The making of the curriculum 

“Curriculum”, this anglicized Latin word, has astonishingly featured prominently 

in discussions of teaching content. It originally denoted the “path” which each pupil 
followed, quite individually at schools which did not exactly defi ne “standards”, the 
only goal being success in the examinations organized by independent centres with 
which British schools freely decided to be associated. It took on a rather paradoxical 
aspect when the idea of a “National Curriculum” emerged in the United Kingdom in 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ON THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF CONTENT

1987, but it has begun to be used in a wide variety of education contexts to designate 
something that seems to have become indispensable. 

Mastering content policy

Th

  e word has been defi ned in many ways. Shapour Rassekh’s defi nition  is 

used here because of its all-inclusive character: the curriculum is “the whole of what 
manifests itself in the course of the education process: the purposes, objectives, 
learning activities, learning outcomes, human and material resources, evaluation 
procedures, opportunities for change and innovation, the classroom practices and 
school culture”. 

It is important to move from a conception of education policy in which content 

is rather an “afterthought” to one in which it is the basis for many policy elements. 
Decisions on content would become part of an admittedly complex structure properly 
organized in a hierarchy based on real objectives. Th

  e “curriculum” would involve 

pupils’ actual experience throughout their school life and all the courses that they 
are required to follow. Th

  ere would thus be no more patchwork, mazes or ill-defi ned 

accumulation of material, but a well-ordered whole, as described shortly. 

The importance of clarity in content choices 

Th

  ere are two consequences when content is designed as a well-ordered whole. 

•  Once it is recognized that content is strategically important if the school’s 

function is to be properly defi ned, the “curriculum” will no longer be some 
magical standard of reference whose origins are a mystery to everyone, but 
on the contrary a matter of constant public record, debate and justifi cation, 
and all stakeholders will be in a position to know what choices have been 
made by decision-makers and – even more important – the reasons behind 
those choices. Cecilia Braslavsky

25

 defi ned the “rich” curriculum as one 

which refers not only to what has been taught, but also to the purpose for 
which it has been taught, the moment when it was taught, the context, and 
the persons taught.

•  Since there is no longer any “magic” in educational content, stakeholders can 

appropriate it and adapt it to their particular teaching situation, group and 
pupils’ pace of learning. Th

  is is a great advantage to those countries that use 

the concept, as compared with those which have a rigid conception, handed 
down from on high, of “teaching programmes” that have been described 
as a garden in the French style: the curriculum off ers material that can be 
reworked or negotiated locally, providing opportunities for stakeholders to 
appreciate and appropriate it. Fears of a rigidity raised in the earlier discussion 
on a common core of knowledge and skills may reassuringly be dispelled 
here: the clearer the objectives of the whole and the educational tasks of 

25  

Op. cit., see bibliography.

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the parts, the better the professionals can play their educational role for the 
benefi t of their pupils. 

Background curricula 

However clearly and universally the matter is presented using this conception 

of the curriculum, though, there will not really be any benefi cial eff ect if other types 
of “curriculum” – openly avowed or tacitly assumed – are allowed to diminish the 
scope of the curriculum adopted by the education authorities. 

•  It has long been established, of course, that there are discrepancies between 

the “offi

  cially prescribed”, or sometimes “self-prescribed” curriculum and the 

curriculum eff ectively taught, or between the curriculum assessed and the 
curriculum assimilated by the pupils. Such diff erences, sometimes inevitable 
(it is often impossible, for instance, to evaluate the entire curriculum), 
must constantly be measured and clearly acknowledged at the level of 
the individual, the institution and the education system as a whole; plans 
must be drawn up in an attempt to minimize them, and those eff orts must 
themselves be evaluated.

•  More intractable are what are known as “informal” or “hidden” curricula, 

highlighted by Ashok Gangouly and others. Th

 ey constitute everything 

about education that is never explicitly stated, practices taught outside 
the classroom (the institution’s “life”) and non-curriculum knowledge or 
abilities that pupils are implicitly expected to master; but they constitute 
unfair standards because it is not hard to see which pupils will acquire 
such content because of their social background. Th

  is is another case of 

curriculum management by default, in which performance will be dragged 
down in those schools with a socially underprivileged intake. Such curricula 
are also parasitic, illegal, and more highly valued by some families than 
the offi

  cial school curriculum; they arise from certain signals of approval 

by prestigious institutions – in university selection procedures, for instance 
– leading to a proliferation of private tutoring or after-school centres. Th

 ese 

parasitic curricula naturally raise widespread education policy problems in 
many countries; but the solution to those problems does not lie in issues of 
content – or not entirely.

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6

 EDUCATION 

POLICY: 
QUESTIONS 
ABOUT THE 
MEANING OF 
CONTENT

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

Th

  e idea of baggage that lasts immediately raises many questions. Th

 e fi rst 

concerns the identity of those who are to be so “equipped” and the second relates to 
the policy implications of the idea.

•  Who is to be “equipped”? Here again the question is only more important, not 

less, because its answers are bound to vary from community to community 
and from one civilization to another: if there is a defi nition of what it is 
to be “human”, as for instance in those civilizations which are connected 
with a religious culture (an “anthropology”, so to speak), then it will in one 
sense be easier to know what the pupil is meant to be moulded to; but if 
the ideological context is that of “modernity”, which has spread through 
and dominated Western cultures since the Renaissance and has provided 
the essential specifi cations of their secondary education, then there will no 
longer be any idea of the proper condition for being human apart from that 
of freedom, nor will there any longer be a “general anthropology” to call on: 
it will thus be harder to determine content in order to train and equip the 
individual. 

•  Nevertheless, it can be generally agreed that such baggage ought to equip 

people “for life”, meaning that one way or another it should entail learning 
“about life” as its central issue; also, that this lasting preparation should be 
appropriate to the young of a species which conducts its dealings with the 
world in a multifarious combination of ways, including not only scientifi c 
knowledge but also a number of codes that regulate human relationships, 
beliefs and cultural or religious standards which may or may not claim 
universal validity. 

Th

  e conclusion to be drawn from these considerations is that it is the task of 

secondary education to “equip” its pupils in a variety of ways: “knowledge”, both 
scientifi c knowledge and knowledge of the proper codes and of other people, seems 
indispensable, but so are “life skills” – because 

living is ultimately what is at stake.

Entering the world of human knowledge 

Every education system has a wide area from which to choose its secondary 

education content but it is worth considering whether that area is infi nite, or whether 
education authorities are constrained by the fact that some content belongs to the 
secondary education level while other content does not. 

It is perhaps not the content itself which can be classifi ed thus, but rather the 

way pupil and content interrelate, which, implicitly or explicitly, informs the choice 
of content. 

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Since content itself is complex, this 

relationship must be complex too; yet 
it seems that there are some common 
features in what is taught that could 
defi ne secondary content: “knowledge” 
of various kinds does indeed play an 
essential part in what secondary pupils are 
supposed to learn, but that knowledge is 
associated with values – and indeed itself 
embodies values. 

The existence of a realm of 

objective knowledge

Secondary education, unlike 

primary education or vocational training, 
starts from the proposition that there 
is such a thing as objective knowledge 
which describes a real and observable 
world outside. Th

  e infant’s world is one 

in which the primary needs are for protection and reassurance, since human young 
are born comparatively immature; the world of secondary-school knowledge, on the 
other hand, is no longer a motherly one in which words matter more than things: 
from this point on, that particular form of enchantment is lost. 

Th

  e supreme model of knowledge about the world is, of course, scientifi c 

knowledge: its hallmark is the relationship with the world built by reason and it 
breaks with the “spontaneous” world of childhood. Bachelard considered that break 
to be foundational for one’s personality: “When fi rst introduced to scientifi c culture, 
the mind is not young; it is indeed very old, as old as its prejudices. To gain access 
to science is ... to accept a sudden transformation, one that necessarily contradicts 
the past”. No secondary education may conceivably fail to include the idea that 
knowledge is discontinuity, non-automatic, and of value to a human being not only 
because of the information it conveys, but also because of the transformation it 
brings. Th

  e knowledge and value interact from the outset. 

Another closely related idea is that knowledge contains information about things 

which is worth more than the pre-existing lack of knowledge. Knowledge is enthroned 
as such at a particular moment: in this respect, the relationship to knowledge which 
consists in surfi ng networks such as the Internet on which everything is of equal 
worth, even with assistance from a secondary school teacher who would be only a 
companion, not an arbiter, is clearly quite foreign to the spirit of secondary education. 
Nor is that education something only of a particular moment: the basic premise of 
secondary education is that there is such a construction as “human knowledge”, which 
has grown historically to its present state and is constantly reviewed, reorganized and 

Connections between 

branches 

of knowledge

Th

  ere is no immediate resemblance 

between “knowing” a law of physics 
(knowledge that claims scientifi c 
validity), “knowing” a language 
(mastering a code which does not 
primarily appeal to the faculties of 
reasoning) and “knowing” about the 
Second World War (which draws on 
reasoning but also requires the ability 
to interpret a situation). Is it then by 
convention and for mere convenience 
that secondary education is organized 
to bring together learning about these 
diff erent areas of knowledge?

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restructured – and that construction 
is also “positive”, in the sense that 
though there may be no such thing as 
human progress, there is indeed such 
a thing as scientifi c progress, which 
can bring progress to humanity. 
Th

  is “value” attached to knowledge 

is twofold: knowledge has value not 
only as awareness of information, 
but also as a possible basis for social 
agreement (a muffl

  ed echo of the 

scientists’ “agreement of minds”) on 
the value of such knowledge and its 
dissemination. 

Relative knowledge

At the same time, the idea is that such objective, effi

  cacious,  progressive 

knowledge is in no sense absolute and that it does not claim to be the complete or 
fi nal truth, but is rather relative to a particular historical and scientifi c context and 
will be valid only in that context. In particular, secondary education can, up to a 
point, accommodate a variety of forms of knowledge: it does not pretend to describe 
something absolute, and likewise it accepts that not all awareness belongs to the 
realm of knowledge, as some may, for instance, relate to religion or to experiences 
which cannot be objectively analysed. 

Such relativity in fact already applies to scientifi c knowledge in the strictest 

sense and naturally applies still more to the learning of codes, whether behavioural, 
linguistic or procedural: language teaching, for example, is typically the teaching of 
a contingent matter, but awareness of the contingency of the code taught makes it 
possible to overcome such contingency. 

Th

  e infant cannot take an objective view when learning its mother tongue; 

learning a language at secondary school brings with it awareness of the learning 
process itself, which transforms the process and is thought to give it greater value. 

Th

  is applies even more to forms of knowledge which belong to the culture of 

a human group such as a nation or a religious community. Secondary schools are 
expected to inculcate the values of the group in question; but it cannot take a self-
centred approach to those values. 

Personal knowledge and critical knowledge

However, the relationship which secondary education seeks to build between 

individual pupils and what they learn is more ambitious than so far acknowledged 
in the present work: for these objective elements of knowledge do not remain merely 

The realm of debate 

and tolerance

Secondary education must not be tribal; 
it has to recognize the existence of “the 
Other”; it tries to off er explanations and, 
wherever possible, a shared view of reality, 
a common culture for the human world, 
as in the model of scientifi c knowledge. If 
it cannot do this – which it often cannot 
given the wide range of subjects addressed 
– it must at least try to create opportunities 
for debate and to promote tolerance.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

“things known”, but combine to form the person’s knowledge or even personal 
culture; in other words, thus becoming unique in character. 

Th

  e content that is taught must be meaningful to that particular person; it 

must be coherent, and it must be understood rather than learnt by rote. In nearly all 
systems rote learning is unacceptable in secondary schools. 

Th

  e personalization of knowledge within a culture is a powerful feature, and 

the very construction of such a culture is personally meaningful: rather than going 
immediately into the labour market, rather than succumbing to the easy beliefs 
of prejudice or the law of the tribe, rather than giving in to every impulse, pupils 
are expected to pause, take the time to learn, overcome their impatient desire to 
dominate, and risk some freedom of thought in the face of group conformism. Such 
respite before action, so essential for a proper understanding of secondary education, 
is also a value in itself. 

Forms of knowledge are moreover described as including a meta-cognitive 

capability, an activity of self-observation, which consists not only of the power to 
deal critically with prejudice and one’s own previous comparative ignorance, but also 
a never-ending self-critical activity. 

Knowledge-based values 

Th

 is hypervaluation of human knowledge in secondary education in the 

various ways described above raises a potential danger, if it is thought collectively 
and individually advantageous that society’s members should be well-educated, since 
it might result in teaching that is too abstract, too far from the realities of life, leaving 
many pupils on the sidelines.

Although there might be a need to counterbalance some of these eff ects, there 

still seems no need to abandon this “virtuous” model of knowledge in its present state. 
Th

  e postulate that truth, beauty, justice and even virtue exist and can be brought 

closer together through knowledge and study, bearing in mind that they can, no 
doubt, never be fully defi ned nor be free of contradiction between their various 
parts, seems preferable at this stage both to universal scepticism and to intolerant 
absolutism. 

Capabilities worthy of humans 

Disagreements about “skills”?

Th

 e word “skill”, whose relationship with secondary education is by no 

means self-evident, must now be introduced. As in other languages, it can refer to 
professional or vocational know-how in relation to specialized practical matters: but 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

that is not what is meant here. It can also mean intellectual know-how: capability in 
marshalling evidence, in argument, in map-reading, problem-solving, and so on. It 
can also on occasion refer to a particular way of mastering some elementary building-
blocks of knowledge – as in the assessment, for instance, not pupils’ knowledge 
of the rule for forming plurals in English, but their ability to put that rule into 
practice properly, regularly and indeed automatically. It is also often connected with 
the various items of knowledge of “how things are done” which can be applied to the 
general business of living. 

It is not surprising, then, that so multifaceted a word should often be at the 

centre of misunderstandings: but it is equally unfortunate that these are thought to 
involve “only” disagreements about wording, when in fact there are basic ideological 
oppositions which deserve to be brought into the open. 

•  Some people object to the notion of “skill” because they think it must indicate 

a disposition to diminish general culture and replace it by professional or 
vocational training: such people do not appreciate that the word can be used 
in many senses.

