10 Experiences to Emphasize in the School of the Future Whether it is on Earth, Mars, or a Traveling Space Colony

“Why do we have to learn this?” Out of all the questions that students ask out loud or simply wonder to themselves, this question will always make the top ten list for learners. As learners, no as human beings, we have a craving for meaning. We search for it and cling to it when we find it. Meaning motivates. It animates. It satiates. We don’t always need to know all the details, but to think, know, or at least feel that what we are doing is meaningful is important to us.

In schools, we sometimes try to manufacture meaning within the system. We create rules for the game of school, and the meaning is bound within the game in large part.

  • We study to get good grades or to avoid failing.
  • We stay in our seats to avoid getting in trouble.
  • We arrive to class on time to avoid negative consequences or getting called out in front of peers.
  • We sign up for certain classes over others because it best prepares us for the next level of the game.
  • Or, we avoid overly challenging courses out of fear that we will fall short and it will hurt our future chances in the game.
  • We create a personal identity around how well we follow the rules (or break the rules), and the number of trophies and prizes that we accrue amid our playing of the game.
  • Family members take pride in how well we play the game, and proclaim their pride through bumper stickers on the back on their cars or post on their favorite social media outlets.
  • We establish proverbs and short bits of wisdom for others that affirm the meaning and importance of the game.
    • “Stay in school.”
    • “Get good grades.”
    • “Stay out of trouble.”
    • “Do your homework.”
    • “Study hard.”

We “create meaning” within the education system, and there are certainly plenty of people who find this fulfilling. I walk into offices where people post framed diplomas on their walls, and they beam with pride when they declare their education accomplishments or college affiliations. Even in their later years, some people gather and tell stories about their school days, although most of those stories seem to focus upon everything that happened between the rules, the memories along the edges, and all that happened despite the more formal game itself.

Yet, this sort of school-specific meaning can only take us so far. There is so much more to life than school, and as much as we often talk about school as a time that is intended to prepare people for life, it can also drive some to simply further immerse themselves in the school game.

If school is, at least in part, about life preparation, then it should also be a place that draws people into that life. It should be a place that helps us to discover and experience the richness and fullness of life, and that is about so much more than textbooks, tests, transcripts, diplomas, grades, bells, and following instructions.

As we further ponder the future of work amid the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics, this concept of meaning amid school is more important than ever. School as we know it is a relatively new social construct, and it is a construct that has grown to be experienced and valued for so much more than preparation for work or specific life contexts. School has become a part of life. We infuse and supplement it with sport, a variety of rich and sometimes toxic social interactions, the cultivation of what turns into lifetime friends, and more.

As I explore potential futures for schooling, I can see three or more strong possibilities.

One is that the amount of time that people spend in school will continue to increase. More people will persist through high school and college, and go on for one or more graduate degrees. It will largely be an expansion of the current system. Archaic policies and practices will persist, but they will be augmented with new and promising practices. Technologies will continue to expand and shape what we do and how we do it, likely making us a little less like people and a little more like machines. We’ll get use to it, like it, and maybe even prefer it that way.

A second possible future is similar to the first in some ways, but the lines between school and life beyond school will blur and blend. Schools will more social and hubs for humanity. Schools will be home bases of sorts, but the social and cultural role will become dominant (as it already is for some). Students will not need math class to learn math (although some will still go), but they will participate in “school” for the experience, as a way of binding people together and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Or, it will be promoted as an intentional way to create social cohesion and order amid massive changes in the world of work and technology.

A third potential future is an altogether unbundling of school as we know it, with the traditional concept of school ceasing to exist for the majority of people, but learning and the tasks accomplished by school being embedded within the larger culture. Personalized learning and advanced data systems will guide and connect people across contexts.

There are indeed affordances and limitations to each of these three futures, but meaning will remain important regardless, and this is a chance for us invest in and champion meaning that extends beyond the game of school. In fact given these three strong possible futures, I’m compelled to revisit what we emphasize in school. While this is far from complete and a work in progress, the more that I study the future of work and artificial intelligence, the more that I examine the influence of technology in modern society, and the more that I focus upon my mission of championing a humane, rich, rewarding, and empowering education ecosystem; the more I also reconsider what we should emphasize in the school of the future.  With that in mind, here is where I am right now. Following are ten experiences worth emphasizing in school today. These are each experiences that will stand the test of time. They will provide rich and authentic meaning. They will also prepare people to thrive in any number of potential futures.

