A Harvard University education expert says the school curriculum "created a century ago" needs updating, but most local high-school principals do not agree.

Dr Tony Wagner, a senior research fellow at Harvard University, spoke recently at an event organised by Priority One and The University of Waikato in Tauranga.

He said that the school curriculum needed to change to prepare students for the modern world.

"The creative problem-solving skills that businesses increasingly need in their people are not being taught in our education system, which was developed a century ago to produce a workforce for a world that no longer exists."

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While Te Puke High School principal Alan Liddle agreed with the comments, other principals the Bay of Plenty Times spoke to did not.

Liddle said the nature of work would change, with research indicating students too will need to change.

New Zealand society had an "obsession for assessment", with educators around the world struggling to keep up with students' changing needs, Liddle said.

However, Tauranga Boys' College principal Robert Mangan attended the presentation and, while he agreed with some of the points Wagner made, he said it was "a very harsh comment" to make about New Zealand schools.

Students still needed a meaningful qualification to get forward in the world and it was the school's responsibility to offer students that, he said.

The college was focused on growing "21st-century skills" to prepare students for the changing work environment.

For example, some of the Year 9 and Year 10 students had "inquiry classes", where students learned about maths, science and English through investigating a question for a class assignment.

Otumoetai College principal Russell Gordon said the curriculum was not an impediment, as the school was encouraged to create a local syllabus to suit the community's needs and to grow the character of students.

Gordon said while cultivating students' skills and character were important, the curriculum should not be completely scrapped as some knowledge was important.

"You don't just wake up one day and solve Pythagoras' theorem," said Gordon.

He said some business leaders today were educated in the "chalk and talk" system and were able to navigate the changes happening in today's society.

Skills were valuable when transferring between jobs and industries, but Gordon said it was a student's character that was vital - especially when it came to being resilient.

Instead of focusing on academic studies, he recommended skills like collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity were fostered, along with resilience.

Fostering empathy was also vital, as this trait could not be replicated by artificial intelligence - yet.

Andrew Palmer, the owner and director of 3D printing company Palmer Design and Manufacturing Ltd, said he agreed resilience was necessary for the innovation industry.

The ideal 3D printer innovator was a self-determined person "that doesn't need an award every five minutes" and "thinks outside the box", he said.

Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said the current system tended not to foster learning by trial and error, which might hinder innovation as students were afraid of failing.

"We need to encourage curiosity and imagination in our young people to enable them to be creative problem solvers and the active citizens we need for the future," he said.

Priority One Instep manager Lyn Parlane said the next generation of workers needed to be flexible yet strong in the face of adversity.

"It is crucial as a country we are to remain competitive on a global stage. Our economic and social development depends on it."

Ministry of Education deputy secretary early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor-Reid said in a written statement that the school curriculum aimed to prepare students for life after school through a range of approaches.

She said there was a range of gateway programmes that helped students transition into tertiary studies.