•  Others protest when special attention is paid to the skills involved in 

intellectual work, pointing out that such capabilities cannot be exercised 
“for themselves”, independently of any application to a particular fi eld of 
knowledge: they are no doubt right – except that it is still necessary to make 
sure that they are in fact properly identifi ed, cultivated and appreciated in 
these various particular fi elds, not left to the luck of individual pupils, who 
often “learn how to work” only with help from their families or private 
tutoring.

• Th

  ere are also questions about the “micro-skills” which make up the bulk 

of all complex learning: it is true that for reasons of convenience (often 
fi nancial) certain policy authorities use tests which appear to reduce curricula 
to nothing more than such “micro-skills”; this often seems to be the case in 
the United States of America, for instance. Attempts to reduce secondary-
level content to “skills” of that kind are indeed to be condemned, as the 
discussion of assessment in Chapter 9 will show. 

• Th

  e long-standing and fundamental opposition of some education systems 

(not least those which come from the humanist and academic traditions) to 
the acquisition of anything resembling “life skills” seems a bad idea likewise: 
it represents an unjustifi able and universally harmful ranking of theoretical 
and practical studies, it goes against the whole object of opening up secondary 
schools, and it appears totally unsuited to the problems young people face in 
most parts of the world today. 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

Skills versus knowledge? 

Th

  e question whether content ought to be extended to include “skills” is an old 

one: much elitist education in the past was indeed oriented towards skills – thinking 
skills – and great stress was laid on material that was meant to “exercise” the mind, 
such as mathematics or ancient languages, as well as on capability in self-expression 
and indeed life skills more generally. 

At a certain time and for certain reasons (which would provide a worthwhile 

subject for another study) the content of secondary education in many countries 
became dangerously “intellectualized” and concentrated to an unbalanced extent 
on factual knowledge rather than on capabilities, with obvious bad eff ects: loss of 
meaning in such knowledge, which was no longer linked in any way to “utility”, 
and loss of pupil motivation, greater diffi

  culty for any “new clientele” in accessing 

knowledge that is too divorced from real life. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, for instance, and paradoxically just 

as republican government became at last securely established in France, the teaching 
of practical rhetoric, the art of public speaking, was discontinued. 

Another factor was involved: in many countries a poorly handled “democratic” 

extension of secondary education has been the root cause of pupils’ failure and of 
problems with falling levels of attainment: the feature common to the report “A 
Nation At Risk” (1984) in the United States of America, the politicians’ challenge 
to the English education system in the 1980s and the more recent challenge to 
the German system from the PISA results is a preoccupation with “falling levels of 
attainment” among pupils; indeed, education authorities in almost every country can 
be seen agonizing over falling levels of attainment, at one time or another. Th

  is is not 

the place to go into the matter thoroughly, and it is a complex one,

26

 as various studies 

have shown, and no one can deny that this is a serious cause for concern; but the 
agonizing itself has often had the consequence that education authorities, observing 
or imagining that secondary content was “in trouble”, have reacted in diff erent ways 
(organizing standardized short-answer or multiple-choice tests; setting “base levels”, 
etc.), all of which amount to a “fl ight to skills”, and often the most elementary ones, 
as if the question of content as a whole was too complex and occasioned too much 
controversy and tension to be handled in any other way. 

It is understandable that those who were quite properly attached to the more 

ambitious objectives of secondary education have not approved of these developments: 
some scholars in the United States of America and the United Kingdom have railed, 
for instance, against the reductionism of these moves, complaining that in many 
cases education was being shrunk to nothing more than “teaching for tests” while 
the cultural aspects of the curriculum, the essential training for tomorrow’s people, 
were being obliterated. 

26  

On the contrary, the expansion of secondary education has generally led to a rise in average attainment 
levels, though it is very hard to compare such levels objectively across generations.

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On a broader scale, European Union leaders, in their endeavour to steer the 

various education systems of member countries towards the “information society” or 
“knowledge society”, as decided in Lisbon in 2000, have generally (as Jean-Michel 
Leclercq

27

 has pointed out) done nothing more than draw up the outlines of a “skill 

society”, not a “knowledge society”. Th

  e European Commission claims that the key 

to pupil success is to move from information-based curricula to skill-based curricula. 
What is the right position in this debate? 

First of all, it may be noted that the issue is not always clearly expressed: there 

is in fact a range of positions among those who, between two extremes, advocate 
greater emphasis on skills. 

•  Some teachers to whom repetition and rote learning are anathema think that 

skills, because they bring out the interaction between knowing about reality 
and changing it, are more fi tting for that “education through understanding” 
which improves pupil motivation and learning.

• Others are confi dent that there is no longer any need to memorize 

information, since it can now be accessed through the Internet and with other 
aids whenever and wherever needed. Th

  ey think mainly of the economic 

benefi ts of “skills” to society, as connected with expectations for employment 
and production. 

It might be useful here to stress that some likely consequences of over-

concentration on skills are unacceptable and at the same time to propose an outline 
solution that could restore calm to the debate. 

•  Ideologies which advocate a smaller role for memory seem particularly 

dangerous: true, there is nothing to be said for rote learning as part of 
an approach to teaching that is not concerned fi rst and foremost with 
understanding; nevertheless the lasting preparation of pupils, which is the 
aim of secondary education, depends on cultivating a knowledge-oriented 
mind, which cannot possibly be achieved without intelligent calls on the 
faculty of memory. 

•  Likewise it would be as well to make sure that concentrating on skills does 

not mean abandoning knowledge and the opportunity to build a culture 
of the world in the pupil’s mind, nor elevating the status of low-level, 
easily assessed but poorly developed skills: the notion of “key skills”, for 
instance, as it appears in some documents, may be used in an ambitious 
project that explicitly includes knowledge (see the defi nition of the eight 
“key competencies” by the European Union’s Eurydice network), or it may 
on the other hand be more concerned simply with skills (one being how 
to “use” knowledge, as in the OECD’s defi nition of “key competencies”), 
without strictly involving the “acquisition” of the knowledge in question.

27  

J-M.  Leclercq,  in 

Le socle commun en Europe [A common basis in Europe], Conseil National des 

Programmes, Paris, 2005, unpublished.

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•  Most importantly of all, there has been some work involving very opportune 

criticism that such a dichotomy between knowledge and skills is really 
somewhat empty. As the philosopher Michel Fabre observes, can a skill really 
be imagined which does not involve knowing anything? Can any knowledge 
be imagined which could not claim at some point to embody a skill? As he 
says, real knowledge is always “knowing about”, meaning that one has the 
expertise to solve a problem. Th

  is is consistent with Perrenoud’s defi nition: 

“competence: the ability to act in an effi

  cacious manner in a defi ned type 

of situation, a capacity supported by, but not exclusively dependent on, 
knowledge.”

General intellectual capabilities 

Various national and international bodies have prepared lists of skills or 

“competencies”, and it is not always easy to fi nd one’s way around them all. Th

 e 

following can however be distinguished: 

•  basic literacy and numeracy skills: essentially regarded as not belonging to 

the secondary level; if taught there, such instrumental capabilities must be 
combined with cultural content;

28

•  “knowledge-using” skills; all acquisition of knowledge has to include the 

question of its application and its usefulness – personal, social, professional, 
etc.;

•  generic skills relating to intellectual work as a whole;

•  skills involved in the activities of people’s personal, professional or civic 

lives.

In the case of generic skills relating to intellectual work, such as “knowing how 

to marshal evidence”, “knowing how to learn”, “knowing how to use information 
and communication technology”, as well as all the more specialized and subject-
related skills (“knowing how to fi nd one’s way around a timeline”, “knowing how to 
read a map”, “knowing how to read texts composed for various cultural purposes”, 
“knowing how to use a microscope”, etc.), there are many pitfalls.

• Th

  ey may never be actually taught, but always assumed by secondary school 

teachers to have been “acquired already”: that is how it can happen that 
students come up to university not knowing how to take lecture notes or 
make notes when reading a book. A practical look needs to be taken at the 

28  

“If a school teaches reading without (or quite separately from) any teaching about the content of 
what the pupil reads, then it will continue to leave by the wayside all those pupils who are not already 
familiar with that content from home: the problem of illiteracy may be a matter of reading technique 
in some cases, but in many others it is one of having no notion of what the texts are referring to”: Jean 
Hebrard, internal discussion paper for the “Primary Education” group, National Education General 
Inspectorate, Paris, France, 2004.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

skills required for working in various fi elds, and a clear decision made about 
where they are to be taught (possibly by other institutions, on occasion).

• Th

  eir teaching may be so cut off  from that of other matters that they almost 

become new disciplines, complete with new bodies of knowledge and new 
abstractions: it does not seem a good idea, for instance, to set up separate 
lessons specially for learning ICT skills, since these can be learnt while 
learning other subjects.

• Th

  ey may be taught in a way that is too closely connected with a particular 

school subject, so that pupils never have an opportunity to realize that they 
have a usefulness of their own, outside the school studies which were the 
occasion for learning them. 

Th

  e importance of generic skills is evident: it is a good thing that they should 

be learnt, and it is salutary therefore to design an overall approach before the task of 
teaching them is assigned to the various teaching units (levels, subjects, etc.) and to 
monitor the approach carefully. 

Life skills 

Th

  e position of “life skills” – those required in the business of living itself – is 

quite diff erent. Secondary schools traditionally tend to do little about them, though 
systems vary here too: some have fi rmly shut the door on almost everything to do 
with practical living, such as “entrepreneurship”,

29

 the capacity to initiate, or the 

ability to organize and take responsibility for action. 

Th

  ree questions then arise: 

•  Ought secondary education to be extended to the acquisition of “life skills”, 

where it is not at present? 

•  How should “life skills” be defi ned? 

•  How can pupils best develop such skills? 

In answer to the fi rst question it needs to be made quite clear that 

learning 

for life is defi nitely the overall objective, and the very acquisition of knowledge and 
related skills is only of value when applied. 

On the second question, there are examples of short lists of “life skills” in 

the stated education objectives of some countries (Denmark, for instance, and 
Argentina), or in advice from international organizations such as UNESCO, the 
OECD or the European Union. Overall, three kinds of concern are to be found, 
their relative importance varying: personal life, requiring a set of skills amounting to 
“cultural capital”, civic life (“social capital”) and productive life (“human capital”).

29  

On the subject of entrepreneurship, see the joint UNESCO/ILO book 

Towards an Entrepreneurial 

Culture for the Twenty-fi rst Century, UNESCO, 2006.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

Th

  e skills required for acquir-

ing and applying this threefold 
“capital” are indeed multivalent: the 
acquisition of skills for action, for 
instance, is equally benefi cial in per-
sonal life, civic life or working life. 
Th

  e question therefore ought to be: 

“Which skills would it be useful to 
have and use in each of these three 
kinds of situation?”. 

It is trickier to know how to 

introduce these skills successfully 
into pupils’ actual school careers: 
since it more often entails a real 
revolution than merely adding new 
elements to the existing curriculum, 
there is no magic formula: ways must 
be sought to ensure that education 
as a whole can accommodate such 
changes of viewpoint. 

What knowledge for coaching which pupils? 

Boredom and motivation 

One question that is often asked about the content of education concerns its 

inability to hold pupils’ attention and motivate them suffi

  ciently. Th

  is question is in 

fact a challenge to all education systems to show how they can justify public support 
for education if it does not even succeed in interesting its pupils and instead only 
spreads boredom. 

Th

  is is a relatively new concern: boredom, it is well known, was by no means 

uncommon in the secondary schools of the past, but it did not have the social 
consequences that it does in today’s schools, where it often leads to dropping out 
of school in one way or another, and such dropping out is more damaging to the 
individual concerned than it used to be. For a long time, also, there were some great 
collective myths, either national ones or ideological ones such as the myth of progress, 
that often supported pupils’ learning and, somehow or other, their motivation. 

Nowadays all that has changed: paradoxically, just as each society’s schools 

are enrolling more and more pupils, they are fi nding it much harder to give them 
suffi

  cient motives to stay. High school certifi cates are increasingly devalued for 

Which life skills?

Th

  e OECD’s approach is an interesting 

one: it takes three main categories of 
skills: acting autonomously, using tools 
interactively (the “tools” include school 
learning) and functioning in socially 
heterogeneous groups (mutual discovery, 
cooperation and confl ict resolution). It 
seems that a combination of the three 
great life situations mentioned above with 
these three general human competencies 
yields coverage of the whole array of life 
skills listed in the various systems: 

•   managing one’s health; 
• teamwork; 
• organizing 

action; 

•  empathy for others; 
•  building adequate self-esteem, etc.

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

purposes of access to employment, and often school no longer matches any grand 
myth that might justify it in the pupils’ eyes. Society, for its part, has in many cases 
developed various ways of accessing information outside school, as well as certain 
forms of culture which set out to be particularly seductive: the world of the media is 
forever promising instant, eff ortless satisfaction of the desire for information – and 
forever artifi cially renewing that desire by means of various kinds of stimulus. 

Since school can promise neither social success nor instant satisfaction, it really 

needs to proclaim loud and clear that it is determined to convey its message to pupils 
by other means. 

•  Its task is not to give short-term answers to isolated needs, but to equip its 

pupils with lasting cultural, social and human capital.

•  It constantly justifi es its choice of what learning inputs off er by reference 

to that aim and shows how such learning fully refl ects the state of the real 
world.

•  It does not necessarily promote immediate motivation by using the culturally, 

socially or locally familiar, but tackles the great questions faced by humans 
everywhere.

•  It does not promise its pupils that all will be easy, but invites them to pause 

for a while even in the satisfaction of their needs, which calls for self-control 
in the discipline of studying. 

As a result, the issue of pupil motivation (which is of course an issue of content, 

though not of content alone) seems to demand the following three contributions, 
which need to be considered.

•  It is essential for educational content to be connected at all times with those 

parts of the real world which they illuminate: it is not good enough only to 
reject the unreal content that, in some of the formerly colonized countries for 
instance, seems to belong to another world; education must systematically 
involve the social customs that exist around the knowledge that is being 
taught. 

