Education and Skills

5 ways to bring school curricula up to speed

French schoolchildren in Montereau-Fault-Yonne, near Paris

Adapting to a changing world … French schoolchildren in Montereau-Fault-Yonne, near Paris. Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Asheesh Advani
President and Chief Executive Officer, JA Worldwide
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

With technology advancing at an unparalleled speed and scale, the process by which educational institutions develop and adopt new curricula no longer moves fast enough to prepare young people for the future of work. The curriculum development and implementation processes often take years and may be decided without the input of local or regional employers. They’re so time-consuming that even cutting-edge skills and information can be outdated when the new curriculum is adopted. What’s more, some educational institutions still focus on rote memorization and test performance, instead of on experiential learning, soft-skills acquisition and changes in mindset.

The time is ripe for a new curriculum-adoption process, one that marries employers’ needs with student learning in real time, operating at the speed of technology. Here’s how:

1. Partner with employers

ManpowerGroup’s recent global survey of 40,000 employers in dozens of countries found that 45% can’t find candidates with the skills they need. In Latin America, 50% of employers say they can’t find employees with suitable skills, at the same time as two out of five young people in the region are neither in school nor in the workforce. In Kenya, curricula that remain out of step with the needs of employers is threatening to undermine the country’s burgeoning petroleum industry. And in the UK, 90% of employers struggle to find employees with the right skill set, and two-thirds of employers believe the problem will either remain the same or get worse over the next three to five years.

As a result, some companies are hiring employees who lack the requisite skill set but show an aptitude for learning, and then training them for the job, essentially bypassing public education systems. Companies that circumvent established education systems in favor of their own only exacerbate the issue. Instead, employers and educators need to closely align.

Of course, high schools and colleges are more than a training ground for work; they prepare young people for life. The Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes all recently articulated the value of a liberal arts education. Likewise, developing good citizens has long been a pillar of educational institutions across the globe, helping youth learn to serve their communities and become active global citizens. And a teacher’s ability to inculcate empathy and respect through cross-cultural learning opportunities has never been more relevant and necessary. Clearly, curricula cannot be driven entirely by employers’ needs.

However, we do young people a disservice by not working with local and regional employers to understand their skills gaps. Plugging these employment gaps not only benefits students’ long-term job prospects, but also immunizes communities against higher rates of youth unemployment and underemployment and the subsequent risks and consequences. In The Global Risks Report 2018, the World Economic Forum ranks youth unemployment as one of three global risks that are most likely to lead to social exclusion, destabilized economies and polarized politics, all leading to more regional and global migration. Youth “joblessness remains alarmingly high in some countries and regions,” according to the report, and “even where job creation has picked up since the crisis, concerns are rising about the growing prevalence of low-quality employment and the rise of the gig economy.”

2. Teach skills that change mindsets

It’s not only employers who need certain skills in their workforce to succeed; students need them for their long-term success. Here’s how we described the phenomenon in a G20 policy paper we recently co-authored with The Brookings Institution:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the WEF Closing the Skills Gap Project argue that the convergence of globalization, digitalization and demographic changes have reshaped the skills required for future work. Informality and a move away from a long-term manufacturing labor force means young people, school systems must be equipped to adapt to the changes in the labor market to take advantages of opportunities. This means a move away from schools teaching specific knowledge for tasks, to helping children and youths learn how to learn – giving them the capabilities to continually acquire new knowledge and work with others.

In “Skills for a Changing World”, Brookings undertook a scan of 102 countries to ascertain the breadth of skills that were included within their policies and curriculum. They found that the majority of countries intended to include a wide range of skills, but this range narrowed when examining actual documentation and curriculum. The most popular skills were communication, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. They conclude that the need to focus on a wider range of skills has existed for some time, at least in the rhetoric of education systems. But more needs to be done to ensure this translates into classroom practices.

3. Opt for experience-based learning

Although books and lectures have a place in the classroom, for students to be competitive in the workplace, the current ratio needs to flip – from students mostly working alone at their desks, to collaborating with small teams on real-world issues in which students have a stake.

