For those of us who work in the field of education, these are inspiring and exciting times. Yes, we have plenty of challenges, but there are also countless possibilities and opportunities. This is a remarkably colorful era of education, whether we are exploring K-12 education, higher education, or the rapidly growing space of educational experimentation beyond the walls of formal learning organizations. As I’ve noted to many audiences in the past, I have two children, and I once counted over thirty schooling options for each of them within 15 miles of our home, choices that highlight over a dozen educational philosophies and distinct emphases. This fact represents a great strength and source of hope in modern and emerging American education. As I reflect on the current context, I’m especially encouraged by at least five additional features of this age.
1. Choice and the Uniqueness of Each Individual is Winning
Even as there are some people pushing for greater standardization, the current obvious winner on the K-12 level in most states is that of choice and honoring the uniqueness of each young person. Some might argue that our national well-being depends upon producing as many STEM graduates as possible, but the louder voice in education today recognizes that we are best served by helping every young person discover his or her gifts, talents, abilities and passions; nurturing and building upon those abilities; and helping each person discover how those abilities can be refined, harnessed, and used for personal well-being and service to others.
We generally recognize that the world is not turned into a better place by encouraging young people to abandon their love of music for a job as an electrical engineer, or encouraging budding authors to instead pursue the study of medicine. Each person has gifts that can be discovered, opened and used through quality education. Leaving the gifts of some people unrecognized and unopened simply results in a world with fewer gifts to celebrate. As such, most people support an education system that is a mass gift opening, and a sharing of those gifts with the world.
2. Those Working in Education are Largely Champions
As much as I critique dominant practices and policies in P-20 education, my hope is renewed when I talk to so many people working in education who clearly do not buy into a vision for education as a factory for producing standardized workers for the future. These people include school administrators, teachers, founders of new models of schooling, board members, venture capitalists, people working in the new face of educational publishing and product development, and a myriad of educational entrepreneurs. I have no doubt there are people with less than noble motives, but what I see is largely a group of people who want to help provide quality education, increase access and opportunity, and equip learners to thrive in a 21st and 22nd century world.
Yes, there are cynical people in education, but such people are generally not gaining nearly as much attention or traction as the optimistic, innovative, student-centered difference makers in many aspects of education…especially if we look at what gains the most attention in the digital world. Promise and possibility is what we lift up and celebrate in some of the most celebrated spaces and learning organizations today. This is an age of exploring the possibilities and embracing the opportunities.
3. Education is So Much More Than Schooling
Trace public conversations about education over the last five decades and we see the dominant voices and innovations largely focused on schooling, what happens in formal learning organizations. Today we continue to see promising conversations within schools, but now learning is lifelong. Anyone with an Internet connections, confidence, curiosity and basic skills has access to potentially transformational learning. Mentors and coaches are a click away. Open education resources, online learning communities and experiments with a myriad of free or inexpensive online learning resources are spreading around the world. These have not removed serious issues related to equity, access and opportunity; but they provide us with new possibilities for addressing such issues. Education beyond schooling is emerging as a powerful form of social innovation that is gaining attention from the federal government to Silicon Valley, private investors to grassroots community organizations.
Schools were never designed to monopolize educational opportunities. They play a valuable role, but there is great promise in the fact that we are in an age that sees school as one of many valuable sources of learning throughout life. This reality dominates the contemporary education space.
4. From Teaching to Learning
There was a time when conversations about education were focused largely on the delivery of content and the role of teacher. While those have value, today the conversation has changed. It is now so much more about learning. Since student learning is the goal, this change in focus provides us with great hope. People don’t necessarily agree about what should be learned, how it should be learned, how learners might be assessed or a myriad of related topics. Some don’t accept the shift toward the learner. Nonetheless, it is a shift, one that prioritizes what is best for students. While there are competing efforts today, at least in the public debate, we live in a time when the public is largely on the side of those arguments framed around what is best for students.
5. Educational Research & Innovation
The past few decades have given us a wealth of new insights from research in education, human cognition, human development, and human well-being. Mind-brain education and positive psychology, just to name two, are giving us rich insights into how people learn and how we might best design engaging and impactful learning environments and experiences. Much of this research does not easily make it into many public conversations about education or educational policy forums, but some is getting there. In addition, more of this scholarship is reaching larger audiences through digital and social media. Even wildly popular online videos like TED Talks points us to this shift. People may not be deeply informed about the nuances of the research, but more of that research is reaching the public than at any time in history.
Similarly, with the growth around education startups, we see a new breed of education business that seeks to tap into education research to design products and services that truly work and benefit people in formal and informal learning environments. The exploration and experimentation can sometimes be messy, with plenty of failed experiments, but the sheer number of experiments today is heartening.
Things are certainly not perfect in education. We have big issues to address. Yet, when I reflect on the current landscape, I am hopeful. I see champions for students, advocates for the unique gifts of each person, an expansion from schooling to a broader understanding of education, and promising educational research and innovation. Even as we tackle the most pressing problems in contemporary education, elements like these can give us encouragement.