•  Content must also be constantly presented to the pupils as part of the story 

of human elaboration of knowledge: what were the needs or curiosities that 
this piece of knowledge was built up to satisfy? what is the history behind 
its development? Th

  e cultivation among the pupils of an epistemological 

view of what they know is a powerful but all-too-often neglected part 
of motivation, but it has been given pride of place by the Geneva-based 
international 

baccalauréat for many years.

•  Content should also avoid only giving pupils a passport to things that 

are already too close to them and to the limited geographical or social 
environment of their immediate surroundings: the motivation that secondary 
school needs to inspire should feed more and more on the pupils’ realization 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

that they need to manage a complex dialectic between knowledge which 
roots them in a micro-society and knowledge which tears them away from 
that micro-society. Likewise the idea should never be accepted that content 
should, for motivation’s sake, be based only on what the pupils ask about 
or ask for: pupils cannot ask for knowledge of which they know nothing; 
furthermore, such approaches have been shown to be highly inegalitarian, 
since socially and culturally underprivileged pupils are naturally liable to be 
poor at suggesting content. 

A question of diet 

Diet provides an analogy that can provoke worthwhile questions here. Firstly, 

education systems off er pupils many kinds of menu. 

•  Some, such as the A-level system in England, require pupils to follow a small 

number of disciplines chosen from a wide range: the idea here is not that 
these disciplines are fundamental ones (or pupils would not be given a choice 
whether to continue or drop them), but that it matters little in the end what 
knowledge they convey, the essential thing being that each should “train” the 
mind in the methods and habits of academic work – or alternatively quite 
the reverse, that they are an initial specialization with a view to later choices 
for higher education.

•  Other models prefer to off er pupils a little of everything, with a menu that 

is almost the same for all. Clearly there is a potential advantage in terms 
of general culture; but equally, the more disciplines off ered, the greater the 
danger that pupils may be forced to learn subjects that they do not like: this 
may perhaps be necessary, but the risk is that it could lessen motivation.

•  Another possibility is to off er pupils a choice of menus, each of which has 

been prepared beforehand to contain a little of everything but with its 
own particular mix of subjects in terms of timetable allocation and level 
of diffi

  culty, so that pupils once again have a real opportunity to choose in 

accordance with their tastes and talents: this is often the pattern in countries 
with the 

baccalauréat type of fi nal examination. 

None of these three formulas is best in principle, but each has drawbacks which 

can be minimized if they are recognized. In particular, the ready-made “options” 
formula often leads to a social ranking among options, with pernicious consequences: 
a vicious circle is set up, in which one option will develop a social cachet while 
another is held in little regard, so that the former is more sought after amid fi erce 
competition and attracts better pupils than the latter, which sinks further down the 
social scale. 

As these “options” generally tend to shape the choice of pupils’ further 

studies, one can appreciate the imbalances such a situation will produce in terms of 
professional training. 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

Dietetics also deprecates the accumulation of desserts – in this case, optional 

subjects that contribute nothing important to the pupils’ overall education, but only 
exist (depending on the system) to help “consumerist” accumulation strategies designed 
to win some marginal advantage, for instance in school certifi cate examinations. Th

 e 

teacher’s responsibility in such cases is to counsel against bulimia, and to show pupils 
just how far from perfect it is as a way of approaching knowledge. 

Quite apart from this question of the way teaching is arranged, there is another 

“diet” issue that constantly arises in secondary education: a tendency for the quantity 
of material taught or the standard required to drift unhealthily high or low. It is an 
important point, since it underlies many failure-prone situations in which pupils 
can fi nd themselves. Often the education authorities appear to have no grip on the 
phenomenon: if the quantity of content to be learned becomes infl ated, this produces 
a situation where pupils either fail or are “force-fed”. Th

  is is harmful in either case; 

if, on the other hand, educational content becomes poorer and the authorities fail 
to notice, then of course the education of all pupils will suff er as a result, quite apart 
from the lower motivational stimulus. 

Th

  ese are things that sometimes result from offi

  cial instructions about content, 

but perhaps more often from textbooks or teachers themselves. Th

  ey can be avoided 

by attending to three points already mentioned.

•  By really giving the issue of content its proper strategic importance and 

seeking to deal with it accordingly, education authorities will be obliged to 
be selective, instead of piling on unreasonable quantities of content as the 
years go by merely because it is easier to avoid choices than to make them. 

•  If it is established that content should always be linked to the mastery 

of identifi able skills, then, educational content can be streamlined by 
eliminating matter that relates to nothing at all and contributes neither 
factual information nor progress in skills; if what pupils are expected to have 
learnt by the end of each stage is identifi ed clearly and the required standard 
is indicated, with details of its status in each case (whether attainment of 
the standard is mandatory or only optional), this should provide suffi

  cient 

rigour to avoid deviation from the standard.

•  It should be possible, by insisting on a proper overview of curriculum 

content, to ensure that content is repeated at another stage (a frequent 
source of pupil overload and loss of motivation) with care and only when it is 
indeed necessary for the pupil concerned, in view of the level of achievement 
required. It is well known that in order for pupils to learn continuously some 
things are taught in a “helix” pattern, each area being revisited at progressively 
higher levels of understanding and expertise; but care must be taken that the 
helix does not turn interminably round and round. 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

When the implementation of content is assessed there must be constant checks 

for this kind of drift (by looking carefully at pupils’ work and results, and by means 
of questionnaires for them and their teachers, etc.).

It is not enough to make sure that the menu off ers well-designed choices and 

avoids overload: the actual dishes on off er must be mutually compatible, and suitable 
for digestion together. Here again there is a great deal to be done to ensure that 
teaching is properly consistent overall, both “horizontally” (as between the various 
things taught at a given stage) and “vertically” (as between diff erent stages of the 
school career). “Consistent” does not, of course, mean “uniform”; but it does mean 
that whenever diff erences of approach in diff erent subjects or at diff erent  stages 
are needed these must, since they are liable to cause diffi

  culties for the pupils, be 

deliberate, explicit, and explained in recognizably similar terms on either side of the 
divide. 

• Th

  ere may, for instance, be breaks in consistency due to diff erent terminology 

or tools: if a word is used in a diff erent sense, or an intellectual or pedagogic 
practice has a diff erent function in two or more teaching situations, then 
there must be teaching to explain the diff erence itself; it is not the pupil’s 
task to discover it unaided, or to hunt for consistency where in reality there 
is none. 

•  Pupils can also face inconsistency in overlapping or repetitious teaching; this 

must be driven out or, if it cannot, made explicit so that pupils are not given 
the impression that they are being served the same thing again and again. 

• Th

  ere are also diff erences among the various disciplines in the pace of learning, 

yet each knows little of the others and acts as if it was free to determine its 
pace unilaterally. For some disciplines it is better to teach methods before 
much content has been learnt, while others are quite the reverse; again, some 
disciplines fi nd great value, and others none, in a rapid overview of a whole 
area before going into it thoroughly; some disciplines feel a need to start by 
justifying themselves in pupils’ eyes as proper subjects for study, while others 
do not. Such discrepancies are liable to have a disastrous eff ect on learning, 
whatever the choices made. 

•  If the standard viewpoint within a particular discipline changes during a 

pupil’s school career (in many countries the teaching of History evinces such 
a discontinuity between primary and secondary school, at which point tales 
of the nation’s origin and achievements give way to a wider, more critical 
perspective), then once again it is not the pupil’s responsibility to make sense 
of the confusion; it is the school’s job to indicate and explain the change in 
the subject’s frame of reference.

•  When one discipline is instrumental to another, as mathematics is to physics 

for example, that status ought also to be explained to the pupils, and handled 
with care. Have the particular mathematical tools needed for learning this 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

aspect of physics been properly taught beforehand? Have the pupils really 
assimilated them? Can they be applied directly in physics, or do they need 
revising/adapting? Th

 ese are just some of the questions that need to be 

asked. 

•  Consistency is just as necessary between sister disciplines, such as the 

teaching of two languages: if the way one foreign or local language is taught 
emphasizes particular aspects of content (primarily written or primarily 
oral communication, much visiting of the language’s cultural monuments, 
or ways of learning a language that mainly involve mastering it as a tool 
for more restricted communication purposes, etc.), then the pupils must be 
off ered the necessary justifi cations for this.

Th

  e best way by far of ensuring that these inconsistencies no longer have a 

foothold is to establish and cultivate a general attitude of system-wide openness to 
epistemology at every stage in the design and implementation of content. 

Constructing secondary education

Recasting disciplines 

It has been argued above that secondary education is probably better 

constructed around a framework of “disciplines”, for all that framework’s faults. Th

 at 

said, though, there is a considerable diff erence between “around a framework of 
disciplines” and “within the framework of the disciplines as they exist at present”. In 
particular, though this very chapter proposes that content should be developed on 
the basis of objectives and with a view to producing a well-equipped competence in 
coping with knowledge of all sorts, that is not by any means a recommendation that 
these disciplines should after all be reinstated without reform. Th

  e very reason for 

rejecting “disciplines” in the fi rst place was that the individual disciplines are often 
too self-assured on their home ground to be willing to consider questions about 
purpose and competence. 

In any case it is as well to bear in mind that at secondary-school level a discipline 

is no more than an introduction to method: the whole set of objectives and skill/
knowledge combinations aimed at is quite clearly not a discipline; nor, later on, 
are personal lives, careers or even scientifi c research “disciplines”! Mathematics is 
a tool, to be confi gured and made serviceable according to its applications. It is 
useful to demonstrate from the outset how the various secondary-school disciplines, 
at the start of the twenty-fi rst century, are not and should not be merely simplifi ed 
versions of academic knowledge: for that, guided by the requirements of research, is 
not (or is no longer) a body of knowledge designed for education and the training 
of educators; and consequently the transposition of knowledge from academia to 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

school involves, now more than ever, both 

selecting from the huge mass of knowledge 

and a real work of 

putting together, so as to move from the extreme specialization of 

academic research to schoolteaching that is consistent and inspiring and combines 
skills with factual knowledge in the service of general objectives. Th

  e task is in itself 

both an exercise in the particular body of knowledge concerned and at the same time 
one of educational philosophy. 

Th

  ere is however a preliminary task that often needs to be done to get those 

involved in each discipline (who have sometimes been shut away behind its borders 
for a long time) to realize to what extent it is a historical construct, produced within 
a particular context of knowledge, society and schooling which exists no longer, 
and to see how the content conceived in other circumstances is now perverted by 
its very practitioners. For each discipline’s combination of skills and knowledge to 
play its full part in an overall education project and for its educational mandate to 
be quite clear, it must be literally reformed: that is, must fi nd new boundaries and 
new justifi cations. 

Th

  is necessary recasting of disciplines must accordingly take account of the 

following questions (and probably others as well). 

•  What academic knowledge are they supposed to refer to? What university 

courses and publications contain this content? Is it material that the teacher 
needs to know, or material that actually needs to be taught to the pupils? 
(If a decision is not made on this, there is a danger of sliding towards over-
technical content which could be damaging to pupil outcomes.) 

•  What kind of relationship to its body of knowledge is the discipline to 

have, and why? How can the relationships between skills and their related 
knowledge be mapped? 

•  What life skills tend to be supported by teaching this discipline, and what 

multivalent mental capabilities likewise? What kind of educational mandate 
could be drawn up for the discipline on that basis? 

•  What kinds of link will the reformed discipline have with other disciplines? 

Will these links be explicit? What infl uence will they have on the discipline 
itself? 

•  How will issues concerning pupil motivation arise within the framework 

of the reformed discipline? What will the main questions put to education 
advisers be? How will the teaching of the reformed discipline diff er from 
what it used to be? 

All in all, it is possible to see how, by a back-and-forth process that leads from 

the discipline’s initial expectations to its fi nal integration as part of an overall project 
defi ned in terms of objectives and designed to achieve a real solidarity between 
knowledge and skills (including life skills), disciplines will eventually be redefi ned: 

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EDUCATION POLICY: QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MEANING OF CONTENT

not by imposition, not “for all time”, but in the service of general education curricula 
informed by their real surroundings as a whole. 

Between and beyond disciplines 

In addition to recasting the disciplines, it is necessary to take precautions 

concerning the borders between one discipline and another, and their common 
boundary. 

•  Interdisciplinary approaches must not be regarded as optional extras, but 

as indispensable if each discipline’s educational mandate is to be properly 
discharged on the one hand, and, on the other, if the pupils are to be 
properly informed about what scientifi c knowledge is, since such knowledge 
is increasingly to be found across the dividing lines between disciplines.

• Th

  ese approaches could, wherever possible, extend as far as the “integration” 

of more or less neighbouring pairs of disciplines; pupils benefi t  when 
disciplines that seem very far apart – such as the natural and social sciences, or 
even science in general and the humanities – can be brought closer together, 
or at least have the diff erences in their terminologies, methods and objects 
made explicit. 

• Th

  ese approaches will often be more readily adopted if instead of theoretical 

explanations the pupils are faced with a need to do some particular work, 
create something, or carry out a technical project that lies at the intersection 
of two or more disciplines and consequently leads them to make the 
connections for themselves.

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95

7

 ENCOUNTERS 

WITH SOME 
REMARKABLE 
FIELDS OF 
KNOWLEDGE

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96

ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

Since this book is intended to equip education authorities for work on 

educational content generally, it would have been improper to devote it to any 
particular fi eld of knowledge. Th

  e time has come, though, to look at the main fi elds 

individually and see how the questions those authorities are going to encounter tend 
to arise there. 

First, some remarks that apply to all the observations which have been possible 

in many countries, though they do not, of course, necessarily give a full account of 
all today’s and tomorrow’s issues in these fi elds. First to be considered is the area of 
languages, then knowledge of public and civic aff airs, then knowledge of technology, 
the arts and fi nally science. 

Th

  ese observations all have the same aim, and are designed to help education 

authorities in the same way: to bring together, within each of the broad fi elds of 
knowledge and between them, those “opposites” which have been arbitrarily and 
wrongly separated by many factors in the history of educational content: theory and 
practice, knowing and doing, expertise and general knowledge, and so forth. 

