The future of curricula design: knowledge vs. intelligence

Is it possible we’re about to see a big change in the way we approach curricula design? In a world where Artificial Intelligence (AI) machines can access, deliver and learn an almost infinite amount of information in a matter of milliseconds, does it really make sense to be teaching students facts and figures?

The ascent of AI in education is signalling a shift from knowledge-based curricula towards intelligence-based curricula. This post explores the differences between both perspectives and what this will mean for how we approach curriculum design in the future.

Knowledge vs intelligence

Knowledge (noun)

  1. facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.

Intelligence (noun) 

  1. the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

In traditional knowledge-based curricula, students are taught and tested on facts, figures, content and ideas. In an intelligence-based curriculum, however, the onus is on preparing students to think critically, creatively and inquisitively about the information they acquire.

A movement towards intelligence-based curricula makes sense in a world where AI is able to carry out an increasing number of repetitive and menial tasks, as well as process and provide us with an overwhelming amount of data. The ability to retain and access information becomes increasingly redundant as technology leaves us in its dust.

As a result, we should be looking at how we educate ourselves and our learners to contribute in an AI-rich economy. This mea

ns shifting the focus to intelligence – including emotional intelligence, creativity, and critical thinking skills.

But is a purely intelligence-based curriculum really a good idea? And how might it affect fundamentally knowledge-based subjects like ELT and other modern languages?

The big curricula debate

Curricula design knowledge or intelligence based

Dr. Rose Luckin, a professor of learner-centred design at UCL, argues that knowledge-based curricula taught in schools today are shallow and outdated.

Effectively, they teach students finite modules of information, leaving them to compete with machines that can find, learn and recall facts much faster than they can. This means that, if we value simple knowledge over the treatment of that knowledge and our abilities to analyse it, workplace AI machines will outrank us, outmanoeuvre us and eventually make us all but redundant.

The alternative, she says, is to teach how to be reflective about knowledge through a process she dubs “meta-knowing”.  Instead of, for example, asking how plants convert light into food through photosynthesis, students should be taught to ask how we know it, and why it is important – something machines are less likely to be able to do.

On the other side of the debate, there are those that argue that AI will not make knowledge-based curricula obsolete. Carl Hendrick, Head of Research at Wellington College, argues that, while it is indeed important to teach students how to think about and question information, knowledge itself is a fundamental part of the learning process.

He cites a recent issue with a GCSE English exam where some students misunderstood the word “vocation”, thinking it meant “vacation”, rendering their answers to a particular question irrelevant and incorrect. A lack of concrete knowledge contributed directly to their failure.

Hendrick’s argument is that – for the most part – schools already successfully combine teaching knowledge alongside intelligence-based skills. He suggests that schools do not simply pump out facts for students to memorise, without giving them the critical thinking tools to use what they are learning.

Both Luckin and Henrick make important points. If people are to succeed in the workplace, they will almost certainly need to develop critical thinking skills based around AI-facilitated insights.

However, as Henrick shows, these skills are useless in isolation. In essence, he argues we need to be able to connect what we are experiencing to established knowledge in order to be able to ask the right questions, produce an effective analysis, or to understand and use it.

How to prepare for a world of work facilitated by AI

Perhaps a healthy approach is to think of AI as a means of providing a competitive advantage, rather than as the competition. People who have been taught how to work with advanced AI will not only have an incomprehensible volume of information at their fingertips, but they’ll know how to use it effectively.

AI will replace slow research tasks, take over mundane administration, allowing us to be more creative, more innovative and far more productive – if we use it correctly. That is, if it doesn’t annihilate us in the process.

How to bring this into ELT

The future of curricula design

Currently, ELT is primarily a knowledge-based subject, and until technology renders language learning obsolete (and we don’t foresee that happening anytime soon), students have to make the effort to build their understanding and use of a language.

Will they be able to compete with the speed of an AI translation machine? No.

But, they will be able to participate in culture, conversation and communication – and be richer for it.

Luckin’s notion of meta-knowing also comes into play here. Encouraging students to imagine situations in which they will need a particular language skill can help students understand why they need to learn it and why it is important.  

By teaching emotional intelligence (EQ) in class, teachers can foster the skills students will need in the modern workforce. The ability to express emotion and empathise has always been important – but as jobs become less routine, more analytical, creative and team focused, it will become paramount. Those with strong interpersonal skills will thrive.

ELT learner experience designers might look at including activities that get students reflecting on their progress, or on their feelings and those of others. For example, product teams might consider the following aspects of EQ:

  • Self-awareness, an intrapersonal intelligence that involves identifying and understanding our own feelings.
  • Empathy, an interpersonal intelligence that involves understanding the feelings of others.
  • Sensitivity to others, which is a step on from empathy, means being able to respond to others appropriately.
  • Intrinsic motivation, which involves the ability to self-start and push on through adversity.

Do you think AI is going to affect your teaching for better or worse? Join the debate and leave us a comment below. 

Read more about artificial intelligence in our post AI: a primer

9 thoughts on “The future of curricula design: knowledge vs. intelligence”

  1. I think there may be separate critiques to be had of, on the one hand, knowledge-based curricula and their relation to evolving forms of knowledge storage and recall, and on the other, current examples of knowledge-based curricula in use. Regarding the latter, aspects of the current UK curriculum referred to in the linked articles are arguably straw-men in a narrative of AI-driven evolution of pedagogy: educators have widely criticised curriculum changes of the last 10 years as the result of backward-looking and ideologically-driven policy, indicating that this is a recent and regressive political development rather than a historical status quo only now being challenged by emergent technology. Critical thinking is nothing new, after all. How AI might enhance more holistic approaches to learning already in practice is very interesting, however.

