Staying in Wonderland: The possible futures of education

Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward. Our difficulties are not only the result of limited resources and means. Our challenges also stem from why and how we educate and the ways we organize learning today. We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future. We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.” 

Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (UNESCO)

You might recall the moment in the Matrix that launches Neo’s awakening. Morpheus presents a choice. “You take the blue pill… the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” For sixteen seconds Neo sits in indecisiveness, then takes the red pill, choosing the “truth of reality”, one much harsher and more difficult. UNESCO’s report offers us the same life-defining moment.

I put the following together for our leadership team as a means to generate dialogue for what is possible for our community. I share here in the hopes one more person might pick up this conversation with their own teams to challenge the current “grammar of schooling.” (Refer to Jal Mehta’s latest to expand this conversation ).

Dear Leadership Team,

I know we would all agree that multiple alternative futures are possible and that no trend is destiny. It’s also difficult to establish a timeline, as a school can potentially change more quickly than an education system. To support our conversation, I’ve curated a few resources. I invite you to share others that can help stretch our imaginations beyond the status quo. To the extent that is possible, I’ve summarized and synthesized and then included the originals as a reference. For that reason, I don’t do a great job of citation. It’s a bit of a mash-up.  

I also focused on education, rather than the future of learning, specifically.  There is no doubt that how we learn must be determined by why and what we learn. Shifts in education will undoubtedly lead to shifts in pedagogy. Much like the UNESCO report highlighted, I lean towards the research that suggests future pedagogies “require participatory, collaborative, problem-posing, and interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and intercultural learning”(50). Although this has implications for how we organize, I tried to leave out commentary on learning for this stage of our conversations. (You can only imagine how challenging that is for me.)

It’s hard to begin without some reflection on the WHY of education. Systems shift when the purpose of the system shifts. The purpose provides the point around which people, activities and resources are organised. I recently read UNESCO’s report from the International Commission On the Futures of Education, “A New Social Contract for Education.” The whole read is worthy of your time.  As this is a provocation, I’ll lead with their call to action and one that personally resonates.   

Our humanity and planet Earth are under threat. The pandemic has only served to prove our fragility and our interconnectedness. Now urgent action, taken together, is needed to change course and reimagine our futures.  We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future. 

… given the grave risks we face, we must urgently reinvent education to help us address common challenges… 

Constructing a new social contract means exploring how established ways of thinking about education, knowledge, and learning inhibit us from opening new paths and moving towards the futures we desire...Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward… We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.” 

A New Social Contract for Education,

Although we completed a local analysis of factors that may impact change, here are additional global trends that may inform our conversation. You will see in the reference the various sources I used to build the list. Although our context is unique we are part of an interconnected, interdependent global system.  These factors could add up to many different scenarios – and at the very least – impact curriculum, assessment, and learning facilitation, which highlights a need for different skills and experiences of educators in the future. 

[HOW] Possible Scenarios

Education will respond to the drivers in some way. Since COVID, which highlighted both the possibility and fragility of our schools, opinions about the future of schools and education are running rampant. I find it more helpful to consider a scope of scenarios. Scenarios are designed to capture the continuum of possibility based on priorities and uncertainties. The use of scenarios is not intended to set a path but to see the paths that are possible. To start, I found Neil Selwyn’s matrix highlighted in OECD’s Back to the Future of Schooling a helpful grounding. (In this case, schooling is more akin to education – the organization of teaching/learning.)

Below, I pulled some descriptors from the report to give a bit more context to each of the models:

  • Massive schooling: This implies the continuity of both schools and schooling as we know them. Although modernised by technology, learners and teachers continue to operate within rather uniform structures and standardised processes. 
  • Virtual schooling: Here “virtual” is not restricted to digital learning only. Schooling continues, but learners do their learning and teachers do their teaching outside the confines of conventional physical schools, within a context of flexible relationships and greater choice.
  • Re-schooling: Schools continue, but schooling changes. The attainment of shared core academic knowledge and skills may endure, but these are not necessarily pursued through common processes. Traditional roles and relationships in schools change, including those of and between teachers and students. 
  • De-schooling: The structures and processes of both schooling and schools are disrupted. This future has completely transformed teaching and learning as we know it and traditional notions of physical infrastructure, curriculum and qualifications are all overridden. 

