This scenario is written from a future perspective.
When I think back on the educational experiences of my parents and grandparents, I am so thankful for the opportunities I have had. I can’t imagine ever returning to the factory model…no, I would even call it a military model where students all had to run the same exercises and were pitted against one another with testing, academic ranking and remedial programs. I love my new job as a teacher, but don’t think it is a vocation I would have ever pursued in the old system.
The irony is that all we did was to apply what our ancestors already knew about what works in education. They did all the pioneering research. It just took The Crisis for us to restructure education to turn the research into practice. I think it is also important to note that while technology has provided important tools in creating this new system, they are only tools and could have just as easily been used to develop something quite different. The changes I have outlined below resulted not just from new technology, but from the will of the people to recreate a system of education that could truly help our world citizens to be all they could be. We couldn’t afford to have talent and brainpower underutilized as we faced the complex problems of environmental degradation, international finance, peacekeeping, feeding an exploding population and multi-national corporation takeovers. While the World Bank has certainly had problems of their own, we took to heart their theme, “Learning for All” Simply put, there was too much at stake to ignore it.
Invest early. It starts at an early age. Parents truly are their child’s first teachers, so we began to include more about brain and cognitive development in the old high school classes and incorporated more hands on experience in working with young children – how to read to them, how to use positive discipline approaches, how to encourage their creativity and curiosity, etc. Parents now know that the best preschool experience for their child is not one that sits them at tables to do worksheets but one that helps structure play experiences in a way that capitalizes on teachable moments. We have applied that same system to most subject matter for all ages- introduce the learners to the key information and help them find life experiences in which to observe and practice those principles in action. School is an important contributor to this system, but so are families and communities, both geographical ones and communities of interest.
Invest smartly. A very different feature here is that much of this is content driven rather than age driven. There may be what we used to call elementary, middle and high school students all in the same group as some adult learners. What role each individual plays and how that activity is processed varies by developmental level, but they all participate in the same activity. Technology becomes a key as we structure ways to reflect on and learn from the experiences in developmentally appropriate ways. We have discovered this structure is very valuable for at least three reasons. First, newbies have the opportunity to work with more experienced mentors and develop important relationships. Second, it has long been know that the best way to learn something is to teach it and this structure gives the more experienced learners an opportunity to teach the less experiences. Third, it helps each learner begin to build their professional learning network and utilize tools to create meaning and strengthen relationships. The focus overall is learning together.
Throughout a child’s learning “career”, there is still an emphasis on assessment, but the focus has shifted from an achievement mentality to helping that child discover their natural talents and passions (What Ken Robinson calls The Element, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow and Peter Benson called Sparks), setting developmentally appropriate goals and helping the learner measure their progress toward the goal. Again, a key component is helping them to build their personal learning network using tools that fit best with their preferred learning style. It starts by clearly defining goals of what contribution each node makes, but that changes over time as the learner discovers holes, new information or new interests. We have discovered that not only is this much cheaper than all the standardized testing that used to be done, but that achievement levels have gone through the roof. Little did our ancestors realize that the standards they felt were so important to insure every child a good education were actually ceilings that distracted students, teachers and administrators from realizing the full potential of the students.
Notice that the term “students” was used back then rather than “learners” like we use now. That change signified a major shift in how we view education. For example, students were traditionally obliged to work for the teacher & for “compensation” in the form of grades. Learners, on the other hand, “are motivated by an understood and realized “value” in their work, especially when it is valuable to others.” This quote is from an old blog from 2010 called 2₵ Worth. David Warlick includes an excellent chart looking at how he sees the difference between “students” and “learners”.
Our schools are still centers of learning. In fact, they are more centers of learning now than they ever had been. Instead of being viewed as the fortress where education takes place, they are now seen as the hub of learning for people of all ages within the community. They contain labs that can’t be found other places in the communities, high tech communications equipment for connecting a group of people locally to other groups anywhere in the world, libraries, mentors/counselors, meeting spaces and galleries to showcase learner projects and achievements. It also provides a place for cultural, artistic and athletic activities which are viewed as an essential part of an education in our multi-cultural, demanding world.
Textbooks have mostly disappeared and have been replaced by ebooks, recent articles, Skype interviews and joint projects with internationally renown researchers, virtual field trips, role playing games. That has enabled the learning resources to be both more cost effective and much more current. My mother told me about coming back to her 10 year class reunion and finding her name on the 6th grade social studies textbook still in use over 15 years later! (note: a similar experience actually happened to my daughter.) The transition started with laptops and tablets for all students. Now it is much more mobile with handheld communication/projection devises and ubiquitous internet available to all.