Languages and human cultures 

Th

  ese are precisely the kinds of diffi

  culty that surround language teaching. 

Secondary schools may at any one time, depending on their local situation, be 
teaching the so-called “mother tongue”, foreign languages, ancient languages, offi

  cial 

languages, or local, national or regional languages – and possibly even others. 

Th

  is diversity shows the human importance of what is at stake in language 

learning in every country, but unless thought is given to the objectives of such 
learning as a whole there are liable to be diffi

  culties.

What exactly may be expected from 

the learning of a language? Both in the 
case of one’s own mother tongue, if that 
mother tongue is taught in secondary 
school, which is generally not the case 
in many regions of the world, and in 
that of languages learned after infancy, 
learning a language means learning to 
communicate (listen, speak, read and write) by means of specifi c  linguistic  tools; 
it also means experiencing at quite an early stage the fact that such learning always 
requires conscious attention to the way the tool – language – works (a French speaker 
learning English realizes, for instance, that the system of tenses cannot be translated 
directly between the two languages); one soon understands also that languages are 
used by people, and that learning a language inseparably entails discovering these 
people’s cultural value system. It almost looks like common sense: yet it must be 
admitted that the idea is far from being enshrined in all language teaching, and that 
it is often applied to varying degrees even within the same education system: is it, 

Learning a language – 

looking beyond oneself

Learning a language almost inevitably 
entails looking beyond oneself – one’s 
own culture – and opening up to other 
people and their authentic cultures.

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ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

for instance, always regarded as proper for secondary schools to teach oral expression 
in the pupils’ mother tongue, as well as in the offi

  cial language of teaching? Is equal 

cultural value assigned to the various languages that pupils use, in and outside school? 
Where there is no agreement on what it is to learn a language, no agreement that 
opens the way to the next stage (which is setting out reasonable learning objectives 
language by language), pupils are made to fail at school because they have not 
mastered the language even when it is their own; and they can be utterly at a loss 
when faced in secondary school with diff erent languages taught in a manner that 
reveals a lack of coherent thought.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of encouraging education authorities 

to think of all language teaching as belonging to the same family and aiming at the 
same objectives, though of course with diff erences of degree. Th

  is would enable them 

to avoid the damage done by allowing the teaching of this or that particular language 
to become isolated with all its own specifi c diffi

  culties.

•  For example, all languages are subjected to greater scientifi c scrutiny by the 

relevant science, that is, general linguistics: there is an urgent need for shared 
refl ection among all those involved in teaching the various languages in a 
given system, to see which of the tools of linguistics need to be chosen for 
secondary education. Where this matter is not clarifi ed, pupils are left in 
unnecessary disarray because individual language departments make their 
own choices as to whether or not to teach grammar formally, with greater 
or smaller contributions from linguistics; some drift towards an excessively 
scientifi c approach, as if the point of secondary school language teaching was 
to learn linguistics.

•  All languages have to deal with the existence of a body of literature: it is by no 

means always clear whether or not literature is supposed to be part of what 
is taught. Worst of all, it sometimes happens that, under the infl uence of 
doubts instilled by various currents of thought, the meaning of such works is 
no longer “taken seriously” but provides an excuse for studying the language 
no more than “formally”. It should be made clear that, on the contrary, the 
purpose of teaching a language is 

always the discovery of meaning; and that 

the teaching of the literature is part of the teaching of the language. 

Whatever the language – mother tongue, foreign, national language, and so on 

– this point merits constant and careful attention: a language is taught in secondary 
school to enable one to speak and understand the language. Furthermore, it is 
very important to make the most of language teaching as an opportunity for self-
expression by communities that have not always had such an opportunity before. 
Minority languages and immigrants’ languages must be given special attention and 
must not only be included in the education provision but be off ered to pupils who 
do not belong to the groups in question as well. Here again, thinking globally about 
the teaching of languages can make it easier to deal with the issue properly. 

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ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

Public knowledge and private beliefs 

Th

  e spectrum of available knowledge is increasingly complex for everyone: at 

one end there is of course the scientifi c knowledge acquired in school, and at the 
other the practical and personal knowledge learnt at the mother’s knee, but there is 
no clear delimitation of those forms of knowledge which it is the school’s duty to 
transmit. Scientifi c knowledge is naturally included, as applicable to all and by all, 
but so too, in many instances, is religious knowledge. Education is not in principle 
concerned with private knowledge, but owing to the importance of pupil motivation 
and pupil autonomy, education must now take into consideration the very personal 
relationships between individual pupils and what they know; there are admittedly 
things that “everyone knows” and with which a group identifi es (such as national 
myths), but schools can no longer merely transmit them as if they were scientifi c 
facts. Th

  e status of various forms of knowledge is all the more vital since the school, 

far from being confi ned to scientifi c knowledge that has absorbed the value of all 
other, non-scientifi c knowledge, opinion and belief, must always act on many aspects 
at once and perform two roles: 

•  it is the central site where scientifi c knowledge is taught (both “hard” science 

and human sciences); 

•  it is the site for displaying and debating a whole range of “knowledge” whose 

status in terms of truth may vary widely (social codes, matters of public 
opinion, etc.), whether or not it actually has the duty of teaching such things 
itself. 

Th

  e question of whether schools should be open to certain types of “knowledge” 

such as religious, political or other personal convictions is a diffi

  cult one. Countries 

with offi

  cial policies to promote secularism, such as the longstanding policy of 

religion-free public education, have decided that education should be neutral and 
not concerned with such matters, while faith-based schools or schools in countries 
with no such offi

  cial policy of secularism have not such a strict distinction. Today, 

however, religion is on the rise again in many parts of the world, and offi

  cials in 

many education systems are becoming aware that the schools’ disregard of religious 
relationships to the world does not encourage tolerance and dialogue. Th

 ese two 

developments together reveal the limitations of excessively rigid conceptions of the 
school’s role: schools must now be capable of acknowledging the status even of forms 
of knowledge which they do not themselves teach. 

Indeed they have long been required to provide such diff erent kinds of 

knowledge in various fi elds such as history or geography. Here are some examples.

•  Some knowledge allows individuals to feel rooted in a particular group or 

society: familiarity with a community’s heritage or a national culture, for 
instance. Such “knowledge” often actually forms part of a myth or legend, 
being an account of a collective project, rather than of historical fact. Th

 ere 

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99

ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

are many examples of this, in Lebanon, Burundi, Chad or even Morocco, 
where the education system some unifying myths rather than the country’s 
more segmented, plural and, sometimes, confl ict-torn reality. 

•  Other forms of knowledge enable pupils to stand back and critically appraise 

collective knowledge and beliefs: such critical distance must be maintained 
with regard to the group’s understanding of history, of course, and also in 
regard to all the ideologies societies attempt to uphold as absolute truths, 
such as socialism, liberalism, technocracy or scientism. 

Th

 e diffi

  culty is obvious: if schools include such subjects in their curriculum 

they give the group cohesion during the day and fragment it at night, running 
the risk of reviving communal problems. Th

  e choices made in that regard are thus 

thoroughly political and such decisions must not be taken within the school alone, as 
the next chapter will argue. In countries that are emerging from internal or external 
confl ict, in particular, these objectives are both particularly desirable and particularly 
diffi

  cult to attain. 

Th

  is is the crux of great tension in the political function of schools. 

•  When societies are racked by intolerance, racism and cultural, religious, ethnic 

or social divides often worsened by contemporary economic factors, schools 
are required to foster unity in order to make societies liveable: indeed, almost 
everywhere there is an emergent or growing attention to “civics education” 
designed to foster grassroots social dynamics. 

•  Yet where else, if not in secondary schools, is that very tolerance to be found 

that looks outwards to embrace 

all humanity and strives to overcome narrow 

group values? 

Are these two approaches really incompatible? Might it not rather be the 

school’s task to try to make them compatible – to present both the law of the group 
(as part of civics education) and also the values which are not those of the national or 
communal group? In both cases the aim is to enable pupils to learn and understand 
the values of the group itself and also those outside the group – and to examine both 
for conceptions of human life that give these values meaning. In the end, therefore, 
it has to be appreciated that some form of philosophy must inevitably be taught, by 
whatever means. 

It is no longer a matter, then, as certain secularists would argue, of refusing to 

consider any values other than those of the dominant group: what is needed is the 
ability to “understand” diff erent values when they are connected with diff erent views 
of the world; that includes, for instance, the need for both unbeliever and believer to 
understand the very notion of belief. 

Now the school’s task is to enable its pupils to go as far as possible – that is, as far 

as socially acceptable – along the road of critical knowledge and the understanding of 
others: it is the school’s function to create the conditions for debate among people. 

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ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

Teaching in the practice of debate, familiarity with the diversity of possible 

debating situations, the handling of real debates, the critical assessment of the conduct 
of debate in the media, for instance, are all vital. Debate, the “conduct of arguments” is 
the means by which school can build up in pupils’ minds the idea that the world is not 
made up of unchallengeable scientifi c certainties on the one hand and, on the other, 
loose tolerance such as that inherent in “there is no point arguing about matters of 
taste!”

30

 In truth, people must be able to talk, even about the kinds of “taste” for which 

they are prepared to kill. Th

  at is a value which schools must ceaselessly promote.

Knowledge in action 

Human beings have acted, 

ever since the species emerged, 
individually and in groups, and 
they follow in their predeces-
sors’ footsteps to transform the 
world.

Human action is increas-

ingly effi

  cient because of the 

rapid development of science 
and technology, and this equal-
ly fascinating and terrifying ef-
fi cient gain also extends to the 
eff ect of people’s action on oth-
ers, through persuasive adver-
tising for instance, and on their 
surroundings and – even be-
yond those surroundings – on 
the whole of nature.

Th

 e sorcerer’s apprentice 

is more and more in evidence, 
and many ethical issues are 
problematic today precisely in those areas where science meets technology.

If schools are to prepare pupils for the real world and to pay attention to human 

action as much as to the meaning of human discourse, then a proper amount of 
space must be allowed for learning about such lessons, very probably as a discipline 
in its own right, addressing the following areas: 

•  knowledge of technology in history and human culture;

• knowledge of the technical world, acquired by exploring elementary 

economics, the world of work and major ethical issues concerning the 
modern world and the concept of sustainable development;

30  

On this subject, see works on argument by Alain Bossinot and others.

Secondary education often 

fails to teach about action

Th

 e paradox is that despite the eminently 

human character of “action”, secondary school 
pays it little attention and barely prepares pupils 
for it: schools were sometimes religious in 
origin and aimed at contemplation rather than 
transformation of the world; or were originally 
aristocratic, aiming at a leisurely speculation. 
Educational discourse has long since eschewed 
action: science often stops short on the 
fringes of applied science and go no further; 
industrial technology, crafts, agricultural and 
commercial technique are scorned by all pupils 
or they play an underrated role; language and 
civics education are hardly concerned with 
pragmatics, while the arts, another means of 
transforming the world, are also sidelined, as 
will be seen below.

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101

ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

• knowledge of technical procedures, by identifying and solving problems, 

sourcing and putting together the factors of production, matters concerning the 
organization of production, marketing and the impact of production on people 
and planet (problems of waste and its environmental eff ect, market changes and 
the emergence of new needs that have an impact on demand for skills);

•  capacity-building for action in various economic settings, in particular 

capacities to fi nd work, acquire new skills, recognize labour market 
benchmarks, establish companies and be self-suffi

  cient. 

It will be necessary to ensure that education systems do not avoid opening up 

to such content in anything more than appearance: if, for instance, only the poorest 
and most vulnerable pupils are taught about the labour market or self-suffi

  ciency, 

then these skills will be stigmatized as second rate and will be kept on the sidelines of 
secondary education content instead of being incorporated into its conceptual core. 
Action is no longer only for slaves! 

More is at stake than ever before, perhaps, in the teaching of knowledge-

in-action at present: in economically developed and other societies, individuals 
increasingly often fi nd themselves forced into a situation where there is no pre-
existing employment position on off er; they have to take the initiative themselves 
and think up new forms of work, as freelancers, as entrepreneurs inside an existing 
business (“intrapreneurship”), or by setting up a social enterprise for the service of 
the community, and so on. Th

  e acquisition of basic skills for such forms of enterprise 

can, as the joint UNESCO/ILO book mentioned above shows, have an impact on 
youth unemployment, the risk of social exclusion, and poverty. 

Barely explored potential of artistic knowledge

Since the beginning of time, humans have sought to master the means of expression 

and emotion using a particular way of understanding the world: artistic knowledge. It is 
astonishing how often such knowledge is still regarded as a “minor” element in secondary 
education content, its very presence in the timetable minimal and uncertain, its weighting 
in examinations low, its academic prestige poor, and its content held in low esteem. Th

 is 

is all the more regrettable and paradoxical because young people themselves – for whom 
secondary education is designed – are often very interested in artistic activity, especially 
music. Unlike many school subjects, art seeks to reconcile matter and spirit through 
artistic creation – a vital activity that features insuffi

  ciently in today’s schools. 

In doing so, art education presents a diversity of experience which in itself and 

through its variety defi es hierarchies of knowledge and the ranking of pupils which certain 
classical disciplines encourage. Th

  e point is a supremely important one: the experience 

of music or the plastic arts often reveals qualities in pupils cast aside by conventional 
intellectual subjects as worthless. Th

  is means that through art education such pupils 

re-engage with learning. Artistic creativity entails less discrimination, and therefore less 
stigmatization, than most academic subjects. 

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ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

In allowing pupils to express the inexpressible and to communicate by means 

other than the pre-existing codes, art is an irreplaceable education in the mastery of 
desire and emotion, and thus amounts to schooling in civilization, an aspect that 
could be strongly developed from the moment young people enter secondary school; 
moreover, art teaches people how to act in situations where not all the questions 
are posed from the outset but arise subsequently and consequently require an acute 
capacity for nimble adaptation. On this point the work “Education through Art: 
Building Partnerships for Secondary Education” (UNESCO and Newark Museum) 
cannot be too highly recommended. 