This set of additional narratives from the OECD’s 2020 update may be helpful in understanding in greater detail how Selwyn’s model plays out based on the specific drivers of change. OECD projects 15-20 years for these possibilities. I pulled details that suggest the role schools may play in these possible futures. The scenarios are more robust than what is represented below.

Scenario 1: School Extended: Participation in formal education continues to expand. International collaboration and technological advances support more individualised learning, yet the structures and processes of schooling remain.

The organisation of instruction and student-teacher relations remains generally impervious to change, although there is room for innovation. Schools continue to operate under a classroom/individual adult model but schedules are more flexible with the adoption of blended instructional methods and rigid boundaries between traditional academic subjects have softened. More marked division of tasks and greater diversification of professional profiles in schools has emerged. A reduced but distinct, well-trained teaching corps remains in charge of designing learning content and activities, which may be then implemented and monitored by educational robots along with other staff employed under diverse working arrangements (voluntary/paid, part-time/full-time, face-to-face or online), or directly by educational software. New roles, such as learning data analysts, grow strongly, employed in school networks or “learning industries” elsewhere.

Scenario 2: Education Outsourced: Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatized and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.

In this scenario, diverse forms of private and community-based initiatives emerge as an alternative to schooling. Highly flexible working arrangements have allowed greater parental involvement in children’s education, and public systems struggle with families’ pressure towards privatisation.The abandonment of rigid structures of traditional schooling (i.e. year groupings, educational stages) provides learners with greater flexibility to move at their own pace and potentially combine formal learning with other activities. In this sense, greater choice in learning programmes (length, scope, cost, etc.) translates into learning solutions that are more adaptive to individual needs and, potentially, more aligned to the goal of lifelong learning.

Parents of younger children, rely on public care services or participate in self-organised community networks or market-based services brokered by digital platforms for their care. As learners grow older and more autonomous, and their learning involves more sophisticated tasks, specialised learning platforms and advice services (digital and face-to-face, public and private) play a larger role. Employers become more involved in the business of education, including large corporations but also small and medium sized enterprises.

Scenario 3: Schools as Learning Hubs: Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation.

In this scenario, strong schools retain most of their functions. They continue to look after children and hold activities that structure young people’s time, contributing to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. At the same time, more sophisticated and diverse forms of competence recognition in the labour market liberate education and thus schools from excessive pressures of credentialism. 

International awareness and exchange is strong, but power shifts to the decentralised elements in the system. Local actors come up with their own initiatives to achieve the values they consider important. Schools are defined as strong where intense connections with the community and other local services are developed. School activities are planned and designed in the context of broader education planning beyond their own walls, resulting in flexible structures (physical infrastructure, schedules) to accommodate blended learning activities supported by digital information systems. Schools are in this sense the centrepiece of wider, dynamically evolving local education ecosystems, mapping learning opportunities across an interconnected network of educational spaces. This way, diverse individual and institutional players offer a variety of skills and expertise that can be brought in to support student learning.schools are open to the participation of non-teaching professionals in teaching. A prominent role for professionals other than teachers, community actors, parents, and others is expected, and indeed, welcomed. 

Scenario 4: Learn as you go: Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.

This scenario builds on the rapid advancements of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and the Internet of Things. Learning opportunities are widely available for “free”, marking the decline of established curriculum structures and dismantling of the school system. Digitalisation has made it possible to assess and certify knowledge, skills and attitudes in a deep and practically instantaneous manner, and the intermediary role of trusted third parties (e.g. educational institutions, private learning providers) in certification is no longer necessary. 

As the distinction between formal and informal learning disappears, massive public resources previously devoted to large-scale schooling infrastructure become liberated to serve other purposes or education through other means. Similar to scenario 2, alternative “childcare” arrangements may be necessary with the demise of physical schools. In this scenario, digitalisation and “smart” infrastructure favour the creation of safe and learning-rich public and private spaces. Building on surveillance systems, digitally connected, interactive infrastructure, such as intelligent playgrounds, can now look after children while proposing them with learning activities and fostering behaviours towards the satisfaction of certain goals (e.g. healthy lifestyles).

The end of schools?

