The Future of Education: Ignore, Prepare, Predict, or Create?

When it comes to thinking about the future of education, there are four basic approaches. Some ignore thoughts about the future, arguing that it is out of reach and that there is plenty to focus on in the present. Others take the approach of preparing for the future. While it might be unknown, we can prepare ourselves by being agile, alert, responsive to subtle and significant changes and trends, and by doing what it takes to position yourself for the unknown. Then there are those who work to predict the future. While this is not a certain science, there are ways to notice trends and develop a nuanced ability to track that which is likely to stick and shape the future of education. Yet, there are those who go beyond all of these, aspiring to create the future.

Of course, there is no rule against embracing more than one of these, In fact, I suggest that there is much wisdom in takings lessons from all four emphases. Let’s look at them more closely.

Ignore

Maybe “ignore” is not the right word, but there is something to be said for not obsessing about the future. There are instances where people are so worried about or focused on what might happen in the future, that it prevents them from investing in the present. In that sense, there is a time to set aside our thinking about the future, instead dealing with the important tasks of today. By investing in creating something great today, we might be better preparing ourselves for the future anyway. As Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, ““Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” There is plenty of work in the present. Yet, there is a limit to this. Completely ignoring signs of change in the near future can be detrimental.

Prepare

The “prepare” camp is sometimes skeptical that you can actually predict the future. At the same time, those in this camp also see it as unwise to ignore the future. Instead, the goal is to figure out how to best prepare for it. In fact, this sort of mindset is arguably essential in education. We are preparing people for a future that doesn’t yet exist. As such, we have to find ways to prepare for the unknown. As Malcolm X wrote, ““Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Or, FDR said it this way, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Predict

As I wrote in a recent article, the future might seem to sneak up on us in unexpected ways, but it rarely happens in an instant. With attention and study, we can notice the signs of change. A good place to start is with the past. The past might not repeat itself, but studying the past can give us a better sense of the changes to come, which is the spirit of what Marquis of Halifax meant when he wrote, “The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.” In addition, there is ample wisdom in this quote from an unknown source, “A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organized.” If we can see patterns in what seems like randomness to others, we can sometimes make sense of it.

Create

Others realize that we all play a role in creating the future. Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, ““The best way to predict your future is to create it.” It isn’t just some distant, disconnected and abstract thing. Each of us has a role in making it happen. Even small actions can have a ripple effect on future lives, organizations, communities and more. I’m especially fond of how Buckminster Fuller put it when he wrote, ““You never change things by fighting the existing reality.To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The models, metaphors, and ideas that we create or promote help shape the future. Having been involved with tracking trends in education for over twenty years, I am confident that we can do this to a degree that is helpful, but we must also do it with a healthy dose of both humility and skepticism of our own predictions. That is why I appreciate the wisdom in Stephen Hawkings way of thinking about the topic, “One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

A Combined View

Yet, instead of sticking with any one of these, I am both an idealist and a realist. I choose to learn from each of these approaches, seeing them as complementary more than competitive or discrete approaches. There are times when it is best to focus on the present and not let thoughts of the future distract us. Then there is wisdom in doing what we can to prepare ourselves for the future, even if it is unknown. At the same time, we can do the hard work of studying the past and present trends so that we are more informed about possible futures. Yet, we don’t have to be fatalistic about it. We have a role to play in shaping what is to come, and recognizing this fact is an important starting point.

Which Type of Education Reformer Are You?

When it comes down to it, those interested in some form of education change tend to fit into one of 6 types of education reformers. There are reactors, refiners, reformers, replicators, rebuilders, and re-imaginers. Reactors do just that, they react to the latest statistic or ranking and use that to change those statistics. Refiners largely value the current system. They just want to tweak and refine it to make it better or respond to changes. Reformers look at the system and believe that it has gone off track from the original purpose and vision. They still value the school system, but they want to reform it, returning to the values of the past. Replicators have found a model they like and they invest in spreading it to other places. Then there are the rebuilders. These people who want to tear down the system and rebuild a better one. Finally, there are the re-imaginers. These people don’t want to limit themselves to how we’ve imagined schooling and education in the past. It is not just rebuilding a better school. It is at least being open to completely reimagining a new educational ecosystem for a new era.

Let’s look at each of these more closely.

Reactors

woman-1447082_640Every so often we come across a new set of statistics about the state of education. We might learn about the ranking of US students compared to students in other countries. We learn about drop-out rates, literacy rates, math literacy rates, impending job shortages in a given area, or any number of other statistics. One or more of these statistics drives us to think about reforms that can reserve declining numbers or improve the statistics in some way. We often hear policymakers and politicians framing their education reforms around this reactor mindset, but educators, school leaders, parents, and others do it as well. A problem becomes apparent, so they seek a change that will address that specific problem.