  1. Use your gifts and abilities to help other people.
    This makes life richer, and creating space for this to happen as a dominant part of school is a gift to the person who helps and the person who is helped. It is an experience that offers a rich sense of meaning and points us toward a future that will continue to have meaning regardless of what the future of technology and work holds for us.
  2. Experience awe and wonder.
    Look for more on this topic from me in the future, but there is a growing body of research about wonder. When people experience awe and wonder, they display humility, gratitude, a sense of meaning and transcendence in the world, a greater tolerance for other people, and even a greater attention to nuance and detail. Wonder (as a noun) can also lead to wonder (as a verb), which is a powerful lever for deep learning about almost anything.
  3. Set personally meaningful goals, create plans and strategies, get and learn from feedback, monitor progress, and achieve the goals. Then build upon those goals to accomplish new ones.
    This is not teachers setting goals for students, but students setting goals for themselves. It build confidence, competence, a growing sense of ownership and agency, helps people experience meaning and purpose, and more. Related to this and as I’ve written about in the past, learning how to get good at something is one of the most valuable life skills a person can develop.
  4. Build friendships.
    I suspect that this may actually be one of the most important roles of school today, despite the fact that it is hardly ever an intentional part of the school “game.” Yet, it is what stays with people more than anything else, and it continues to bring meaning and value to people for years. So, why not recognize it and be even more intentional about school as a place of creating lifelong and positive relationships?
  5. Learn about and solve real problems in the world.
    This will always be meaningful in people’s lives. We remember solving real and important problems. We take pride in this. We find meaning it it. We are inspired and fueled by it.
  6. Be inspired by others.
    Learning to appreciate, celebrate, learn from, and be inspired by others is an incredible life skills. We come to appreciate the rich diversity in the world as well.
  7. Inspire others.
    While this is not necessarily achieved by making it an explicit goal, it is connected to #1. As we help others, this will happen. In those moments when it is brought to our attention, we often experience this strange blend of pride, humility, and a desire to persist with that which inspires others. There is something transformation about seeing how what you do can and does influence other people.
  8. Accomplish tasks that cannot be accomplished alone.
    I first thought of this when I read it in a list provided by John Taylor Gotto. He argued that is was one of the ten or twenty most important skills that young people can learn. I agree.
  9. Explore and expand your awareness of what exists and what is possible.
    Even though it might not be framed in the most inspiring ways, this is a role that school plays for many, and there is so much more that we could do with it. Especially in our formative years, but really throughout life, there is something powerful about discovering that which is new to us. This might come from discovering the wonders of math, through travel, meeting new people, discovering the wonders of the past, exploring art, and much more. Sometimes this takes persistence. Some of the best novels don’t get amazing until you are a hundred pages into them, so having the persistence to keep going until you reach those “vistas” is sometimes to be cultivated. It will yield countless benefits in one’s life.
  10. Think clearly and cultivate wisdom. 
    Wisdom will never be outdated. As I’ve written and said often. Knowledge is recognizing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad (or maybe knowing when you can). Either way, learning to think takes work and discipline, but it is one of the most valuable skills we can cultivate. This can range from understanding ways of knowledge, logic, logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and more. We can develop this by participating in a community that values it and celebrates it. We nurture it as we analyze the world in which we live, exploring past, present, and future together.

These experience are authentic. They are rich with meaning. They draw us into the best of what it means to be human. They will stand the test of time. They also extend far beyond meaning bound within the game of school. They prepare us for an uncertain future, or rather for any number of potential futures.

Meaning is essential in school, as it is in life. The question is whether we will content ourselves with school-manufactured meaning that will only indirectly equip us for a rich and rewarding life, or if we will devote our schools to real, rich, rewarding experiences of meaning that are life. I vote for the real thing, and I’d like to offer these ten experiences as a starting point.

The Dangers of Letting the Framing and Flaming Wars Set the Tone for Civil Discourse in Our Schools

This is not a political statement. It is a civil plea, especially for our schools as incubators of civil discourse. It is a public confession of a deep fear for our future, for my future, for the future of my children. My plea is a simple one, but it is also one that is so complex that I probably contradict myself on this point a dozen times and week, and I don’t even notice it. My plea is that we think twice and maybe three times, or four, before we choose framing tactics as our primary weapon of public disagreement. Here is what I mean by that.

The New York Times recently published an articled entitled “British Citizen One Day, Illegal Immigrant the Next.” It is a short article that highlights the complexities and pain points of immigration laws in Britain and how they impact the lives of actual people like Renford McIntyre, who came to Britain from Jamaica as a child, but only recently found himself labeled an illegal immigrant and facing the implications of that unsettling label. I’m not really writing about this article though, but instead about some of the replies in social media. There were certainly many who, prompted by the article, expressed their range of viewpoints and deeply help beliefs and values about immigration. A few went after the New York Times and the author(s) of this particular article for playing right into the hands of “the enemy.” Their response to the article was not about the many themes and issues surfaced in it, but about the choice of words. They responded by explaining that there is no such thing as an “‘illegal’ immigrant”, no more than there is such a thing as an illegal human being.