Like you, I find some futures more inspiring and exciting than others. As I continued to dig into scenarios (not all of which are included) many highlight the decreasing need for a school building. This is an interesting tension. UNESCO’s report provides another perspective. A chapter focused on Safeguarding and Transforming Schools opens with, “if the school did not exist, we would need to invent it Essential educational work takes place in many times and spaces, but the public time and space of school are unique. Education and learning simulate human interactions, dialoge and exchange, and schools should be purpose-built to nurture this… Schools are one of the few institutions intended to protect and provide opportunity for the poorest and most vulnerable. As centres of community life, schools can offer powerful support for self-reliance and for cultivating sustainable relationships within local communities and with the natural world. Intentional pedagogical encounters make schools irreplaceable. To bring about profound change, however, the future school’s organizing principles should centre on inclusion and collaboration… Schools should model the futures we aspire to by ensuring human rights and becoming exemplars of sustainability and carbon neutrality. Students should be trusted and tasked with leading the way in greening the education sector (95).”

Schools need to become places where everyone is able to form and realize their aspirations to transformation, change and well-being.

Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (UNESCO)

It is not the first time education sits at a crossroads. It is clear we have a conscious choice to make. Will we take the blue pill remaining in a state of ignorance and denial or will we choose the red pill and do the hard work of elevating a different purpose for education, radically shifting course?

2021 Educause Horizons Report:  Teaching and Learning Edition (link)
Envisioning Pathways to 2030: Megatrends Shaping the Future of Higher Education (link)
Education in 2030: Five Scenarios for the Future of Learning and Talent (link)
Future Forecast 5.0:  Navigating the Future of Learning, KnowledgeWorks (link)
UNESCO’s A New Social Contract for Education (link)  
OECD’s Four Scenarios for the Future of Education (link)

A Hopeful Subversion

I have been pondering culture and the meaning of community a lot these past few weeks. A recent bout of journaling has led to thinking about our approach to strategy. In my brain, strategy is a learning agenda; it’s a hypothesis of the value of learning. Typically, you choose a goal that you think is going to matter. Then, to achieve that goal you often need to do something – and doing something often requires learning (or unlearning/re-learning) something. For me, it comes down to did we learn (then acted) on what we needed to learn and did it have the value (impact on the learner’s experience) we predicted. 

So what does strategy have to do with culture and community? The obvious answer is everything. 

I imagine you’ve heard the alleged Peter Drucker quote as often as I: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This quippy statement, often met with chortles and chuckles, has been pulled out in almost every strategic workshop I’ve been in over the past decade, and yet, my experience suggests it’s problematic to pit one against the other in any way. Rather, I believe culture is strategy. Full stop. So, following my “strategy is a learning agenda” one could surmise that why, how, and what we choose to learn is key. All of these processes, decisions, and behaviors shape and will be shaped by culture. Who decides and who does the learning is also critical. Who is the community. (I’ll move on. This is heading into an Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First bit).

Strategy is a tough nut to crack with decades of assumptions of what a strategy should be and do within an organization. It’s often the operating system that drives the priorities and behaviors of the school if anyone is paying attention to it at all. I’ve been trying to figure out a strategic approach that is more generative in nature, creating space for the “what ifs” to emerge within a model that acts as a reinforcing feedback loop between strategy and culture, with one generating more possibility in the other.

Seeing Possibility

In 2019 I introduced an Objective and Key Result (OKR) model of goal management as our strategic framework. [New to OKRs? Head here or to Doerr’s latest – and hopeful- application of OKRs to solve the climate crisis for some real inspiration]. I had experience with the model when working at AltSchool whose executive leadership team brought it from their days at Google. I appreciated the impact it had on the culture of our teams in aligning and directing efforts to achieve something purposeful.

It’s clear, concise, and drives measurable outcomes – just what a strategy is expected to do, right?

What I experienced as an effective model at a product-driven, market-dependent company, however, is falling short of what I hope for our school. We’re not quite there, yet

Let me back up for a moment. WHY we chose this strategic framework matters. We shifted from a multi-year strategy so we can continue to be responsive to our community’s needs and learning. Certainly, our school is not an outlier in this shift. Covid has highlighted how unpredictable and ambiguous circumstances really are in reality. More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate that this sense of unpredictability can lead to possibility when and where you least expect. The OKR framework is simply a tool to create alignment and engagement around shared goals on a more dynamic timeline. I believe it also can shift the relationships and power structure within the organization. Yes, leadership is responsible for illuminating a direction, but our OKRs are designed to turn our leadership team into stewards and project managers, acting in service of the efforts of our teams and students. At our school, I see the greatest value of OKRs is the transparency and the coordination of these efforts so they can add up to something valuable for learners. 