Art is perhaps more readily and eff ectively open to the diversity of cultures than 

any other kind of education: as there are foreign or distant cultures, “youth” cultures, 
modern media cultures, minority 
cultures and the cultures of 
the poor or disinherited, art is 
a special melting pot in which 
other ventures in multicultural 
openness can begin. 

Th

 e problem is that it is 

hard to defi ne scholastic artistic 
activities in relation to the non-
formal artistic activities in which 
pupils may participate: the arts 
are not academic disciplines 
and have never been designed as such; there is no unanimously agreed standard of 
knowledge, but there are competing “standards” that are not or are no longer school 
subjects, such as drawing and the understanding of perspective in the visual arts. 
Th

  erefore, there are choices to be made, which will of course vary from system to 

system, between philosophies of art and conceptions of its place in society.

Scientifi c knowledge 

It is as necessary to take action on science education as on artistic knowledge and 

knowledge for action, but for diff erent reasons: it cannot be said that scientifi c knowl-
edge is under-valued in school curricula, but in many countries fewer and fewer students 
are studying science, which raises the spectre of a shortage of doctors, science teachers, 
researchers and engineers in the short term, gives cause for concern. Various reasons can 
be off ered for this (the attractions of the service sector, the improvement in the school 
performance of girls – who tend to be drawn more towards social studies and humanities, 
the inadequate scientifi c training of primary school teachers, and so on), but one thing is 
certain: action to make scientifi c content more inspiring is badly needed. 

Th

  ese subjects are beset by rather classic diffi

  culties. One arises because of the 

place given to mathematics as a tool, mainly in physics: physical laws may need to be 
expressed through mathematics, but it is still vital to make sure that pupils are not cut 

Art at the centre of

secondary education

Some say art can be taught, others that it 
can only be 

done. Some favour the “fi ne art” 

approach, while others prefer to start with 
design and art embedded in social usefulness 
… and so on. It can only be hoped that this 
extraordinary medium of creativity, self-control 
and discovery of other minds will be placed at 
the very heart of secondary education.

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103

ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

off  from access to science by not having a suffi

  cient mastery of mathematics itself; for 

mathematics has too often been given an elitist role, and it is important for science 
teachers to reinstate the instrumental function of mathematics. 

Th

  ere are three approaches to science teaching used by the various education 

systems; they are in fact complementary and all three should always be present. 

•  Science education is of course concerned with the learning of scientifi c content 

itself; pupils need to assimilate in a few years the synthesis of centuries of 
scientifi c research. Th

  is will necessarily be a summary, for the pupil must be 

informed of the main aspects of the scientifi c vision of the world even though 
there is not enough time to prove every point by experiment or observation. 
Th

 e diffi

  culty with presenting the 

results of scientifi c endeavour is that they 

are in danger of being misunderstood as just another story or myth for lack 
of association with the stringent demands of that endeavour; this aspect of 
science teaching, necessary though it is, must therefore be kept within bounds, 
for it is not, in itself, at all scientifi c.

•  Real science education does not so much involve the teaching of results as the 

teaching of a particular approach to reality, and part of that approach consists 
in conducting experiments and establishing truths. Accordingly, Condorcet 
said that science education provided a means that placed the exercise of reason 
well within the reach of most human beings. Th

  e use of inventive experiment 

to overcome obstacles, the avoidance of all dogmatism as to fact or method 
through constant comparisons with reality and the renewal of scientifi c 
knowledge – all aff ord indispensable educational opportunities. All the same, 
as the costs of conducting experiments are high (in classroom time, materials 
and labour), it may be sensible to limit pupils’ experimentation to a few key 
experiments.

•  All too often schools do not present science to pupils as a worldwide social 

enterprise or introduce them properly to those features of the contemporary 
world that are strongly marked by its interactions with science. Some aspects 
should be mentioned in particular. For example, in regard to scientifi c validation 
mechanisms, the question arises as to why, at a particular moment, a proposition 
is considered to be scientifi c rather than questionable. Similarly, in regard to 
the history of science, which is indissociably linked to the history of humanity, 
secondary education must include information and prompt refl ection on what 
has driven scientifi c development at various stages, so as to demythologize 
science and the scientifi c process and steer clear of the idea that science is 
a succession of self-evident, uncontroversial discoveries that were perforce 
benefi cial to humanity. Science education must likewise introduce pupils to 
issues of ethics and risk-taking which are now of great importance everywhere. 
It must also, in the same vein, include the question of the application of science, 
which must no longer be treated as a separate area: several countries, such as 
Japan and Israel, have recently tested some particularly interesting integrated 

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104

ENCOUNTERS WITH SOME REMARKABLE FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE

approaches to science, technology and society. In the Netherlands there has 
even been an attempt to include the teaching of composite scientifi c and social 
“themes” in the common core for all pupils while allowing pupils to choose the 
usual “disciplines” as options. 

The question of information and communication technology (ICT)

Th

 is book does not deal with ICT which is concerned more with teaching 

methods, and with various individual or collective teaching aids, and does not strictly 
count as “content” in secondary education. Nevertheless, secondary education would 
be seriously at fault if pupils were not taught to use this technology. It is therefore 
obvious that ICT practices must be a part of all that is learned in secondary school. 

Th

  e issue that must be addressed here, on the other hand, is the extent to which 

these tools, not least the Internet, have changed the pupils’ learning environment in a 
manner that content must refl ect. 

• Th

  e availability of original documentary resources through digital networks 

has quite obviously revolutionized pupils’ conditions of work: the resources of 
school documentation centres and libraries cannot be compared with online 
access to research laboratory websites, for instance, or to the resources which 
the world’s great libraries have placed online. Furthermore, poor institutions 
can have access to immense resources, often free of charge, if they have PCs 
and proper connections. At the same time it has become even more vital 
to teach pupils the main skills involved in documentary research, as well as 
curiosity, a critical faculty, and the ability to stand back and rank the vast 
volume of resources by reliability. Th

  is kind of learning is not in itself radically 

new in that pupils must also learn how to use all resources properly, including 
libraries, newspapers and magazines, radio, television and others; but these 
skills which have long been desirable have been brought to the fore by the new 
scale and ready accessibility of digital resources. 

•  Both the software tools available today and use of the Internet aff ord pupils 

entirely new opportunities to create and communicate. Th

  e consequence is 

not any specifi c new teaching objective but, once again, a readily accessed 
world which can help to encourage content development by making it easier 
to move from learning to the investment of such learning into the creation of 
a product, which would then be compared with works produced by others, by 
the world outside the school in professional, cultural and other circles. 

Care must be taken, though, to ensure that use of the new information and 

communication technology does lead to enriched teaching that is conducive to mastering 
educational content, as it very often is, without yielding, as may also happen, to mere 
fashion which allows the most irrelevant content taught by the most outdated methods 
to be disguised in digital clothing. ICT is relatively neutral in itself: it is for the school to 
ensure that it only transmits the messages that the school really wants to disseminate.

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105

8

 DECISION-MAKING 

ON CONTENT 
AND BUILDING 
A POLITICAL 
DIALOGUE

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106

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

Who should have the last word? 

A special domain of political decision

Th

 ere is so much to decide! In today’s varied education systems there is 

naturally a great variety of bodies responsible for these decisions: bodies may be 
central, where the system has centralized content, local, where content is decided by 
individual institutions, political, when content is chosen by some appointed political 
authority such as a ministry or a parliament, or technocratic when it is left to experts. 
However things are organized, decisions about content always contain, explicitly 
or not, notions of a common possession and “the common good” – whatever the  
“community” involved; they are therefore involved in politics one way or another, 
for even a decision not to put the issue of content to the political authorities is itself 
a political one. 

One point needs to be stressed: questions of content are complex questions, in 

regard to both its design and its implementation, and aff ect the working and living 
experience of thousands of pupils, their families, serving secondary school teachers, 
and others. It is very hard for any decision-making authority whatever to impose its 
decisions in this area: the participation of those involved, though perhaps diffi

  cult 

to secure, is indispensable; and the decision-making authority must do its utmost to 
ensure that they participate. 

Decisions on content must be taken for the long or medium term: content is 

not to be revised daily and its eff ects will be felt far into the future. Th

 e decision-

making authority would ideally be established for the long term and would not be a 
minister, for instance, or even a government, for their lifetimes are shorter than that 
of educational content. 

Th

  ese considerations tend to support the assignment of such decisions to a 

long-lived body, whatever its level. Th

  is might well be the body which legislates for a 

given organization, thus mapping out its future, and indeed, under the constitution 
of Japan and some other countries, the Parliament approves the content of education. 
Th

  ere are advantages to this formula, but its drawbacks include the diffi

  culty  of 

changing content that is determined by a procedure that is perforce slow. 

Decision-making on content must:

•  have a clear political direction, even if decisions are not taken by the political 

authorities in the strict sense: the discussions leading up to the decisions 
must address the issues of aims and purposes;

•  be protected against certain hazards inherent in political decision-making, 

such as partisan attitudes, for instance of how to protect content from 
excessively nationalist or communitarian trends that the political decision-
makers may wish to follow.

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107

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

Of course, there is no “correct” organizational response to these questions, but 

there is much to be gained by establishing an independent body to prepare policy 
decisions, to ensure proper and thorough debate beforehand and to summarize that 
debate for the public: such a body, composed of impeachable public fi gures, would 
have no decision-making responsibility, but would gain from having independent 
members who might include experts from outside the community. UNESCO, for 
example, has on occasion provided such experts and some countries have extended 
public invitations to tender for such consultancies. 

The need for uncontested procedures 

Just as the quality of a decision can be protected by setting up a properly 

specifi ed institution, so it may prove worthwhile to establish some procedures. Here 
it would perhaps be salutary to establish two kinds of standards for use as references 
throughout the preparation of educational content. 

•  First, a methodical charter

31

 that very generally sets out expected outputs 

with respect to content (raising questions about skills programmes, content 
programmes, standards, the degree of detail for curricula and a description 
of pupils’ indispensable and desirable attainments at the end of secondary 
education) and describes the chosen procedures for achieving this.

•  Second, a defi nition of the objectives of secondary education, in reasonable 

detail for each kind of subject, to serve as a specifi cation for writing the 
educational mandate for each discipline. 

Th

  ese two documents should be guaranteed by the body that has responsibility 

for the matter. 

Towards the general renewal of content

Beyond these basic instruments, it must be realized that the task of designing 

content will not be achieved in a single attempt, but will involve the gradual 
establishment of conditions for its renewal on a regular and easier, if not continuous, 
basis. Th

  e question of who has the last word will become less pressing, since there 

will never be a genuinely “last” word, and political choices about content will 
increasingly be informed by retrospective assessments of the impact and limitations 
of earlier decisions. 

31  

One example, though a decidedly imperfect one, is the 

Charte des programmes published in France in 

1995.

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108

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

The quest for expert responses

The question of evaluating the content taught 

First, the question arises as follows: content is actually being taught in a system 

and the education authorities would like to know whether it is appropriate or not. 
Th

  ey usually have no instruments or expertise at hand to determine this matter, and 

so the content remains unchanged and is allowed, remissly, to become outdated or a 
decision may be taken to alter it, but without any specifi cations being drawn up on 
the requirements. 

Assessing currently taught content must be a discipline to which everyone 

submits and which gradually becomes a regular institutional practice. Institutions 
will therefore have to decide who is to conduct these assessments, by what methods, 
and what is to be done with the results. An international view, if available through 
UNESCO or the IBE, for instance, and ideally from a community of curriculum 
experts, could be extremely useful for assessing content, as demonstrated at an IBE 
seminar held in Geneva in July 2005.

32

Questions that an assessment might seek to answer include the following. 

•  Is the offi

  cial content actually taught? In its entirety? If not, what parts are not 

being taught? Do the teachers have suffi

  cient knowledge and understanding 

of the content? Is the content taught in all schools and in all classes, or are 
there diff erences in the way it is implemented? How are such diff erences 
to be interpreted? (variations in teacher training, adaptations to diff erent 
sectors of the public, content too vague, diff ering interpretations by those 
involved, diff erent teaching materials, media and textbooks, etc.).

•  Is the content being assimilated? By a small elite, or by the majority? What 

diffi

  culties are encountered? How motivated are pupils to learn the content 

taught? What are their views on the content that is being taught? 

•  Does the content taught require any prior learning? If so, are these in place 

for all pupils, or do some pupils have an unfair head start in learning this 
content? 

•  Does the teaching of this content rely on many subject-based components? 

Does each of the disciplines concerned play its part in teaching its content? 

•  Is the content assessed, whenever the pupils are assessed, in terms of meaning 

and according to each discipline’s educational mandate? What are the results 
of these assessments (distribution of results, correlation with earlier results 
and with results obtained in other fi elds)? Are these results due to the school’s 
“added value” or are they primarily a refl ection of the social composition of 
its intake? 

32  

See bibliography, 

op. cit.

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109

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

A variety of investigatory methods will be used: interviews, pupil and teacher 

questionnaires, analysis of documents such as textbooks, exercise books and pupils’ 
performance, and teaching observation in class. Th

  e aim is not to dwell on individual 

situations, but to determine consistent general characteristics. 

Some countries – Malaysia is one – have introduced “curriculum development 

cycles” which, among many other interesting features, include an explicit assessment 
phase following all new content implementation; that assessment in turn leads to 
a survey of further requirements, which can be taken into account either by the 
planning department (if, for instance, the implementation of the new content 
requires new or re-allocated resources) or by undertaking a further round of content 
modifi cation. 

Research and experiment 

While such exercises of course require the availability of properly qualifi ed staff  

(as detailed below), it is also essential that the education authorities fi nd ways of 
making their path easier by regular recourse to education research, which can provide 
some answers to the questions at issue here: it would be possible, for instance, to 
commission research to assess, in terms of what pupils actually achieve compared with 
the offi

  cial curriculum (simple and complex skills, knowledge, behaviour, sustainable 

culture), the eff ectiveness and fairness of the systems in which they are taught. 