    • Dan, I wish I could understand your extremely dense comments. I am especially interested in what you meant by holistic approaches to learning. If yu mean educating a human being along/in a number of humanistic dimensions I find it ironic that we would consider a created, artificial intelligence for such work.

      • Hi Mike. Yes, that’s more or less what I meant but also to distinguish generally from the sort of knowledge-based curriculum I think is being used to try and draw a clear distinction between knowledge and intelligence. I don’t think that is possible, but I think it’s indisputable that the way we access knowledge in the process of learning has changed in the digital age, and the way that knowledge is organised, interpreted and made accessible in different forms is changing with AI. There are already ELT-related applications of this, for example in corpus linguistics. I’m not sure why that is inherently contradictory to holistic learning. Learning technology often emerges as an attempt to reduce cognitive load, or barriers to access, in one way or another – the hard-copy book that can be duplicated and distributed is arguably more ‘artificial’ than word-of-mouth transmission of knowledge, but allows societies to develop more complex learning cultures. Then we came up with indexes so we didn’t have to read the entire book to enquire about particular items of interest. And so on. So I’m interested in what AI might enable us to focus on in the learning process, in a similar fashion but on a potentially much vaster scale.

        • Dan I am afraid that learning technologies are being developed by private businesses to segment and dominate WHOLE markets which is, as you can tell, the primary language of business.

          Business will hijack these language games teachers play (knowledge vs. intelligence). They will make it appear as if teachers are concerned by such nonsense. What I wish to know is who will benefit from the emergence of these systems and how transparent will the information they learn be.

          Anyone that thinks that such systems can be value neutral should take a look at Facebook and see how they have helped subvert (by attending to profit) the very freedoms which made such businesses possible.

  2. Tim, I hope that you can reformulate this article with “levels” and “ages” in mind. In my experience language teaching up to a lexical level of say 3,000 words (beyond the age of 6) is, generally speaking, simply a process of giving students “words” for what they already know. At this level the introduction and transmission of new knowledge by the language teacher (except importantly for cultural knowledge) is minimal. This notion calls into question the changes that you seem to be calling for.

    And in terms of cultural knowledge, well, such knowledge is often knowledge that serves as a foundation upon which new knowledge is built (entire schemas). I don’t believe we can rely on just-in-time information from computers to substitute for such schema building knowledge.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

      Your point about taking ages and levels into account is a good one. There is certainly a large amount of knowledge-based learning that needs to occur in relation to a learner’s L1.

      I don’t think we’re necessarily calling for any changes, specifically. Rather exploring the ideas / implications given the research carried out by Dr. Luckin. If we’re calling for anything, it is perhaps an assessment of to what extent language learners are given opportunities to reflect on how they know what they know, to develop and nurture EQ as part of their learning process.



  3. Tim, nice post and an interesting issue. But I think you’re setting up a straw man with a false equivalence or false dichotomy. Most ELT teachers/schools use a combined approach and have done for 40 years or more with CLT! Remember that IH invented CELTA in 1952…

    CLT needs to have a knowledge-based curriculum of language items that learners will deploy, and also an intelligence-based curriculum comprising the communicative skills, communication strategies, & intercultural competences that learners acquire from the activities the teacher sets up.

    It’s not at all the case that ELT teachers were all in the dark ages of knowledge-based curricula a la Grammar-Translation approach, until ELTjam came up with this new whizz-bang concept….(which you read about in a book recently). But keep up the debate! 🙂

    • Hi Mike,

      Lovely to hear from you and thanks for posting a comment.

      Totally agree that CLT combines both knowledge- and intelligence-based approaches. Perhaps what we want to explore with this post is whether we need to assess the nature and function of those intelligence-based curricula given the dramatic changes taking place in work, skills, etc. Especially since 1952.

      We’re not insinuating that all teachers were in the dark ages, nor are we suggesting that we have come with an entirely new concept. We just want to start a new, fresh conversation about something that has become the bedrock of ELT practice.

      And, I would argue that it’s still OK to read a book and have ideas as a result. Fundamentally, that is what this post is concerned with.

      All the best,


  4. Earlier I called this “dichotomy” nonsense. I do apologize for such hyperbole.

    But I completely agree with Michael C. above that this is a false dichotomy. Your definitions underscore how closely both concepts are tied to skills. In ELT, as opposed to other academic disciplines, we are mostly concerned with developing skills. Moreover, the process of seeing ELT as a skill development process (as opposed to studying discrete, unconnected, inert knowledge) is more alive than ever. Over the years we seem to further embrace skill development and move away from learning English as an academic subject. I believe we are already far ahead of where Dr. Rose Luckin is trying to get.

    So I would be very cautious in seeking to import Dr. Rose Luckin’s ideas without acknowledging how we are different and ahead of other academic disciplines:

    1. We are already highly focused on skill development.
    2. Our beginning and intermediate students can generally succeed by simply transferring what they already know into English.
    3. The information we do try to teach, i.e. grammar, is thought to serve as a foundation upon which skills are built and as such is also seen as “foundational knowledge.” Moreover the extent to which the information we teach (mostly grammar) is foundational is continuously debated and researched (Who else does this? Not many).

    Also, in posting about a subject that is close to my heart — A.I. — Tim, it appears you have gotten caught up in considering a minor tributary, a tiny meandering stream. Is this posting actually asking, “How should ELT teachers help prepare students for a world full of Artificial Intelligence? Is EQ the answer?” If so, it might be better to ask the question directly.

    Finally, on a related note, I don’t think ELT teachers are AT ALL prepared to teach EQ in class. Such would require that we completely reinvent teacher training so that we can begin to teach these skills at a level beyond simple Pop Psychology (I think back to how poorly ELT teachers and PUBLISHERS butchered learning styles). Now, chew on that one.


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