In education, we often look to the future, while also being told our schools are stuck in the past.
While there are innovative learning spaces in many schools, classrooms may look similar to the onlooker over time—often with a version of desks, chairs, writable and projectable surfaces, and students of the same age learning in the same space—but the learning and teaching that goes on is not the one-size-fits-all chalk-and-talk of old. There is, of course, an important place for teacher knowledge and for explicit instruction. A classroom observer might not see, looking in, what students are doing, and what platforms they are using to learn. They might not see, unless they speak to the students, that the content is being accessed via a ranges of modes and supports such as video instruction, collaborative online spaces, cloud documents, assistive and adaptive technologies, multimodal resources, tiered tasks, student choice, and self-paced learning modules. They are unlikely to see the depth of the teacher’s knowledge of the diverse learning, social and emotional needs of each learner, and the ways in which the teacher is generating a range of data on student learning, and subtly adjusting environment, content, and learning process and product, in order to support the success of each child. They may not observe the layers of student goal-setting, self-reflection, and action on ongoing feedback.
While schools may have moved further in their practice than some commentators would argue, schools exist within the current instability and volatility of the world, along with the rapidly changing nature of work. At a time of systemic exhaustion and tidal uncertainty, it is sometimes challenging to find hope, optimism, and a sense of excitement about the future. The global geopolitical economic outlook is distressing, and plagued by rising inequality, conflict, widening polarisation, pandemics, climate crises, constraints on national resources, and a gender gap predicted to take another 132 years to close.
Organisations around the world are describing future trajectories that blend hazard with opportunity. The CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for example, recently identified seven megatrends:
- A volatile changing climate with economic and social costs.
- An increased focus on cleaner and greener energy sources.
- A ‘burning platform’ of escalating health challenges including an ageing population and growing burden of chronic and infectious diseases, and psychological distress.
- Geopolitical tensions and uncertainty.
- Growing economic digitisation of work and the economy.
- An explosion in the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
- A strong consumer and citizen push for the need for public trust in governments and governance.
The World Economic Forum has reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with gender, socio-economic status, location and ethnicity influencing students’ access to education.
What are educators, schools, and the education system to do, to ensure that students are being prepared for their futures in such times?
The WEF report identifies areas for opportunity in education, including:
- Alternative and additional ways of assessing and tracking student learning.
- Learning integrated with employers and industry.
- Flexible credentialling and development of skills wallets or passports.
- Harnessing sophisticated technologies for learning such as AI and other computer-assisted-instruction systems.
- Investment in teachers’ learning and time.
Schools are experimenting with many of these things, such as alternative ways to record evidence of student learning, and to track, monitor and build portfolios and ‘learner profiles’ of student success. Content is being offered in increasingly innovative and flexible ways, including microcredentialing and courses focused on wellbeing, social justice, service, character, and learner capabilities, as well as traditional knowledges. As an example, this term in some of the Future Ready courses at my school, Year 6s are designing solutions to a health and wellbeing issue based on immersion in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3, Year 7s are designing a future school, Year 8s are writing a ‘Close the Gap’ campaign pledge, Year 9s are engaging in a global gamified sustainability challenge, and Year 10s are completing a self-chosen microcredential as well as a choice between earning their Provide First Aid certification or pitching their ‘side hustle’ business idea in an entrepreneurship course.
Student voices, as well as teacher, parent and community voices, are key as we think about shaping education. Schools are trialling approaches that serve the needs of their communities, such as flexible and alternate timetable arrangements, flexible working arrangements for staff, flexible learning options for students, hybrid teaching and learning environments, flexible pathways through and beyond school, and delivery of courses across schools and organisations.
One of the OECD’s ‘four scenarios for future schooling’ envisions schools as learning hubs that strengthen personalised learning pathways as part of an ecosystem of networked education spaces, with strong partnerships with external institutions, such as museums, libraries, residential centres, and technological hubs. As someone who has worked in independent schools for over 20 years, I see our responsibility as to cultivate a collaborative and networked education world, sharing with one another, and with educators more broadly, the work and innovation in which we engage. Platforms like my blog, books and podcast are attempts to share and collaborate with others in the education space. While the marketing firehose and facilities arms race can position schools as competitors, we will build a better education system if we see one another as partners and networked collaborators. We are better together, for the future of our students and the planet. We can enact the kinds of opportunities, relationships, and voice we would like to see in the world for our students, who are the people who will positively influence the future world.