Other research might be commissioned on content along experimental lines, if 

the decision-making authority hesitates between two or more directions, for example, 
or wants to convince a particular group that a certain development is desirable 
and sound. Experiments can be carried out, provided two well-known restrictions 
applying to education are borne in mind: 

•  decisions on educational content will shape people’s minds for life and will 

even aff ect future generations by making a diff erence to what is transmitted 
to posterity: so one hardly has the right to expose people to the risk of 
educational experimentation any more than to medical experimentation. 
Th

  ere must be protocols in both cases but they are not easy to draw up;

•  in education it is hard to conduct truly experimental exercises in circumstances 

in which defi nitive conclusions can be drawn as to the feasibility of 
universally applying the experiment’s results: often what takes place is a fake 
“experiment” which merely gives a fi g leaf of science to the implementation 
of a decision that has already been taken. Th

  is jeopardizes the credibility of 

the entire undertaking. 

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110

DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

What kind of debate? Who should do what?

Th

  e historic problem of secondary education content and the reason why so 

many problems crystallize around it is that in many cases communities have not so 
far instituted procedures or allocated roles for dealing with the matter. 

• Th

  ey sometimes think that they can dispense with experts in this area, as if 

these diffi

  cult questions could be handled without any professional advice.

• Th

  ey also often think that they can dispense with open debate involving all 

stakeholders, as if they could decide such important and complex matters on 
their own. 

A debate that needs to be encouraged, but kept orderly 

Education authorities should not regard this debate (or rather, this political 

dialogue) about content as a necessary evil, but as an extraordinary opportunity to 
gain or regain real legitimacy in the eyes of the national and even the international 
community – the funding agencies and domestic fi nancial authorities. Th

 e education 

authorities need to create the conditions in which a number of partners can become 
productively involved in defi ning content and specifying what kind of person the 
system aims to produce. Some countries, such as Armenia, have recently made 
remarkable eff orts to create such transparent conditions for discussion and have even 
published an appeal for volunteers to take part in the necessary working groups, as 
opposed to fi lling them by co-option which is all too usual in this fi eld. 

On the question of who should take part in the debate (which should be organized 

by an independent body of experts, as suggested earlier), participants will naturally 
include the administrative authorities and representatives of the main currents of 
political and intellectual opinion, parents (their sociological representativeness should 
be borne in mind), advocacy groups for the disadvantaged, minorities and migrants, 
teachers at the various levels of education, representatives of the media and leading 
cultural organizations, representatives of funding agencies, heads of teacher training 
establishments, representatives of learned societies, the world of art and culture and, 
of course, representatives of the formal, and if possible the informal, economy. 

Special arrangements must be made in the case of universities: while their 

participation is uncontroversial when it is a matter of consulting their experts in the 
sociology or history of education, or the science of teaching, or philosophy, to ensure 
that their particular expertise will benefi t to the whole of secondary education, it is 
often more perilous to turn to university specialists from the various subjects taught, 
for universities, preoccupied with their own concerns and with advanced research, are 
often unwilling to put real eff ort into the question of secondary education content; 
or sometimes, even worse, the only ones to speak in the name of the university are 
researchers who represent no one but themselves and their own narrow specialist fi eld, 

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DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

and whose lack of familiarity with secondary education and poor understanding of 
the issues at stake can on occasion lead to some very poor decisions. 

Nevertheless it is essential for universities to be involved in the issue of the 

knowledge and skills that secondary pupils are to be taught, both for the sake of 
encouraging questions about the development of the academic knowledge that lies 
behind secondary education content and in order to keep content designers informed 
about the expectations of those in higher education concerning the methodological 
and conceptual capabilities of their future intake. 

Th

  e great number and wide range of individuals and bodies to be invited to 

the discussion obviously means that the expert group must play a central role: it 
should be clear that no particular contributor is supposed to impose any point of 
view and that, if progress is to be made, the requisite time must be taken to learn 
how to conduct democratic discussion. To avoid deadlock among participants, the 
body of experts will fi nd it very useful to be able to produce the results of objective 
assessments and to use examples from other countries to cast new light judiciously 
on domestic situations. 

If agreement cannot be reached on some point, then the body of experts will 

have to report this to the decision-making authority, which will settle the matter 
– but without recourse to a “compromise at all costs”, which often produces content 
with no real meaning at all. In any case, since the arrangements are intended to 
provide for constant reconsideration based on assessment, further meetings with 
those who hold the minority point of view may be held as required. 

Content to be openly and democratically discussed

Th

 e need for democracy in connection with educational content does not 

extend only to a single phase of debate or political dialogue. It is important that 
there be full transparency in other areas as well. 

•  Content should be made readily available to the public: to secondary school 

teachers, of course, but also to politicians, parents and pupils in the form 
of inexpensive manuals, online publishing, and so on. If possible, various 
versions of these documents should be produced, one for use by non-
specialist secondary teachers, one for the general public (parents) and one 
for pupils. 

•  In addition to educational content itself, there should be a historical account 

of the decisions taken and an outline of the discussion held before they were 
taken and the reasons for those choices: educational content cannot be as 
meaningful as pupils are entitled to demand if it is disseminated as if they 
were self-evident and had never been the subject of hard and ambitious 
choices. 

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DECISION-MAKING ON CONTENT AND BUILDING A POLITICAL DIALOGUE

Looking in from, and out to, the outside world

As these issues are complex and relatively demanding on poor or emerging 

communities, it is highly desirable that political dialogue on the one hand and 
expertise in and documentation on content on the other should be more open to 
contributions from outside the country. 

•  Such contributions may consist of methodological expertise, especially 

through UNESCO or the IBE: in this regard, these organizations could even 
propose to validate the quality of the procedures introduced by communities 
and countries in order to discuss, prepare, establish and assess educational 
content. 

• Th

 e advantages of extending international comparisons in the fi eld  of 

education to include comparisons of educational content should not be 
neglected, for content is all too often disregarded, with preference being 
given to structural or performance comparison. International bodies 
should provide “content banks” so that users may have ready access to such 
information.

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113

9

 CONDITIONS 

ASSOCIATED WITH 
THE SUCCESS 
OF CONTENT 
POLICIES

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Content and assessment

Everyone agrees in principle that education systems exist to teach rather than 

to assess; if the two are to compete with each other, then teaching must prevail over 
assessment. Yet in fact there is often a drift in the opposite direction (due to many 
factors) which in some cases gives grounds for complaint that assessment is conducted 
in a manner that counteracts or even nullifi es the eff orts put into teaching, and has 
an unwarranted, unacknowledged and often adverse eff ect on content. 

Freeing education from preconceptions about assessment 

First of all, the real content of education is in some cases not clearly determined in 

the curricula themselves but in the design of the exercises and tests used to determine 
attainment, which follow patterns of thought that are quite diff erent from those 
behind the offi

  cial content: these traditional forms of assessment have sometimes 

left their mark so fi rmly on people’s minds that teachers and even parents consider 
them to be more important than the content itself, though they still have little 
idea of what abilities the assessments measure. As a result, some exercises measure 
capabilities which may be legitimate ones but do not form part of the content actually 
prescribed, and so the question as to what an exercise really measures can produce 
some very surprising answers: such cases can pervert learning in ways that often harm 
the weakest pupils who no longer know what is important. 

In other situations, the education authorities may decide to change content but 

do not take care to change the exercises or examinations used to test the content so 
that they continue to assess the same capabilities as before. 

It is also a constant fi nding that whenever (for any of a number of reasons, 

including cost) an assessment or examination process systematically leaves out certain 
parts of the prescribed content or certain skills which are supposed to be taught, 
teaching of that content or those skills should be discontinued. 

It is therefore essential to keep a careful eye on the match between assessment 

(testing) and content, and to make sure the two are changed in step. 

Performance evaluation and its limitations 

Th

  ese are some of the ways systems can drift off  course, so far as individual 

assessment of pupils is concerned; but there are others which become evident when 
a community undertakes to measure the performance of an entire education system. 
Th

  is is not the place to deal with all the issues raised by the assessment of education 

systems, but the attention of education authorities should be drawn to the ways 
in which ill-designed or poorly implemented assessment can endanger pupils’ 
education.

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

• Th

 e assessment of systems entails some quantifi ed assessment of pupils’ 

performance; that performance is generally measured by tests administered 
either to all the pupils at the relevant stage of their school career or to a 
representative sample. Th

  e danger is that these measurements are so expensive 

that a decision is taken to limit them to the least costly form (multiple choice 
questions, for instance) and reject more creative exercises or ones that call for 
more elaborate capabilities. Th

  is is liable, especially if the results of these tests 

aff ect schools’ resource allocations or teachers’ contract renewals, to make 
schools replace the richness of the offi

  cial content with a drearily simple 

objective: “do well in the tests!” – thus losing sight of many of the aims and 
objectives of education. 

•  Another danger (to which international assessments are particularly prone) 

is that assessments designed, for instance, within the OECD framework are 
properly targeted to the right skills and even manage to evaluate some of the 
more complex competencies, but do so as if there were no diff erences among 
countries in terms of the content prescribed: this approach may be very 
useful in providing a picture of a particular competency at a particular time 
in a particular country by comparison with another, but it leaves out the fact 
that the country in question may have decided to give greater priority to 
other capabilities at that level of education. 

An indicator is seldom good or bad in itself: it must be considered critically 

and be credited with indicating what is actually indicated and not anything else. 
Care must always be taken that one particular indicator is not insidiously gaining the 
ascendancy over others or over the very objectives of education. 

Down with the tyranny of averages!

Th

  ere are other ways in which, in some systems, the importance of content 

can be downplayed on the occasion of assessments, ways which at the same time 
dampen pupils’ and teachers’ enthusiasm for content: it can happen in schools which 
account to families for what their pupils have or have not learned, or which make 
decisions about the pupils’ academic careers (promotion, repetition, streaming, etc.), 
or decide whether or not to enter them for an examination by looking at calculated 
“averages”. Recourse to averages may seem uncontroversial enough, but by their 
capacity to neutralize any defi ciencies by pointing to the presence of some knowledge 
or capability in a fi eld which has nothing to do with the one in question, it replaces 
proper schoolteaching with a sophisticated gamesmanship in which the point is no 
longer to learn particular content but to achieve some abstract “score”, which means 
nothing in terms of real education. 

If a school, or a system, really aims at eff ective secondary education, which 

means real teaching and real learning to the benefi t of both the individual and the 
community, then it must avoid giving the impression that all things are equivalent 
and that anything can “balance out” anything else. It is obviously necessary to refl ect 

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

carefully, as appropriate to each system, on what constitutes a “good” examination 
– one which does not disregard the objectives of the teaching that precedes it. 

If content is to be defi ned in terms of target capabilities in association with 

knowledge, then the certifi cation of education will necessarily be more precise: 
averages and the “average achievement” will no longer have great signifi cance and it is 
very probable that, although the idea of tests will not disappear entirely, attention will 
be paid increasingly to “skill portfolios”, which will be regarded as more important 
than the traditional calculation of “averages”. 

The circumstances in which content is implemented

Educational content is no abstraction, but embodied in real teaching in real 

schools, and is meaningful to real pupils. How content is taught is too broad an issue 
to tackle here; but education authorities should be reminded of three delicate aspects 
of content implementation: teaching materials and media, awareness of competing 
cultures, and the degree to which the school itself practises what it preaches. 

Textbooks and educational materials 

Th

  ere is a danger that the question of educational media, materials and textbooks 

might seem superfl uous or secondary when dealing with content policy; yet many 
aspects of pupils’ learning depend on the quality of materials available to them. Th

 ere 

have been situations where education authorities have sought to change content 
without also taking action to change the textbooks; elsewhere, new textbooks have 
brought in innovations at variance with some aspects of the curriculum. 

It is very important that content dictates textbooks rather than the other 

way round; it is important, therefore, that in making decisions about content the 
authorities, from the outset, consider the issues of duration, skills and the costs 
entailed in introducing good textbooks. 

Th

  ere are many diff erent economic, political and educational arrangements 

for the provision of school textbooks: school institutions may develop textbooks 
themselves or they may commission them from private-sector publishers, in which 
case they may or may not monitor their production beforehand and they may or may 
not allow teachers a real choice from a range of textbooks with diff erent educational 
approaches. No one solution is good or bad in itself; what matters is that those who 
take the decisions on content have drawn up an adequately detailed specifi cation, so 
that textbook editors are not required to make choices which ought not to be theirs 
to make. Assessments of content will also include examination of textbooks with a 
view to checking whether their editors have respected the programme’s intentions. 
In particular, it is essential that major innovations in content (anything, for instance, 
that concerns a drive for a new kind of skill or a move to combine disciplines) should 

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

be specially covered by the textbooks, so that they may contribute to the in-service 
retraining of teachers. Th

  e authority that draws up the specifi cation could initiate a 

call for tenders to see which editor or publishing house meets its expectations best. 

It is, moreover, important that textbooks:

• 

explicitly refer to the texts that prescribe the content that they are designed 
to implement;

•  explicitly set out the educational choices made by the textbook’s authors 

in order to implement the content;

•  are issued together with instructions, whenever necessary, for use by the 

teacher; and provision should also be made – including funding – for 
disseminating the instructions. 

Since textbook publishing costs are high, the preparation of textbooks that 

could be used in more than one country is obviously a relevant suggestion, provided 
that the content to be taught is homogeneous.

Non-formal content

Proper implementation of content presupposes, as argued above, that offi

  cials 

are constantly reminded of its real function. Pupils are not “empty vessels” waiting to 
be fi lled with content: far from 
it! If the implementation of 
content is to be eff ective, it must 
constantly relate to all aspects 
of pupils’ culture, so that school 
learning really engages with 
their own mental situation. 
Even though the objective of 
school is indeed to free its pupils 
from the “obviousness” of their 
immediate surroundings and 
the constrictions of “youth” 
culture tyrannized, more often 
than not, by the market for 
popular music, video, and so 
on, it nevertheless always needs 
to start with what really makes 
up its pupils’ lives, culture and 
language(s). Th

  e task is to show 

them how to make sense of 
what life has to off er them (on television for example, or in the form of information 
disseminated through digital networks) and thus teach them how to stand back from 
it all, so that they can be won over by intellectual curiosity. 

Is content transparent?