Refiners

hairdresser-1179459_640These people see much good in the current system. They are not looking for sweeping changes because they believe that what we have in the current education system is generally good and that it works. They argue that we just need to tweak it, to refine it here and there, to address the occasional problem, and adapt to subtle changes in society and students. Yet, they are not seeking to question the foundations of the system or even common practices like testing, existing standards and curricula, grading systems, how we organize the school day, the role and scope of responsibilities for teachers, or other similar practices. For these individuals, such elements are simply part of school. We just need to engage in gradual and continual improvement of the system.

Reformers

construction-workers-921224_640In the protestant reformation, there were many voices, but consider the distinction between Martin Luther and John Calvin. Some argue that Martin Luther had strong critiques of the Roman Catholic Church. He did not seek to start a new church but saw serious issues in his own church, and wanted to address them. He wanted to reform what was already there. John Calvin tended to argue that the entire system needed more careful scrutiny. You see the signs of this if you even look at the visual differences between a typical Lutheran church and a typical Calvinist church.

When it comes to the educational reformers, this is a similar approach to Luther. They still see value in the bones and core values of the existing system, but they also see significant, even serious issues. They appeal to other in the system to join them in repairing the system, reforming it, and remodeling it in ways.

Replicators

twins-670127_640The replicators found what they think is the best model or approach, or at least one that they think is worth spreading elsewhere. They invest their energy in championing this certain approach or model. Sometimes they see it as one of many important approaches in the larger education system. Other replicators become so passionate about or committed to their favored model that they tout it as the best, the cure to our greatest educational ailments, the savior for a failed system. Either way, replicators often come from one of the other reformer categories but, given time and investment in a solution, they then move to this approach.

Rebuilders

house-construction-1407499_640Rebuilders might have been reformers at one point (some never were). Yet, they have reached a point where they decided that it is not possible to achieve their vision and live out their core values in the existing educational system. They found it a better use of their time and resources (or perhaps their only option) to rebuild a new school or system, something that is not limited by inhibiting policies, practices, rituals, and mindsets. This is the group that starts new programs, new schools, even new networks of schools.

Re-Imaginers

father-1004022_640Like the rebuilders, these people saw fit to move beyond the existing school system. Yet, they also don’t limit themselves to just building new schools and new school systems. They have opted to clarify the mission, vision and values; and then to let themselves truly dream and imagine new models and ways of learning that extend far beyond what we might even think of as a school.

Of course, many of us find ourselves investing in more than one of these approaches to education reform, but we also seem to have a bias toward one or two of them. As such, which education reformer are you? I would love to hear your answers and reflections in the comment section.

A Tale of a Bullied Boy and a School Where Curious is Cool

This is the tale of a bullied boy and a school where curious is cool.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Nathaniel wasn’t being physically bullied but he was ostracized and mocked throughout each day. It was a school with a heavy athletics culture and Nathaniel was not very athletic. He was a curious boy who loved to talk about ideas, but he was disappointed that nobody else in the class seemed to have shared interest in such things. People mocked him in subtle ways that were hard for the teacher to identify. In fact, to the teacher, it just looked like Nathaniel was a depressed and unmotivated loner, even though the unmotivated part from far from the truth.

Each day, Nathaniel got up and went to school. He dreaded it, but he didn’t say much. He also didn’t smile much, at least not during the school week. Day after day, Nathaniel spent hours in a building, trying to learn and make friends, but with little success. The more people made fun of him, the less others were willing to take the risk of befriending him. His mood spread to the classroom too. It is hard to be interested in learning when you are in a room of people who don’t seem to like you or care about you.

The teacher was nice enough, but as Nathaniel became increasingly disengaged in and out of class, the teacher seemed to lose patience with him. While she never used the word, to herself she thought he was lazy and distracted. Before long, Nathaniel not only had his classmates rejecting him, but he felt the same sort of ridicule from the teacher. It was subtle, but he felt it nonetheless.

As unhappy as Nathaniel was, he was also a wonderfully curious boy. That is why the one thing that he looked forward to each week was Saturday morning. That is when he got to work with his dad on any number of fun projects. His dad was a mechanical engineer by day, but on the weekends, he loved to work on several projects at once. He had a classic car that he’d spent the last five years rebuilding with an electric motor. He was remodeling the basement, turning it into their very own home theater. In addition to that, he was working on building his own cedar strip canoe after seeing someone else do it while they were on family vacation last summer. Nathaniel loved working with his dad on these projects.