OKRs signal a different way of valuing and doing work together. It is a completely different mental model of how the school has been operating. Schools are infamous for “top-down” initiatives. In my mind, the inter-relatedness of institutional transformation and individual work are significant. At the early stages of our development, my hopeful connection was our community would see that “my work and my learning matter.” Surely, this new approach would signal a shift. Not exactly. 

In introducing this approach, we took the time to gauge our faculty’s response. Why? Only when the system can see itself can it begin to change itself.  We did a few things that fed our learning early in the process:

First, we surfaced how we each associate with things differently by playing a simple word association game. (“When I say morning, you say…”) This highlighted that there is an entire “file cabinet” of experiences and emotions that leads to our reaction. We also emphasized that their reaction is rational and informed by a mental model that has been built over time. A moment’s reaction is the sum of our past. We made this visible by creating an iceberg model in teams.

This activity made visible WHY we think the way we do when a strategy is introduced. The iceberg highlights how patterns of behavior and structures reinforce beliefs. Not only can we see the system more clearly in the icebergs, but their reflections also unveiled what we need to attend to over time.

As you can see from this team’s model, feelings of disconnect and lack of trust proliferate the community. “Same shovel with more snow,” basically says it all. We accepted and acknowledged current mental models with compassion and without judgment. Although we did our own iceberg as a leadership team and predicted much of what would surface, admittedly, it was emotional to read some of the responses.

We also didn’t take full responsibility for a solution or a clear way forward. (Yes, you read that right.) I believe we hold onto stories that serve us and we all share in perpetuating the current culture. Yes, it is important for administrators to acknowledge the experience of staff, and staff shares equal responsibility for our learning culture. This is about our personal growth and the internal dialogue we perpetuate. Things are not likely to change until we each make a choice to engage differently with each other as a community and to accept collective responsibility for bringing our school’s potential to life.

What’s Clearer To Me Now

The source of the strategy came from multiple channels of feedback across our community and more importantly from tuning in to the energy of current efforts. Although I believe we have a valuable start, I trust we can do this process better. Where we seem to be failing (in all the right ways) and where I’m finding tensions is naming the outcome of the key results before engaging in the learning with learners. The pressure is coming from the mental models we hold true for strategy. I’m often asked, “how will we measure this?” and I think many are beginning to tire of my benign smile and “it will make sense soon” response. In reality, I am beginning to sweat this one a bit, too. 

Currently, we can only imagine what it is we don’t know and what it’s going to look and feel like after we’ve worked like this for a year. The challenge with the OKR framework is it assumes a certain level of predictability, but students are not a product. We’re working with a complex, living dynamic system. If we map the entirety of our learning for what our efforts could look like, it will be a very static application on something that is organic. It will be a quick way to shut down real wonder or to listen to what is growing in our community and in the work of our learners.  

What is becoming clear is we need to have some integrity with the intent of this approach. This is where I come back to community and culture. Alongside this structure, we put in place advisers and critical friends to be sounding boards and provide feedback on each other’s efforts. We have educator competencies sketched out as a terrain for faculty’s reflection and we have learning principles in place to define the impact we hope to achieve with and for learners. This model sits in a larger system designed to help shape a new culture of learning together. 

Our strategy – our learning agenda – is my bet on this community. In three weeks, key result teams across the school will come together with artifacts of learning to reflect and tell us- based on the trajectory of learning they see in their teams – the impact we should expect. Then our job as a leadership team is to help hold us accountable for that vision.

What is clear is this model of a strategic framework for our school is my hope for the learning environment of our students, one that represents a shift in power structures and a sense of collective responsibility.

These questions I ask of our organization are the same I ask for the experience of our learners. How can we do a better job of creating multiple channels of feedback to shape the collective learning agenda alongside our students? How can we help students connect their purpose to a project that plugs into cultivating potential and holds value for their community? How do we help students develop plans and access resources to support their development? How do we match students with critical friends and advisers to expand their network of support and stretch what they believe is possible? How do we enlist their perspective to determine if we, as a community, are having the impact we hope and believe possible? 

This is why my ponderings of culture and community landed me on strategy. How we do the work and who chooses it is as important as the work that we do. Perhaps this is a bastardization of the OKR framework for the purists out there, but I’m wondering if subverting a structure that holds limits for learning at an organizational level will help us confront the structures we have for limiting the learning of our students. I’m finding the tensions incredibly helpful and hopeful when translated to a living system. In Part II, I’ll break down an example of a project and its inter-related parts in case you’re wondering how this looks on the ground.