Creating a 21st Century Syllabus

Albert Schweitzer once said, “I don’t know what your destiny may be, but one thing I know. The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Powerful claim.

In the age of digital immigrants, natives, and net generations, where an i-market has created an i-army of consumers and followers, perhaps the notion of healthy service has been confused with a kind of enslavement.  Competition for university entrance, brand name schools, high-end results, etc., places students under enormous pressure to perform for fear of being left behind.  They are in perpetual motion, running up the down escalator with no emergency stop button to let them catch their breaths, or take stock of where they’ve been or where they’re headed, or sadly, if they even want to run in that direction.  The path is set for them and we tell them to run.

In this flurry of fear and action, students think only of themselves in their contests for success.  There is no time to consider others, no time for real service as someone else might pass them in the never-ending race to ‘success’.  The result?  The i-army is cut off from others, from the self.  When ‘successes’ are achieved, they seem empty, transitory, because students have no time to reflect on them as they are pushed forward to the next escalator. There is no joy in the process; sadder still, there is no joy in the success.  Achievement is fleeting and unfulfilling.

In Schweitzer’s words, service to others is essential for one’s happiness.  Schools are recognizing this imperative and applying it in new ways.  They are re-thinking 21st century education in the context of service.  What is more, they are inviting students to the table, to be active participants in this dialogue.  There is a newfound focus in the desire to enfranchise students. Craig and Marc Kielburger’s Free the Children and Me To We are clear examples of this shift.  Students across the country workshop ideas and strategies to bring awareness of the realities of poverty and child labour to their schools and communities.  Students raise funds through service initiatives to provide materials for the construction of schools and wells in various communities across the globe.

As students are invited to consider, at times create, and impact on their curriculum, they develop accountability for their education.  They develop life skills for the 21st century.  Studies show that students who contribute to the way they learn develop lasting pride, ownership, and curiosity in what they learn.  Dr. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Berkshire contends, “These lessons will challenge pupils to explore themselves and their talents, learn in a practical way how to better look after their bodies, minds and emotions, enhance their relationship with others, with technology and the environment, and help them to learn how to make themselves, not others (including friends and parents), the masters of their lives.” What educational curriculum would not want to embrace these objectives and develop free-thinking and responsible individuals?  Asked to present their version of a free-thinking and responsible curriculum, two high school students in Ontario produced the mind map below.  It’s worth a look.






Happiness and service are linked by ownership and self-determination.  Students need time to think about what will be meaningful, to them.  But where in our congested and frantic timetables do we provide time for this kind of reflection and meditation?

Where do we provide occasion for students to pause and reflect, breathe and wonder?  To know who they are, and not who their parents, coaches, teachers, schools, media think they should be?  When do we allow students time to have these vital conversations with themselves?  It’s not in the curriculum.  Not yet.

Nigel Barlow, at the Apple Education Leadership Institute 2012, Toronto, introduced the idea of building quiet time into the structure of the day.  He recommends fifteen minutes of uninterrupted meditation, twice a day, school-wide.  He cites the Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California as an exemplar of the Transcendental Meditation Program in practice.


Fifteen minutes, twice a day, school-wide.   Everyone quiet.  Still with their thoughts.  Recalibrating, breathing, calming down and listening to the voice within, as opposed to the pervasive and invasive voices of media, teachers, parents, and the incessant honking of horns on the information highway.   As small and subtle as this shift may appear, the results indicate that reflection is critical for learning.

Students who have a voice in determining what they learn will experience the real joy in learning.  That, in turn, makes our service as teachers genuine and fulfilling.

3 thoughts on “Creating a 21st Century Syllabus

  1. I really like this proposal. Time for students to reflect is invaluable but it’s something they don’t know that they want or need because they’re too busy with our stuff and their stuff. Will the teachers who are driven to complete the course want to “forfeit” what the cynical among them will say is time better spent on the curriculum? That response pretty well killed the quiet reading/reflection period at my school in no time. The real challenge here is to convince the teachers to back off and, in the words of Pink Floyd, “leave those kids alone.” It means the opposite of abandon them. In some ways they do know what they need more than we do. Though we might have to remind them that they don’t need a smartphone or FB for those conversations with the self.

  2. When I read your post I could not help but connect it to the TED Talk I watched last night.

    In it Bunker Roy speaks about his inner conflict as a graduate of “all the right schools”. Given some reflection time after being exposed to India’s poorest he made a profound life decision that has now in a his small way helped change the world.

    I think about our own service learning experiences and how the most powerful ones are the ones that force students to slow down, reflect and think about what they are seeing and doing.

  3. How wonderful it would be if teachers and students could have even 15 minutes once a day for meditation and quiet reflection! Our students are constantly surrounded by stimuli. Do any independent schools have Quiet Time programs or meditation?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.