One of the most difficult shifts was in preparing teachers for the new system. It required synchronizing a number of very large and very cumbersome systems: college and university teacher preparation programs; teacher unions and educational associations; PTA/PTOs; accountability and logistics processes such as evaluation, promotion, scheduling and payroll; and certainly professional development. Again, many of the new technologies were critical tools. It has been an excellent example of how important lifelong learning is and how well these tools are equipped to support just-in-time, asynchronous learning. In future generations, the transition will be more easily made since many of the new teacher graduates experienced learning through blogs, collaborating online and developing their own personal learning networks. Those networks have been absolutely critical in supporting teachers through the very frustrating transitions that have been necessary.
What does my daily work look like? First thing every morning, I check all the forums in the classes I am helping to facilitate, check my email for questions, and contact the students I know need some extra daily attention. Learners know that they can reach me via chat, Skype or phone during a certain time period each day. I spend some time each afternoon conducting research on my own, looking for new resources that need to be included in the classes I am facilitating and interacting with colleagues around the world or designing new learning activities. I add my comments to the peer evaluations on “homework” assignments and check blogs and forums one more time. Once day week or so, I go to the school building to use the lab, library and broadcast room.
I hear stories about how students used to be underachievers, disengaged, just going through the motions. We have a few learners like that, but they are very much the exception and are generally able to become true learners with a little extra attention to helping them find their Spark and helping them build their personal learning network. Now, they are much more like David Warlick described, “Persevering, self-disciplined, group-, goal-and product-oriented, resourceful, and learning in order to produce and accomplish rather than simply achieving learning.”
This scenario is likely well past 2020, but there will be key transitions taking place during this time. I mentioned something called “The Crisis”. I don’t know exactly what that might be, but it often takes such a wildcard to help speed a transition along. It could be a financial meltdown with an even more drastic cut in education funding. Perhaps it is increased security issues around transporting and housing the majority our young minds in concentrated locations in any given community. It could be recognizing the fuel savings that could be realized by allowing both learners and teachers to participate from home.
Demographers will tell you that there are great chunks of information that lead to very predictable and stable trends. For example, every student who will graduate in the year 2020 has already been born. Many of them were born in 2002. In that year, slightly over 4 million babies were born in the U.S. It was the lowest U.S. birthrate recorded to that date. Over 12% of them were born prematurely, even higher for black and American Indian babies. The rate of low birth weights was the highest level reported in more than 30 years. (National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 52 No. 10: Births, Final Data for 2002) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr52/nvsr52_10.pdf Both of those have implications for cognitive and behavioral development. These children are now students and have already taken the first tests required by NCLB. We know their scores. We know how many are struggling readers and how many are classified as talented and gifted. We need to have a system that is flexible and nimble enough to understand and respond to those trends.
We also know the majority of their teachers, the college degrees they have and what their competencies are. We know the condition of the school buildings. We know that there isn’t going to be a major influx of cash into education any time soon. We know that there are increasing numbers of families turning to homeschooling. We know that more parents are unemployed or underemployed and more are moving to an entrepreneurial/freelance approach to making a living.
There have also been some great attempts to figure out what kids will need to know when they enter the world of work. We also know that there are major shifts in that world, leaning to more entrepreneurial, free-lancing approaches to earning a living. What are we doing to help students develop those skills?
The technology will continue to evolve, but there are key components already in place that will allow this scenario to become a reality. I truly do believe that we have some very complex problems to solve. We also have a responsibility to the generations that follow us to help them learn not only to survive, but to thrive. We need to move beyond micromanaging “improvements” in the system we have in place now to envisioning what will truly work for the future. We can’t anticipate every situation our kids will have to deal with in the future. But we can build a system that roots their knowledge and skills in credible sources and help them develop the relationships, attitudes and processes to find the new knowledge and skills they will need to soar into the future.
There are a couple of projects looking for input regarding education in 2020. One is an “unconference” wiki at http://education2020.wikispaces.com/. Another is a very comprehensive wiki called Education 2020 that looks separately at many of the components, theories and research to develop an “innovative design and rationale for the school/learning environment of 2020 for the U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, we will articulate to the key stakeholders–administrators, teachers, parents, students, funding agencies– the critical issues that will define the future of teaching and learning.”