When it comes to the future of education we can make ours the words of novelist Vaddey Ratner when she has one of her characters describe her feelings at age 9, saying that “she was aware of so much and understood so little”. And that is more or less the feeling for most educators trying to embrace this ineffably promising and yet tantalizing future of schools.
On the one hand, we are aware of so much. We know that school systems need to change drastically to suit a completely redefined learning paradigm based on infinite abundance, being the first generation of educators to have access to all accumulated human content. And yet, the unfathomably frenetic rate of change, the intrinsic instability of the future that we are preparing our students for, and a maelstrom of forces that are sometimes conflicting, coupled with our ageless mindset of trying to plan linearly and meticulously, all conspire to the tremendous challenge awaiting us. Those forward thinking educators attempting to transcend the clichés generated by experts and gurus find it, hard, despite their best intentions, to start taking decisive steps towards building the school of the future.
When faced with so much, it’s easy to get lost amidst the whirlwind of seemingly contradictory stimuli, and, especially, to try to apply the tried and tested tenets of educational research to a scenario that does not lend itself well to the existing axioms of social research: the half-life of education interventions far exceeds the timing for action, and there is no discernible way to measure quality and effectiveness in education.
How to go about building the school of the future, then? For starters, we need to relinquish and unlearn our timeless reflexes about proven strategies. There is no time and no way to wait until a certain strategy or intervention yields measurable results. Given the basic principles of education for the future, efforts to reshape school practice must be focused on those processes that will undoubtedly yield positive outcomes for students. Regardless of formal measurements or, lo and behold, research based strategies, there are certain one-way, irreversible building blocks for the school of the future and working towards developing and then consolidating those areas is, paradoxically, the safest bet at an era where incrementalism is riskier than bold action.
Without incurring in the formulation of yet another counterintuitive taxonomy, since the future that is, by definition, uncertain, defies our very human need for classification, the following are some of the building blocks of the school of the future, every one of which are predicated on characteristics of the new knowledge paradigm, that, irrespective of future technology developments and other changes, will still hold valid.
Lifelong learning is the objective of school. Far transcending content and even skills, undisputedly, the main objective of any school system anywhere in the world is to graduate students that are able and, even more importantly, motivated to learn their entire lives.
A student centered school. In a world as full of opportunity as tantalizing in its dynamism, students need to take ownership of their learning process and make decisions and choices regarding their own learning. Spoon feeding our students may result in learning more content, but it is actually doing them a disservice in preparing them for a world where they will have to find their own role in the knowledge society.
Technology as a positive disruption. Technology, the greatest catalyst to take advantage of infinite learning opportunities, should be a disruptive force that results in more engaging and fun learning, and not an inadequate medium to perpetuate a model that is obsolete. Digitization is probably the greatest enemy of progress in education, in that it only serves to appease well-meaning educators by making them believe they are using technology when what they are actually doing is merely converting the traditional model to the digital medium.
Higher order skills. Regardless of names and taxonomies, the new and evolved learning paradigm where all human knowledge is potentially just a few keystrokes away challenges us to develop some completely new skills, like dealing with an overwhelming amount of data, as well as reassessing the relative importance of some of the traditional skills, like creativity and critical thinking. When all is said and done, being able to think and develop new ideas becomes paramount, and school does very little in its current incarnation to foster the acquisition of these and other higher order thinking skills.
New literacies. Even as we decry the death of the physical book and lament the unstoppable advance of multimedia in all its forms, schools must propitiate the learning of new literacies, with a special focus on multimedia creation and comprehension.
Design and product creation. Project-based learning, solving real-life problems, developing products and many other pedagogical manifestations need to embody both the learning process as well as the ability to create and think critically.
A global mindset. The world is irreversibly globalized, and schools should cater for the development of a strong personal and community identity in order to become full-fledged citizens of the global world and take advantage of the unlimited opportunities offered by the flat playground, as open to possibilities as it can be unsettling in its complexity.
Collaboration. Schools are yet to adopt collaboration as the default mode of learning, still fixated in individual work and assessment for the sake of accountability. In a world where the moment they step out of their last formal learning experience our students will be working in teams their entire life, schools need to make collaboration the norm and not the exception.
Online interactions. Albeit regretting the unprecedented difficulty in comprehending some unique personal and social interactions that are becoming increasingly intense and complex, schools must embrace the online world as an area where students need to apply both their learning skills and their values, as an extension or, better said, simply as a part of their everyday lives.
As it can be seen, again, taxonomies notwithstanding, every one of the above principles are not only irrefutable in their importance but also immutable in their substantial effect on the school of the future. There are also mostly counterintuitive to much of what is done in schools, and, as such, they are unlikely to get worked on from top-down processes of systemic change. Developing the school of the future is more of an organic process, where strategic and targeted initiatives can initiate a long-term process that will, eventually, become self-sustainable in a renewed school culture.