You might agree with these critics in the sense that you do not like the phrase “illegal immigrant.” You might think it dehumanizing. You might not like the way that such a phrase frames people’s thinking about immigration, leaving the door open for arguments in favor of stricter policies and practices with regard to immigrants in a given country. Only, to say that there is no such thing is as illegal immigrant is just not accurate, not in the sense that it is a phrase that has common usage and a basic understanding in the English language. People generally understand it to mean a person who is residing in a country unlawfully. The laws of the country include restrictions on who can enter the country or reside in the country, and under what conditions. The phrase “illegal immigrant” is in multiple dictionaries, including at least one legal dictionary that I found. So, as much as I or anyone else might not like the phrase “illegal immigrant” or might not want others to use the phrase, it exist in the English language. That is why it concerns me when people insist on being the word police, redefining acceptable vocabulary in public discourse on the basis of what language and framing best supports a particular person’s position(s) and desired outcome(s).

We see the same thing in public discourse about “free college.” Proponents use the phrase often, building upon the word “free” to have the literal meaning of no cost incurred by the student, but also drawing upon the spirit and power of a word like “free” in a democratic context. Only the critics like to shift the conversation by arguing against the use of the phrase altogether. There is no such thing as “free college”, they declare, because somebody is always paying for the tuition. They complain that “free college” hides the realities of the great costs to taxpayers, even in instances where those taxpayers see themselves as having little or not influence over how that money is spent. Yet, there is such a thing a “free college.” It is a straw-man to suggest that those in favor of tuition free higher education do not recognize that it costs money to implement such an effort, even cost to the taxpayer.

Then there are the even more heated debates where we have pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates, particularly on the topic of abortion. You are not pro-life, one side argues. You are anti-choice. On the flip side, pro-choicers are really anti-life, advocates of terminating the most helpless of human life, at its earliest stage and without a voice or ability to speak up for himself or herself. You see what each side did? They make strong arguments. The pro-choice people use their framing to emphasize the important rights of women, particularly when it comes to the rights over their own bodies. The pro-life people use their language and framing to draw attention to the rights of the early stage human life. Only, long before they get into more substantive debates and discussions, there is an even more basic battle over terminology. They claim that there is really no such thing as pro-life, or that there is really no such thing as pro-choice.

I am not arguing for or against immigrants or immigration laws in this article. I’m not championing or critiquing tuition free college. I’m not using this as a time to stand in support of the collection of positions associated with those who identify as pro-life or as pro-choice. What I’m doing is pointing out the danger of using a public discourse tactic where we are not even willing to acknowledge the vocabulary and terminology at hand. Instead of saying that there is no such thing as [fill in the blank] or claiming some sort of personal right to serve as the semantic police for public discourse, perhaps we are wise to start by acknowledging that these phrases and words do indeed exist, and that they bring with them a wealth of meaning. We can critique the connotations. We can point out the history (even dark and troubling histories) of a given phrase and why we consider it problematic, unhelpful, or even dehumanizing. We can argue our points passionately and hopefully with a good measure of reason as well. Only, I contend that we are wise to be incredibly careful and sparing in our use of the framing power play that seeks to deny the very existence of the words and phrases used by other people. That risks being about silencing others, about claiming that they, their frame, and their associated positions, should not be welcome in the public debate of ideas, rights, principles, values, and norms that inform society. Framing is about power, not the pursuit of truth, justice, beauty, goodness, and certainly not about honoring the rights of those who are different from us.

Social media lends itself well to both flaming and framing wars, but we are wise to not let this be the norm for discourse in our learning communities in particular. As much as our learning communities are incubators of democracy, we should protect them as places that do not silence those with whom we disagree, but by truly modeling civil discourse. Shaming people into silence or agreement with our agendas and rebranding the phrases of “the other” as non-existent will not serve the greater goal of civil discourse or living and honoring people with differences. Our grand and persistent experiment in the United States risks becoming, once and for all, a failed experiment, if we do not embrace the value of honoring people who have very real and significant differences among them. My hope is that our learning communities have the courage and wisdom to recognize and embrace this more than most in society.