Are school career paths clear to everyone? 

Is there really no “insider dealing” by pupils 
from the better-informed backgrounds? 

Is information about school itself part of what 
school teaches, with the same critical eye as it 
attempts to turn on the rest of the world? 

If there is a “hidden curriculum”, a set of 
rules of behaviour, attitudes in class, minor 
information or important skills which never 
appear in any offi

  cial programme but in fact 

often underlie the determinants of most 
people’s educational success or failure, is 
everything possible being done to unveil this 
hidden curriculum and either abolish it or 
build it into the acknowledged one?

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Th

  ere have always been some approaches to education, in some countries, to 

the eff ect that school does not need to be concerned with “children” or “adolescents” 
because the eff ect of its action is to mould “pupils”: such an attitude would seem, 
today at least, to be particularly fraught. Th

  e danger is that “adolescents” today might 

behave as pupils only when they are forced to, without feeling in any way aff ected 
by the knowledge taught at school. If society wants to educate pupils, it has to talk 
to adolescents. 

Schools really should practise what they preach! 

Another condition that is just as vital for proper implementation of content 

is that those involved in running schools constantly bear in mind that the school 
spreads two kinds of lesson among pupils: the lessons it teaches overtly, lessons with 
a certain content of knowledge, values, etc., and those it teaches by demonstration in 
everyday practice, through everything that happens in school. It is essential that the 
two types of lesson do not transmit contradictory messages. 

First of all, there are some systems which put “civics” at the heart of their 

educational objectives and require pupils to learn what democracy is in theory, without 
practising democracy in school itself. True, school is not a gathering of “equals”, 
for the teacher has in general the right to tell the pupil what to do – frequently in 
educational theory, even more so in unspoken assumption; but that is all the more 
reason why school should be, in everything that is not strictly a matter of teaching 
and being taught, a practical example of equality among individuals. 

Learning itself, far from being outside the rules, ought to set out just how and 

why it involves the application of special rules. No school, then, can claim to be 
teaching community values of tolerance and respect for rights and yet allow its pupils 
to be treated or assessed unfairly, infl ict punishment without reference to absolute 
rules that respect the general principles of justice, or ignore or despise the voice of its 
weaker members or its minorities. 

It is still more important that, even within the teaching situation itself, what the 

school does should not contradict what it says. “Education” should be part of what 
pupils are taught at school, and what is taught at school must always be there for all 
to see in the practices of the school itself. 

The training and position of teachers

Even the best teaching content will be no more than a dream if the teachers lack 

the ability, the will or the means to teach it. Th

  ere are real opportunities for change, 

but only if there is a real appreciation of the changes expected of schoolteachers 
– and of how long it takes for a profession to evolve. 

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Cutting the umbilical cord of university teaching

It is essential, of course, for secondary school teachers to have a proper training 

in fact and theory; what is advocated below is not intended as a replacement for that, 
nor indeed as a solution to the problem of its cost. Academic training in fact and 
theory, however, is not enough, even when accompanied by real teaching know-how, 
if teachers have not consciously grasped the relationship needed between what they 
know and what they are required to convey to their pupils. 

Th

  ere is a transformation here which is often not managed as well as it should 

be: it is that by which teacher training enables a prospective secondary school teacher 
to move out of the world of academic knowledge, the world of his or her own higher 
education, and into the world of school-teaching: for unless this break is consciously 
recognized the teacher will never be in phase with secondary school content as it 
is offi

  cially  specifi ed, and will greatly endanger the pupils’ general education by 

becoming isolated in a set of academic concerns and methods which have no place 
in the school. 

Young secondary school teachers must, on the contrary, be encouraged to take 

a critical view of the discipline that they teach, based on its epistemology, its history 
and its social customs, so as to be familiar with its strong points and its limitations 
and to think about how it intersects the other disciplines and its contribution to the 
objective of enhancing every pupil’s culture. Each teacher should refer constantly 
to his or her discipline specifi cation within education. Th

 at specifi cation is not a 

substitute for knowledge of fact and theory: it gives meaning to what is being taught 
to the pupils. 

Preparing teachers for change

Equally important, the model should no longer be (as too often it still is) that 

of a professional whose university degree is a certifi cate of training for all time: 
the content of education, in particular, must change profoundly and to evolve 
during a teaching career without causing unbearable disruption for teachers, who 
should, from initial training onwards, be encouraged to think of inevitable changes 
throughout their forthcoming careers – in education policy, in the pupil intake and 
in the standard material to be taught – as normal occurrences: their initial training, 
by giving them this professional ability to stand back from and refl ect on their own 
university learning as described above, will prepare them for these changes. 

In particular, it will make it clear to teachers that as they face the professional 

problems that emerge in future some of them will be able to fi nd answers in terms 
of continuous retraining, but others will fi nd other ways of responding by equipping 
themselves with new documentary resources, by working together with their fellow 
teachers, or by engaging in action research. 

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Teachers’ responsibilities for content 

Th

  ese are not the only changes in the position of secondary school teachers with 

regard to teaching content: they must also be encouraged, from the initial training 
stage, to think about the eff ect their teaching actually has on their pupils. “What am 
I doing in teaching this to these pupils?”, “What am I doing in assessing my pupils 
this way?” “What consequences will learning this thing now have on their education 
as a whole?”. Th

  ese must be questions they consider again and again. 

Aiming at the objectives of learning, not merely at an obligation to teach 

specifi ed content, secondary school teachers must be aware that the eff ects of their 
work will in its turn be subject to individual assessment. Th

  ey must likewise consider 

themselves responsible to the entire education community for the content they 
teach, starting with the parents and the pupils themselves: their knowledge is no 
dead letter, but is active within the community to which it is off ered, and therefore to 
be off ered responsibly. Th

  e kind of schoolteacher required is neither a spokesperson 

for a particular discipline nor a performer of rituals, but a professional thoroughly 
aware of the choices made in determining the content taught and capable in turn 
of constantly making choices of teaching strategy, as well as providing a wealth of 
feedback to designers of content about how it is implemented and how it could be 
developed in future. 

School systems and establishments

The indispensable function of the individual school concerning content 

Even though there are considerable diff erences around the world in what can 

be called a “school”, and even though such institutions vary greatly in their degree 
of independence, it would be wrong not to respect the level of the individual school, 
to believe that content design ought to be decided only by an outside body or that 
it should be a matter for the individual teacher: those regions which have acted on 
those beliefs have been met with massive academic failure. 

For teaching is not a free-fl oating disembodied activity: it is in the actual 

institution with its particular collection of individuals, diff ering more or less widely 
in culture and social position, that the content of education has to be given eff ect, and 
it would be absurd if all the precautions taken at earlier stages to ensure that content 
is not pre-empted by the demands of self-proclaimed “disciplines” were nullifi ed at 
the level of the individual institution. All the issues involved in determining content 
must, accordingly, be reviewed at this level. 

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Th

  is involves the following elements. 

• Th

  e work done within the school to prepare courses and lessons.

• Th

  e school’s knowledge about 

how well its pupils are learning 
the content in question. 
Th

 e same questions arise 

as those above concerning 
the assessment of content, 
not with a view to changing 
the content itself, but to 
understanding how the pupils 
are performing. Everything 
that systems can provide to 
help schools compare their 
performance with that of 
others is welcome, of course: 
the examination pass rate 
does not matter as much as 
detailed knowledge about 
how capable the pupils are in 
dealing with the various parts 
of educational content, which 
raises the school’s awareness of 
its strengths and weaknesses 
and so that it may adopt a suitable teaching approach in consequence. In 
view of the cost of obtaining such information, it is suggested that it be 
gleaned from actual testing of pupils in existing examinations, so that the 
imposition of putting a double burden on the examination system by means 
of another set of tests can be avoided.

Educational leadership in how to teach 

Th

 ese elements raise the importance of the individual school considerably. 

Certainly a conception of learning and educational content which improves secondary 
education all round cannot be implemented by schools which are supposed merely 
to “execute” an education policy without themselves being major sites where such 
matters are negotiated. Local implementation of content by means of the teachers’ 
collective eff orts, the involvement of the whole community in facilitating pupils’ 
studies, the regular and transparent assessment (in terms of eff ectiveness and fairness) 
of what pupils have learnt in a particular school, the transformation of the school 
into a “learning community” – all this requires the school to be a place of initiative 
which takes responsibility for content as well as teaching. 

Implementation issues

Does the school know what the content 
of teaching is supposed to be? Do the 
teachers? Th

 e parents? Teachers of 

other subjects? Is it clearly explained to 
pupils? 

Is there provision for teaching the 
content in its entirety? 

Do the teachers anticipate diffi

  culties in 

teaching the set content? 

Are some teachers at the school more 
familiar with particular aspects of the 
content? Could they act as peer resources 
for their colleagues? Will connections 
and combinations between the various 
subject areas be taken into account? If 
so, how?

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CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUCCESS OF CONTENT POLICIES

Th

  ough the road to a balanced situation is long, the need to develop leadership 

in education cannot be over-emphasized. Leadership (not the authority of a boss 
who decides on others’ behalf, but a shared desire for “responsibility and initiative”) 
conduces to that “learning organization which every school must become if it is to 
provide the kind of education required for democratic societies and the knowledge 
society.”

33

33  

Jean-Michel Leclercq, 

op. cit.

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123

10

 SUMMARY 

FOR ACTION: 
POLITICAL 
CHOICES 
AND TECHNICAL 
PRECAUTIONS

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

What happens when decisions are taken in this particular fi eld of education? What 

is really at stake? How can these decisions best be made? How can they be properly 
implemented in practice? Th

  ese are the questions that have to be asked, on the clear 

understanding that the choices are primarily political – some of the highest political 
choices of all, indeed – but to carry them out properly and with a good prospect of real 
success, it is essential to make a number of technical decisions as well. 

Making the content of education the strategic 
core of quality: what are the policy implications of such 
a resolution? 

Th

 e fi rst question is whether education authorities are aware of the need for, 

and can take, action on secondary school content. 

An education policy with content at its centre undoubtedly requires more 

courage from its stakeholders than a purely quantitative policy; the questions under 
the latter policy may elicit uncomfortable answers, but at least such questions are not 
hard to frame: where are the resources for education to be found? Who should pay 
for what, and at what level? Questions of content, though, are not quite the same; 
indeed they belong to the considerably more complex issue of quality. 

Now the fi nancial and human eff orts allocated to a “quantitative” policy on 

education (more open access from primary to secondary school, for instance, or 
raising the school-leaving age, or encouraging pupils to stay on beyond compulsory 
schooling, or working to reduce truancy or drop-out rates, etc.) are in danger of not 
having any real eff ect on a community in terms of personal or social development 
if the content off ered is out of date, irrelevant, inconsistent, unfair, uninspiring or 
depressing – and if pupils give up or drop out of school in the end without real 
qualifi cations, having acquired neither knowledge nor skills that are likely to be 
useful for their development or that of their social and political community. 

Putting content near the top of the education policy agenda

If the education authorities wish to take action in this fi eld, however, there are 

decisions to be made, many of them diffi

  cult, which ultimately must: 

•  be acceptable to a majority within the community under the rules of 

democratic political dialogue;

•  make it possible to build a secondary school system that eff ectively achieves the 

objectives assigned to it and obtains results that justify the funding eff orts made. 

It is useless to pretend that there is not an ever-present danger of tension between 

these two aims: the search for eff ective secondary education which motivates all its 

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

pupils and equips them for life in a way that suits their present and future personal 
and social needs, often throws up proposals contrary to the traditions, routines, 
short-term ideological preferences or predilections of one group or another. 

Th

  is means that the necessary conditions for the success of such a policy on content 

will be concerned as much with the right choice of objectives as with the quality and non-
controversiality of the procedures set up to defi ne and attain those objectives. 

Th

  e tension inherent in the problem must be made to work towards a solution: 

education authorities, at whatever level they operate (local community, district or 
region, country, etc.), need to make all stakeholders see that the point of having a 
policy on content is precisely to raise the eff ectiveness of education to benefi t the 
entire community, and that it is for the sake of such a prize that they are being asked, 
not to give the education authorities carte blanche, but to engage in a demanding 
collective exercise. 

Everyone must understand that the authorities are not launching a policy for 

educational content in order to seize power over a much-coveted area, but simply to 
ensure that every stakeholder – not least the citizens themselves take up their new 
educational responsibilities. 

Since content is a sensitive issue in which some of the preferences expressed are 

ideological, stakeholders must also understand that if the policy is to succeed, the 
various procedures must also in eff ect protect them from themselves as well as from 
the political authorities. 

Dealing with content as a political obligation to give a local defi nition to 

humanity

Just as they need to arrange for democratic political dialogue, the authorities 

should address in detail the political signifi cance of the issues raised, so that stakeholders 
can have the courage to tackle subjects which always seem ripe for postponement.

What the authorities must ensure is that stakeholders gradually come to 

understand that, quite apart from the economic diff erences among the world’s 
regions and the dissimilarities of its education systems and national traditions, the 
issue of what should be taught in secondary schools to which societies now send ever-
greater numbers of children is now focusing increasingly on the very signifi cance of 
human action on this planet.

Th

  e question of content is no longer merely an invitation to repeat clichés or 

simply to provide children and young people with the minimum intellectual baggage 
on which everyone can agree; on the contrary, it is an invitation to choose between 
two opposing visions of humanity’s future.

•  In the one, humanity allows individualism to develop with no safeguards in 

place and each person will try to fi nd the information needed from within 
the store of “knowledge” available, using the most sophisticated techniques 

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

without necessarily understanding anything about them. People will be freed 
from knowledge, free from the demanding laws of learning, from school and 
from having to spend time at school and money on education.

•  In the other, humanity will consider, on the contrary, that it has a duty to 

require institutions worthy of so great a trust that they institute meaning 
and direction wherever such is most urgently needed: schools, in particular 
secondary schools, may thus be given the complex task of providing people 
with reasons to speak to each other and languages in which to do so, showing 
them what it means to share knowledge that is common to some degree, widely 
diff erent cultures and responsibilities that increasingly involve solidarity.

