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Skip to 0 minutes and 21 seconds You know, I think one of the most important questions that we face these days in education is– well, one sentence– it’s what’s worth learning? What’s worth learning for contemporary times? What’s worth learning for the next 20 years, 30 years? And the trouble is this very, very important question is really not asked nearly often enough. Discourse around education tends to be about method. How are we going to get youngsters to learn what we’ve decided they ought to learn. I think that we need to think in terms of educating for the unknown, for what might come up, for nimble ways of thinking about it, for large understandings that can help us code the unexpected, as well as the expected.

Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds And to me, that means that 90% of what we typically teach is a waste of time. 90% of what we teach probably constitutes particular skills and particular nuggets of knowledge that those kids will never encounter again in a significant way in their lives. It just doesn’t matter. Well, that is completely bizarre. We simply have to do better than that. But it’s very interesting to ask what this might mean in the context of the disciplines– physics, history, so forth, and so on. What is one to do with them and how are they relevant? One way to think about it is that we need to teach content looking for what you might call understandings of wide scope.

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 second Not the narrow, deep pieces of knowledge that make up a large part of any discipline, but the ways in which the discipline looks outside itself. There are many rich insights to be found in literature and history, and science, mathematics, geography– wherever you want– that can speak very broadly to the lives people live, but they’re not the basis of how curriculum is typically organised. We need to rethink that. It’s very challenging, because in my experience, curriculum is one of the most resistant fronts of education.

Professor David Perkins: What's worth learning?

“A good university teacher ensures that students have a thorough understanding of fundamental concepts, if necessary at the expense of covering excessive content” (Kember & McNaught, 2007, p. 158).

What’s worth learning? Do we, as educators, in fact ask ourselves this question often enough, when designing courses and programs in our institutions?

In the following video, Professor Perkins (Research Professor of Teaching and Learning, Harvard Graduate School of Education) invites educators to consider how we teach our students for the unknown. In the video, Professor Perkins considers what he calls large ‘understandings of wide scope’, for a world that is rapidly changing. He emphasises the importance of translating knowledge into understanding - to think with what we know.

As you watch the video consider the reflection and talking points below and think about your own professional situation:

Reflection point

  • What are the ideas, or questions, relevant to your teaching practice that arise for you from David Perkins’ video?
  • If students take a deep approach in your discipline, what can they do?
  • Can you identify the factors that might contribute to students taking this deep approach?

Talking point

Professor Perkins makes the claim that 90% of what we teach is a waste of time. Do you agree or disagree?

Provide a comment on this page if you agree or disagree together with a sentence to explain why.


Kember, D. & McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: lessons from research into award-winning teachers. London: Routledge.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

UNSW Sydney