“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.