In JA’s learning-by-doing programs, we get young people out of their seats and into the boardroom, as they build companies from the ground up. They develop a product they are capable of producing and create a business around it, serving as the company’s leadership, production staff and salesforce. As they learn and do, they multiply their self-efficacy – the knowledge that they have the skills to succeed and will eventually do so, in spite of disappointments and failures that crop up along the way. Students roll up their shirt sleeves and dive directly into the world of business, often creating a product that has societal benefits beyond profitability, all while learning critical entrepreneurship and employment skills.

In the same way, JA Job Shadow gives students access to role models at a 1 to 1 ratio, allowing them the attention of an executive for a full day in a way that a classroom never can. In addition to giving students experience and a growing support network, job shadowing helps them develop the self-efficacy that comes from meeting role models who provide positive encouragement and serve as living examples of what’s possible.

4. Rethink curriculum refresh rates

Does the following sound familiar? You work at a secondary school or university, and it’s time for another curriculum update. A committee begins a process to evaluate and revise the skills and knowledge they believe students will need over the next 10 to 15 years. A year or two later, the school begins rolling out new and updated courses and textbooks. But by the time students take their first classes under the new protocol, several years have passed since the committee first formed, and the new curriculum already shows signs of being outdated.

There is another way:

Improve your refresh rate. If you’re old enough to remember flickering television screens, you’re already familiar with refresh rate, which refers to the number of times a TV or computer screen is refreshed, per second. Likewise, with curricula updates, the higher the refresh rate, the more often you’re reviewing and revising your curriculum. Instead of refreshing every 10 to 15 years, curriculum reviews need to happen continuously, with significant updates executed every five years, at most.

Take a lean-manufacturing approach. One of the tenets of lean manufacturing is that one never stops trying to improve processes, no matter how much progress is made and how well efficiencies are achieved. Whether applied to an assembly-line production rate, a hospital’s emergency room wait time, or the line for a ride at Disneyland or KidZania, the goal is to halve the time caused by delays via process improvements that come from the question, “How can we do this better?” Once new processes are introduced to achieve those time reductions, a new goal is set to halve them again, asking, “Okay, now how can we do this better?” Good teachers do this as a matter of habit, but policymakers and educational curriculum committees meet too infrequently to be agile enough to continuously modernize what is taught. One way of remaining agile is to take a page from Ontario’s playbook: the Canadian province focuses on teaching overall objectives, trusting its professional teachers to choose specific objectives that can help achieve them.

Combined, these two simple-to-understand (but difficult-to-execute) approaches have the potential to modernize curriculum development. If schools are continuously refreshing their curricula needs (for example, by creating a system by which teachers, local employers, parents and students can suggest curricular updates in real time and have them evaluated and, possibly, implemented within days or weeks) while also challenging themselves to halve their adoption timeline, and halve it again, schools can begin to update their curricula at the speed of technology – and of society. For schools to keep pace with changing technology, the best investment of resources is the creation of curricular documents that support the idea of teachers as experts in teaching and learning and that focus on skill and competency development. As you may expect, this approach necessitates a greater investment in professional development or requires a lengthier teacher-education program.

5. Push the technology envelope

Students aren’t simply observers of the technology of the future, plodding their way across an ever-changing tech landscape over which they have no control. Instead, young people play a critical role in the direction in which technology develops. Even if the code that students learn, the virtual reality they experience, and the 3D printed objects they design today are hopelessly out of date by the time they enter the workforce, the technology they’re exposed to today teaches them to be unafraid of new developments, to embrace the learning curve of each new advancement, and then to harness it to create the Next Big Thing. Don’t let the perfect interfere with the good: any technology-based learning sets young people up for future technological success.

One generation ago, we used dial-up to connect to Netscape. Amazon was a small online bookstore. Facebook didn’t exist, and neither did Uber, WeChat, M-Pesa, Airbnb, or the iPhone. No one answered if you asked Alexa how to spell “achievement”, and cutting-edge technology in entertainment meant six-CD changers and expensive DVD players. Perhaps more importantly, cancer and AIDS had much higher rates of mortality, and predicting diseases with genetic testing was the subject of science fiction. So just imagine what technological and humanitarian advances today’s youth can deliver a generation from now if they’re trained not only to be consumers of technology, but also the creators, improvers, and extenders of it. To do so, educators need to adapt new curricula at the speed of technology, developing skills and competencies that cannot be readily replaced by computers.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsJobs and the Future of WorkSocial InnovationEconomic Growth
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