Th

  e decisions that each community takes on secondary education content are 

not only strategic as shown in the fi rst two chapters, but also political in the noblest 
sense of the word since they amount to a local defi nition of humanity tomorrow. Th

 e 

noblest sense of the word indeed, for this implies that each community eff ectively 
and explicitly answers a small number of questions namely: what lessons can be learnt 
from the history of humanity and from its present condition to inform training 
designed for humanity tomorrow or in local decisions on educational content? What 
proportion should consist of the concerns and values of the particular community in 
relation to concerns and values that go beyond that community?

Th

  e authorities’ chances of success in conducting real political dialogue on 

these subjects will also depend on their ability to convince people that the issues at 
stake are so momentous.

Creating favourable conditions for decision-making on 
educational content

Th

  e quality of decisions made in a democratic context often depends on a 

number of procedures which provide for the construction of the collective will and 
the gradual transcending of particular interests by concern for the general interest.

Organizing the gathering of information

Before taking action, one must 

fi rst know the facts! Th

 is seemingly 

ludicrous point must nonetheless be 
made.

In particular regard to educa-

tional content, the very least that can 
be said is that often not very much is 
known about it and, for that reason, 

Implementation questions

Is it really known what is being taught, 
before work even starts?

Are the real situation and diversity in the 
classroom known factors? What benefi ts 
are being sought? What constraints must 
be taken into account?

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

policy-makers have rarely taken it into account, the general impression being that 
it has been taken for granted. Yet clearly nothing worthwhile can ever be achieved 
without fi rst taking stock of the existing situation. Taking stock is costly, of course. 
It might perhaps be wise in that regard not to be ultra-perfectionist, but to start by 
studying the material to hand: the most interesting information apparently emerge 
when small samples of secondary school teachers are asked the appropriate questions 
or when the distribution of pupils’ results is studied and correlated with various 
factors. In gathering such information, communities should not overlook the advan-
tages of involving universities, not only the faculties teaching the various disciplines 
taught in secondary schools, but also the sociology and education departments, and 
of seeking contributions from researchers and expert advice from other countries or 
from multilateral bodies, but should keep control over the use made of the research 
fi ndings.

Drawing up specifi cations and a working procedure

Th

  e decisions to be made will, at the relevant time, be policy decisions in the 

sense that they concern general policy: for example, the decision to act through 
content is itself a general policy decision. Final decisions about content will involve 
political and fi nancial choices that cannot be made by experts. Th

 e policy-making 

body will be forced at that point to exercise political power, but the goal is that the 
ultimate decision should be so well informed by prior debate that it is obvious to 
everyone that it is the right one either because of its inherent wisdom or because it is 
the indisputable outcome of democratic consultation.

Th

  e experience of a number of countries shows that policy dialogue on these 

matters should be constructed at three levels:

•  a general policy level, namely the level at which the decision was taken earlier 

to place the matter on the agenda, at which all procedures are adopted and 
monitored to ensure observance and at which the results of debates are 
ultimately approved or fi nal decisions taken on any unresolved matters;

•  an expert level, consisting of a permanent, independent body of uncontested 

expertise: this body will not be expert in the details of content nor will it 
supplant the social forum, but it will have expertise in education policy 
and the skills needed to arrange and lead the democratic debate; it will be 
composed of eminent persons who are “above the fray”, not necessarily from 
the community itself and open-minded on the various epistemological, 
philosophical and social issues raised in this book. Th

  ey may require training 

which could be provided in an international setting;

•  a level open to expressions of opinion from the full range of interests to be 

consulted. Th

  at range could extend to the whole public, but it is important 

not to ritualize the debate and to ensure by the best possible means that all 
partners, as suggested in Chapter 8, for instance, agree to play the game, 

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building a complete and complex structure together and allowing their views 
on the objectives of education to be combined with those of others.

Building a debate on actual learning outcomes

Th

  e questions that are to form the subject matter of the consultation that will 

be held by this body of experts, with a view to the submission of policy decisions to 
the political authority, will vary from one situation to another, but they fall into two 
main categories:

•  questions relating to the general structure of education, generally discussed 

separately and before turning to content, even though they are in fact 
inseparable, may be raised, such as: “Should there be national curricula? 
Should vocational and general education be provided separately or is 
convergence preferable? Should common core be defi ned? At what age 
should school careers diverge?” Th

  ere are also questions about free choice, 

imposed decisions and other matters;

•  purely content-related questions, which, as suggested above, should be 

ranked in descending order, starting with those concerning general outcomes 
and ending with those concerned with the detailed specifi cation of expected 
pupils’ attainment at the end of secondary education, regardless of what pre-
determined “disciplines” are involved. Chapters 6 and 7 give an overview of 
the main precautions needed to avoid neglecting the major problems.

It would clearly be very benefi cial to reverse the order in which the two categories 

are usually considered and to derive as many elements as possible from expected 
outcomes and attainments: what arrangement of disciplines will best meet such 
expectations? Which curricula do they warrant most fully? Th

  e objective doggedly 

aimed at throughout this exercise will be to turn education on its head by organizing 
it with reference to expected outputs in terms of school-leavers’ knowledge and skills 
rather than taking the course often followed of fi rst seeing to the entire organizational 
structure of education, thus devoting the entire policy agenda to management and 
resource issues, and then, at the end of the process, raising the question of what can 
be taught given those constraints.

Publishing clear accounts of decisions on content, with reasons; 

making sure they are suitably communicated to all stakeholders

Communication is of course vital to political activity: in this area it is especially 

valuable, since it involves informing people about decisions taken on educational 
content and the more diffi

  cult task of disseminating the message inherent in the 

content and a state of mind.

Four aspects of such communication must be guaranteed.

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

• An “offi

  cial” aspect of the communication: however the particular education 

system is organized, stakeholders must fi rst of all be quite clear about what is 
to be taught, in terms of knowledge and skills expected of pupils at various 
landmark stages. Th

  ey must be clear about what is mandatory and what is 

discretionary in each case. Nothing is worse than a situation where teachers 
themselves are unsure of what the rules or laws on education actually 
provide: there must be a system of universally available and authoritative 
offi

  cial publications to which anyone can refer at any time.

• Th

 e public communication envisaged here off ers detail: the decisions 

published are certainly useful in themselves, but most of the time they will 
fail to have the desired impact unless the account of why and how they have 
been adopted is also made public, as frankly and fully as possible. Th

  is is a 

fi eld in which those involved, professionally or otherwise, will only grasp a 
rule if its underlying political meaning is constantly visible to them. (Why 
has this content been chosen to be taught? Why not another? What major 
changes can be expected in future?) Th

  ere are few areas in which the provision 

to stakeholders of full information setting out the thrust of decisions and 
putting those decisions into perspective is as essential as here.

•  Special professional communication materials should be designed on all 

available media for informing those who will be required to teach particular 
parts of content: in addition to the rules themselves, there should be 
comprehensive advice on implementation, with illustrations and examples 
of best practices, especially in the case of content that can be adapted to 
diff erent sections of the public served. Th

  is should be done whenever new 

content is introduced, aff ording teachers an opportunity to exchange views 
with content designers and implementers, and with their own colleagues: 
one constant objective will be to avoid the isolation of teachers, whether in 
their school, their classroom or their subject.

•  It is not at all adequate to provide information only to professionals who are 

directly involved: obviously, if educational content is to reach its target – the 
pupils – then the pupils must be informed as well, as must their families, 
school heads, and teachers of other subjects, so that everybody knows 
what the goal is. A variety of channels and media will be required for such 
communication to take place: oral explanations to pupils by their teachers 
at the start of the school year (or of a particular course) about learning 
objectives and content choices, discussion with them about these objectives 
and choices, regular interaction and detailed work with them about progress, 
public statements – included in the school textbooks themselves – of what is 
expected of them; explanations of content for the parents’ benefi t, phrased in 
language that does not exclude those parents who have never been to school 
themselves; explanations for schoolteachers in other disciplines, seeking to 
involve them in their colleagues’ work. In many cases (subject to resource 

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

constraints), it would be useful to issue special publications to make sure 
that all of these messages are eff ectively understood by the various players.

Implementing new patterns for handling content: how to 
increase their impact 

Adapting examinations, teacher training and support, production and 

distribution 

of teaching materials consistent with the new patterns for content 

Decisions in many areas are needed in support of content reform if 

counterproductive eff ects are to be avoided.

• Th

  e examination and testing system urgently needs to be revised to ensure that 

its routines and assumptions do not set all scheduled content developments at 
naught, and that there are not two or more contradictory standards in place. It 
should also be pointed out that the more clearly content is specifi ed in terms of 
expected pupil outcomes, the less scope there will be for examinations or tests 
to impose their own competing rules: in particular, all matters concerning the 
giving of marks, balancing-out of scores achieved in diff erent disciplines, and 
the identifi cation of unacceptable gaps in pupils’ and candidates’ knowledge 
will need to be handled within the system’s chosen approach to educational 
objectives and content; for if such precautions are not taken, the rationale 
behind examinations and tests will triumph in the end.

•  Initial and continuing teacher training must be geared to similar ends, for 

new content will have no eff ect if the teachers are not trained in such diverse 
areas as:

– command of the major issues involved in content development, and 

motivation for teachers to play their part in it;

–  epistemology in general and in their own discipline;

–  capacity to master changes in content throughout their careers;

–  command of general education objectives set for their pupils;

–  perception of the hierarchy between general objectives and more specialized 

training goals;

–  capacity to convey educational content to the general public;

–  curiosity about the real culture of their pupils, in all their diversity;

–  capacity to master textbooks and all documentary materials relating to 

educational content;

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

–  sensitivity in measuring and monitoring pupils’ real learning attainments.

• Th

  e questions of knowledge media should not be left to improvisation, either, 

and the authorities should make sure that clear specifi cations are issued to 
producers of media such as school textbooks, Internet sites and dedicated 
radio and television programmes and to the designers of documentation 
services, in particular online services. All these materials must be rigorously 
assessed to determine whether they are consistent with goals set for educational 
content and for which pupils they may be used. Another delicate issue is the 
physical availability of such media for use by pupils, the aim being to prevent 
too much unfairness in the availability of books or other media depending 
on their social background.

Specifying the school’s function in relation to content

Many questions need to be dealt with at the level of the individual school, 

and even the most centralized systems, which have long believed that they could 
economize on content development at this level, have realized that content is 
implemented in schools and the school is thus the great revealer. 

As noted in Chapter 9 above, it is important that the school authorities do 

what they can, using measures properly tailored to the local situations, to ensure that 
the school is the natural place for curriculum development within groups, within 
disciplines and across disciplines, subject, of course, to the limits of what the external 
regulations allow. Curricula constitute one of the fl agship components of the school’s 
planning and of the leadership exercised within it, not least with a view to:

• detailed awareness of curricula taught in practice; research into the 

relationships among content prescribed, content actually taught and content 
in fact assimilated; detailed study of pupil attainment in both the short and 
long terms, the impact of pupils’ studies on their socialization, their further 
education, their lives and their economic fortunes;

•  explaining content to the various stakeholders, from the teachers most 

directly concerned to everyone else including, as noted above, pupils and 
parents;

•  a collective search for solutions to pupils’ learning diffi

  culties, not only in 

terms of teaching methods but also through specially developed content. 

Whatever the system of education, individual schools must no longer be marked, 

as is all too often the case in regard to educational content, by non-accountability, 
passivity, blind application of rules imposed from outside, piecemeal implementation 
by teachers who never meet each other and disciplines jealous of their own domain. 
Th

  ey must acquire full and accountable control over the activity of all of its content 

stakeholders.

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SUMMARY FOR ACTION: POLITICAL CHOICES AND TECHNICAL PRECAUTIONS

Assessments, and conclusions on living content

Th

 e fi nal operation is the one that gives purpose to the whole enterprise. Th

 is 

work has sought to develop a certain conception of the issues involved in specifying 
educational content; it would be utterly at variance with that conception if it were 
to end by suggesting that the task could be done once and for all. On the contrary, if 
content is to be in step with changes in society and science, then it must naturally be 
constantly updated, or at least at regular periods announced in advance. 

It is accordingly essential that the assessment of educational content as 

recommended here should, from the outset, create a general attitude of humility that 
makes the revision of content not an exception, but the most normal of professional 
tasks. Observance of regular procedures for content revision is hardly necessary 
if a community has only an enrolment policy and considers its duty to be done 
once children and adolescents are in school. If, on the other hand, a community is 
concerned with the quality of education, and the potential benefi ts of education to 
individuals and society, then there obviously has to be well-established procedures 
for updating, adaptation, responding to problems raised by assessments.

Th

 e point, indeed, is to establish permanent relations through education 

between, on the one hand, a democratic society in which questions about collective 
aims and purposes can and must be asked, and, on the other, a knowledge society with 
a human face. Is it a better response to complain about the lack of benchmarks in the 
modern world, or, on the contrary, to see that the extended schooling now available 
to the majority of young people – for the very fi rst time in human history – confers 
on education a high degree of responsibility for proposing such benchmarks?

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Th

  e content of secondary 

education around the world:
present position 
and strategic choices

Secondary education in the twenty-

fi

 rst century

Th

 

e content of secondar

y education ar

ound the world: pr

esent position and strategic choices

“P

rimary education for young children concentrates on literacy and the 
acquisition of skills defi ned without giving rise to any controversy; higher 

education aims at specialized knowledge. What kind of education should be 
provided between these two stages? Th

  e predominant feeling at present is that this 

stage is of capital importance, since it is the stage at which the future worker, citizen 
and adult must be trained. Who, then, can deny that it would be a grave mistake to 
overlook the issue.”

Under the auspices of UNESCO’s Section for General Secondary Education, Roger-
François Gauthier analyses the content of secondary education around the world, 
illustrating how issues of content, long neglected or taken for granted, are in fact of 
strategic importance for the success of educational policies.

Th

  is work draws the attention of decision-makers and teachers to the vast scope 

and importance of a subject which must be dealt with clearly, methodically and by 
consensus if the young are to be provided with the best possible combination of 
knowledge, skills and values.

by

Roger-François Gauthier


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