Nathaniel usually woke up before his dad each Saturday. He made himself and his parents breakfast (just cereal and milk, but it is the thought that counts, right?) while waiting anxiously for when they would head out to the shop and get started on one or more of the projects. His dad treated him like a true partner. Nathaniel already knew quite a bit about electronics and was a sponge when it came to learning about how to build a boat from scratch. As they worked on the car and canoe, they would daydream about what they would do with them when they were finished. Nathaniel dreamt of creating a mount for the canoe so they could use the electric car to drive over to the state park. Then they’d spend the day fishing and talking as they canoed around the lake. He even had the snacks and lunches planned out in his head.

One Sunday, as Nathaniel and his dad worked on the car, Nathaniel said, “Dad, I wish this could be school. I learn more on the weekend with you than I do all week at school. And this makes me happy. School is a sad place where I don’t learn much of anything except how to stay strong while people are making fun of you.” Jim stopped working as he let those words sink in. He didn’t say anything out loud at the moment but what he thought to himself was this. “Why couldn’t this be school?” That night Jim retold this conversation to Kathy.

Jim talked to Kathy talked for hours, deciding to start researching homeschool possibilities. As they browsed the web, however, they also stumbled across this movement of parent-led and parent-designed schools. They discovered a whole new world of education that they didn’t know existed. They had no idea that so many parents were dissatisfied with school for one reason or another, and that they used that to fuel their efforts to create any number of wonderfully rich and interesting new schools.

As Kathy read more, she explained her thinking to Jim in this way. “So many parents just put up with the existing school system. They see it as some sort of necessary rite of passage, even if it is a terrible experience for their kids. I don’t want to teach Nathaniel to run away from his problems. At the same time, this school is a toxic place for him, and the teachers and administrators don’t seem to be doing anything to change that. What would it take for us to start our own school, one that really is based upon the sort of things that you do with Nathaniel on the weekend? They could learn science by building and making. They could even learn history by creating museum exhibits for the community. Imagine how fun that would be for us and the kids.” Kathy was an art major, and she was already starting to imagine how they could create this wonderfully rich, creative hands-on type of learning.

Their next step was to talk to others about the idea. They started with some of their friends, and everyone seemed to think it sounded like an amazing idea. Of course, many of them also thought it was idealistic and unlikely to happen. As a last chance for the school, Kathy and Jim set up a meeting with a couple of the school leaders to share what they had been learning. They wanted to see if the school might be interested in working with them to create some sort of school within a school project. Unfortunately, the leaders didn’t have much interest. The idea didn’t fit into their existing strategic plan and it just didn’t seem to resonate with their idea of what a school should be.

So, after months of reading, research, and conversations, Kathy and Jim decided to take the next step. They pulled Nathaniel out of school and started to homeschool him, building the entire curriculum around rich, hands-on projects, including connecting those weekend projects into the “schooling” experience. They also started to invite other homeschool families to join them for various projects.

Before long, Kathy and Jim were facilitating over eight different immersive hands-on projects throughout the semester that were tied into various content areas, and there were between ten and twenty students participating in every project. They had an aviation class where students studied physical science while building their own remote control airplanes. They had another one that blended science, economics, and business; where they got to work on building actual electric cars, but they also worked on research about the viability of electric cars as replacements for the standard cars of our day. They had a third project where they partnered with the local history museum for a completely student-designed series of exhibits focused on the question of whether stricter gun laws would decrease violent crime. Students grappled with the issue, looked at it from an historical perspective, a criminal justice perspective, a sociological perspective, and they also studied issues related to constitutional rights. They provided exhibits that represented different stances and the reasons behind those stances. This turned out to be the highest traffic exhibit in the museum that year.

By the end of the year, they had over a hundred different kids engaged in their programs, so they decided to take it to the next level. They continued the homeschool model the next year while raising the funds and doing the preparatory work needed to launch a new school that would be completely built upon hands-on learning and immersive projects. In a matter of months, their first class was full, and the school launched in the fall. They continued to run the homeschool projects alongside the school, and allowed families to opt in for only parts of the school experience. Some were there for full days, while others came and went for certain projects.

What was even more exciting is that they didn’t have bullies in this school. The kids didn’t tolerate it. The teachers guided the young people, but over time, it was the students themselves who built the culture, and they decided that school would be a place where you are welcome, cared for, you are free to be curious, and you are challenged to be kind and collaborative. They created a school where curious is cool.

Does Your School Pass the Name Test?