“Kids are Not Motivated” Might Say More About Your School Than the Kids: Educators with a Growth Mindset

I hear it all the time. People talk about disengaged, disinterested, unmotivated learners. “Kids are different than they used to be,” teachers and others explain. I don’t doubt the presence of generational changes, but I’ve visited enough learning communities to know that there are some communities of young people that are rich with engagement and interest. Students are taking ownership for their learning. They are challenging themselves on a regular basis. They enjoy being there. They are still young people. They experience the struggles common to being a developing young person, but the general feel of the community is largely positive.

When I point this out, there are many who want to dismiss my comments by explaining that these are different kinds of young people than the ones at their school. Some kids are just motivated and engaged, and others are not. People attribute it to upbringing, family dynamics, challenges within the community, economic status of families, the education level of parents, and all sorts of other factors. Again, I don’t deny that these factors can and do influence what happens in a school and in the lives of young people. Of course, all of of life’s experiences are formative to some extent, and it is hard to be be interested in learning when your basic needs in life or unmet. However, once those needs are met, even amid less than ideal circumstances in a young person’s life, there are models of incredibly positive learning communities. For those who take the time to 1) explore what is happening the larger education system, 2) who are open to consider the fact that there are models and exemplars from which they can learn, and 3) who recognize that everything is not just a sum of social factors beyond the control of teachers, students, and administrators; there is much that can be done to improve the state of any learning community.

As such, when we say that “kids are not motivated in my classroom” or that “the kids in my school don’t care about learning”, I’d like to suggest that these statements sometimes say as much or more about our schools than about the young people. There are countless factors within our control, and when we focus upon maximizing those things that are indeed within our control, the learning community will be better. It will not happen overnight. It will be hard work. There will be two steps forward and then one (or sometimes two) steps backward. There will be frustrations. There will be bad days and disappointments. Yet, this sort of growth mindset for schools and educators is just as valuable and beneficial as the growth mindset that we talk about as being necessary for students to thrive.

Schools as Incubators of Civility: Beyond Silencing, Ignoring, and Demonizing the Other

The current climate of public and political discourse in the United States continues to trouble me, and I have to wonder what we can do in education to help. Yet, if we are going to do something about a problem, it is necessary to define or at least describe the problem. In this instance, there is more than one issue, but I’m beginning to focus on the nature of discourse and how we treat, think about, and interact with people who have significantly different beliefs and values from our own. My concern is that we are using media, policies, and laws with the goal of power more than truth, understanding, or even justice. I see four especially strong signs that this is indeed the case.

Silence the Other

One sign is that there is a seemingly growing effort to silence those who disagree with us. We want to use laws or whatever other means to make sure that the other person does not even get a chance to speak or respond. There is limited interest in genuine understanding or discourse. We want the other to “shut up and sit down.” We pursue this tactic even if it eats away at the constitutional rights of others, not considering the larger implications. Our focus is to win in the moment.

Ignore the Other

We do whatever we can to ignore the other because we don’t want the media or any significant group of people to hear from the other. Perhaps there is fear that the other will convince people, and since the goal is to “win”, there is sometimes the goal of ignoring toward that end. In fact, some will argue that the other is not even worthy of acknowledgement. “Don’t entertain such stupidity with your attention,” some might argue.

Demonize the Other

Perhaps even more troubling is the growing trend to demonize the other (not even just the position held by the other). By doing this, we also dehumanize the person. We frame the person and the person’s position as intolerant, bigoted, extremist, or whatever other language diminishes the sense that this person should be respected, granted the rights described in the constitution, or even granted treatment of basic human dignity.  We define the other person as a “killer” or “defender of killers.” We do whatever we can to pair the person with the most evil characters that we can think of in past or recent history.

Personal Attacks

This is the norm for political discourse in much of social media today. Issues are not debated as much as people are demeaned, minimized, demonized, and mocked. Sarcasm trumps logical discourse. One liners are sought more than insight. Black and white positions drive people to draw a clear line in the sand, and if you are not on my side of the line, you are an evil person. Sometimes it is direct, but other times it is done subtly. We write or say it with a cool tone so as it make it sound like we are being more objective. I see this in countless media headlines when clearly biased reporters are framing the headlines to represent their ideology and values more than to objectively report on the news.

How Can Schools Help?

Of course, not everyone does these all the time. We each have our good and not so good moments. Yet, the more that these four and related patterns of discourse dominate, the more civility wanes in the public sphere. As such, I contend that schools are a place where we can do something about this. We can explore how to create and nurture forums where we learn to listen to one another, respect the rights of others, learn to separate ideas from people, discover the benefits of dispassionate discourse, examine the use of true critical / logical thinking in exploring contemporary issues, and examine how these less civil tactics risk destroying democratic life and discourse. These are achievable tasks in intentional, small, compassionate learning communities.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could establish a growing number of models in our schools for how the larger world can learn to promote a better and more civil society?