Future-Proofing our Schools

Over a century ago, the great educationalist, John Dewey, remarked: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

As prescient as this observation was at the time, it is perhaps more relevant today than it was even then. We are staring down the barrel of a very turbulent few decades of widespread change and so the need for educational systems and educators themselves to be future-fit has never been greater.

Having spent well over a decade studying societal trends and helping over 100,000 educators around the world gear up for change, I have witnessed three shifts occurring in our most visionary educational systems. These systems and the educators within them are embracing the mandate of transformation and adopting three new paradigms for pedagogy.

Paradigm Shift 1 – From Content Delivery to Capability Building

The very Latin roots of our modern word ‘Education’ offer some clues as to why this first shift is so important. Our world for education is derived from two Latin terms: educare and educere. The first word translates to mean training up or bringing up and it centers on the formative role of an educator. The latter word however, translates quite differently. It means to ‘draw out.” For almost two centuries, western educators have been good at delivering training, imparting information and communicating knowledge. We do it brilliantly. Classroom structures are geared towards it and standardised test measure the effectiveness of our methods in doing so. This ‘content delivery mode’ may well be efficient and tidy, but it is hopelessly outdated as our primary mode of preparing students for life beyond school.

To be fair, the ‘sage on the stage’ mode of education has always built a long list of capabilities but they were capabilities that belonged in the 20th century. These tended to revolve around students listening intently, remembering well and writing quickly. In classrooms, students furiously copied down notes verbatim from the blackboard before the teacher robbed them off. In preparing for exams, rote learning and memory reigned supreme. He or she who regurgitated best always won. The years to come will need to be far more focused on the ‘drawing out’ aspect of classical education: drawing out the latent skills, strengths and creative potential that students will need to flourish in an age of super-smart artificial intelligence.

Reflecting on this, Sir Ken Robinson points out that, “Students spend ten years in school being told there is one answer, it’s at the back of the book, and don’t look. And don’t copy because that’s cheating.” Outside of schools it’s called collaboration. While there will always be a role for educators to teach in the traditional ‘fountain of knowledge’ manner, this will be relegated to merely one tool in the educator’s tool belt. It will be the ability to challenge student’s mindsets, guide the process of critical discovery, and build intellectual resilience that will matter more.

Celebrated educational researchers, Dr Arthur Costa and Dr Bena Kallick, agree: “The most important shift is from students knowing the answer to knowing what to do when is answer isn’t apparent.” To paraphrase Alexandra K. Trenfor, the good teachers of the future may well show students where to look but they’ll stop well short of telling them what to see. These teachers will increasingly be the facilitators of learning, the activators of analysis and the coaches of critical thought.

Paradigm Shift 2 – From System-Focus to Student-Focus

The concept of personalising learning is by no means new. Prior to the industrial revolution, most ‘education’ was done in the apprenticeship model where one-onone tuition and student-paced learning was the norm. The practicalities of universal education and the Industrial Age necessitated a standardisation of learning and the factory model of learning as we now know it became default. Mounting research showing the ineffectiveness of this mass-education model is motivating a renewed commitment to personalising classroom learning while new technologies increasingly mean it can be done at scale.

Beyond practicalities and feasibility, the philosophical mandate for personalising learning is hard to refute. As one of my colleagues recently put it, “If student’s don’t learn the way we teach, it’s our job to teach the way they learn.” In hearing this, I recalled the words of Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” While the first step in personalising learning is to shift the mindset of educators, the very structure and format of the learning environment will also need to be addressed. Andrew Bunting, of architectural firm Architectus, expresses a genuine concern that school buildings, “Could fail our society if they cannot be adapted to suit the new learning styles of emerging generations. As well as being functional, they also need to be attractive and inspirational,” he argues. There are many great examples of schools who have taken this challenge of transforming learning environments and school design seriously in an effort to facilitate personalised learning. These include:
• Immanuel College, South Australia
• Hillcrest Christian College, Queensland
• Columbus Signature Academy, Columbus, Indiana
• High Tech High, San Diego, California
• New Line Learning Academy, Kent, England

Paradigm Shift 3 – From Expounding Information to Experiencing Learning

Benjamin Franklin put it best when he said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

The traditionally structured, analytical approach to education has proven very effective for auditory left-brain learners. A generation ago, this was the dominant learning style. When the Dunn, Dunn and Price Learning Style Inventory was developed in 1978, 70% of high school students surveyed were ‘auditory’ in their preferred learning style. While not all 70% were truly ‘auditory’ in their preferred learning style, they had conformed to the chalk-and talk teaching methods of the day. In contrast, only 30% of today’s learners are auditory and the remaining 70% of students are non-auditory learners who will be far better suited to take in information they experience with hands-on problem solving. Bearing this research in mind, how can educators get through the mountain of content stipulated in the curriculum while still making learning an experience that hits the mark?

Here are three ways:

• Make Learning REAL

The more you can bring the outside world into the classroom, the better. Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom is a great initiative designed to enable teachers to do just this. It features collaborative lessons, games that allow children from different cultures to play together, virtual field trips and virtual guest speakers.

Empatico is another organisation offering excellent resources for helping students connect beyond the classroom walls using videoconferencing.

New breakthroughs in virtual reality and augmented reality are also revolutionising how ‘real’ classroom learning can be. The fact that costs for this technology have come down so far in recent years (with Google cardboard, amongst other solutions) makes this a viable option for mainstream schools.

• Make Learning TANGIBLE

The more visceral the learning experience, the more effective it will be.

Take the example of Ben Franklin Middle School in Fargo, North Dakota. In an eighth grade history class, the students didn’t just learn about local historic buildings from reference books but left the walls of the classroom and researched the buildings through interviews and on-site investigations. Better still, rather than submitting their findings in a written report, the students created short videos about the history of various buildings in their town and created QR codes on signs near the buildings enabling passersby to use their smartphone to watch the student-produced videos.

This principle of getting physically outside the classroom is a vital one. Recent research indicates that nearly 30% of teachers spend no class time outside and another 30% spend less than 15 minutes outside per week. Rather tellingly, Finnish school classes are required to be outside for 15 minutes every hour in comparison.

• Make Learning PRACTICAL

While much has been said about the value of project-based learning in recent years, the fact remains that only 1% of schools are using PBL as a central approach to instruction.

Executive director of the Buck Institute, John Mergendoller points to the intrinsic value of PBL: “In Project Based Learning, in order for students to learn something, they must do something.” For schools to really engage the learners of tomorrow, approaches like PBL must be more than a philosophical discussion. They must become standard practices. This transition will not be without its challenges but it is one that is well worth making.

As Mark Warschauer, of the University of California, puts it, “The challenge of education in this century is to equip young people to aim further ahead of a faster target. However, we have a system that is so often stuck looking in the rear view mirror.”

The stakes have never been higher for ensuring that our educational approaches are future-fit, if for no other reason to ensure our students are, too.