Knowing names is a metric worth measuring in schools. That is because school communities play a larger role for many people than meeting standards and reaching learning outcomes. Ten years ago I was at a distance learning conference, attending a panel of leading researchers on the science of learning in distance education contexts. One panelist worked for the US Department of Defense and recently finished a massive meta-analysis about what works in online learning. In the panel, there was a robust conversation about best practices, data-driven practice, and the science of learning. It was all valuable, but something was missing.

Speaking Up

I was compelled to speak up about a perspective that was, in all fairness, not the focus of the panel. I said something like this. “This is a wonderful discussion about learning outcomes and the science of learning, and I agree that all of this is important. However, there is another part of many K-12 and higher education learning communities that I want to mention. These communities are not always just about optimal outcomes. They are also social spaces. They are places where people experience community. People connect, collaborate, encourage, challenge and do so much more. I’d like to suggest that this deeply human element is also worthy of our consideration, that we are wise to think about the importance of these human elements.” One panelist looked puzzled and replied with a personal response. “I don’t want any of that. I want to learn what I need to learn and then move on.”

There is room for many viewpoints in the larger educational system. Some learning experiences are best when the are focused on efficiency and outcomes. Yet, others are about community as well. In one sense, they are about a present good as much as a future good. With this in mind, allow me to make the connection to the opening claim, that names are a valuable metric.

Names

I don’t remember names well. More accurately stated, I don’t invest the time and effort to memorize names as much as I do to the words and ideas of people that I meet. If you and I meet (or we have met), I will most likely remember an intriguing idea, question or practice that you shared with me far more easily than I will recall your name. Yet, names are important to us. Even though we might realize that some people are like me when it comes to names, we tend to feel more valued, recognized and appreciated if we interact with someone and they know our name.

I’m certainly the same way. When I walk through the hallway at Concordia Univeristy Wisconsin or Ann Arbor, I love the fact that people know me by name and that I know the names of others. When I speak at conferences and other events, and people come up to me, knowing my name, I admit that this is a rewarding experience. Or, when I gather with a group of colleagues or more trusted friends and they greet me by name (and I them), I’m heartened when they use a tone that shows we are close friends, family members or confidants. For most of us, it feels good to walk into a room of people who know us by name. Isn’t that why the Cheers theme song still resonates with people today?

Power Implications

Knowing names has important power implications as well. Everybody knows the name of the CEO or President, but it doesn’t always go the other way around. Sometimes it is just a practical reality. It isn’t easy to learn everyone’s name if you are talking about hundreds or even thousands of people in the organization. Yet, this name remembering distinction reminds us of the power differential. To not know someone’s name can be read or experienced as that person having less importance, less power, and less prominence.

Implications in Schools

Now imagine the implications of this for learning organizations. How do we wield the power of names in schools? Do teachers know the student’s names? What about the school leaders? Whose names are prominently placed on the doors of the rooms? Do students know one another by name? How widely known is each student’s name in the learning community? There are plenty of learning communities where names are not known well. This is the essence of the critique that students are sometimes treated like numbers instead of people with names. It is why large face-to-face lecture halls can be less personal than online courses among people who live hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

As I consider what it means to cultivate deeply compassionate, intimate and human learning contexts in our connected and digital age, perhaps the role of names is one of many valuable places to start.

The Name Test

Consider the possibility of creating what I will tentatively call the name test. The name test consists of a series of questions about the role of names in a community. The answers help us to gauge a sort of human and community index for a given school. Consider the following questions as a starting point.

  • How many names do students know by the end of the first week of school?
  • How many classmates do students know by name?
  • How many times does a student hear his/her name used in a positive way on any given day?
  • Do teachers/coaches/mentors know the names of all of students?
  • How quickly do teachers/coaches/mentors commit these names to memory?
  • Can school leaders call the students by name?
  • How often do we see people making eye contact with one another and greeting each other by name?
  • When people greet one another, how often do they greet them by name?
  • How well do people know the names of support staff?
  • How well do support staff know the names of students?
  • How prominently are student’s names posted or displayed in a classroom or learning space compared to the names of teachers?

Questions like these help us explore the role of names in our learning organizations and the extent to which people are known and called by name. While there are plenty of other important measures of quality in a school and learning community, I’d like to offer the name test as a new one, something to balance the growing interest in any number of quantitative assessments based of standardized tests and the like. The fact is that schools continue to play a larger role in many of our lives and communities than just sources of knowledge and skill acquisition. They are places where character and personality take greater shape. They are also often places where people have experiences with community that influence them long into the future. As such, starting with a commitment to knowing, saying and respecting the names of one another seems like a fine place to start