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)

Every darn time.

Today I return to why I write. While many may write as a form of rhetoric, to persuade or inspire, I write to deepen my understanding of a subject, as a way of navigating and honoring complexity and truth. Sometimes my writing lies dormant longer than I’d like, awaiting a spark that combats all resistance. This is such a moment.  What I am grappling with right now is the thinking found in one of the finest articles on leadership and change I have encountered in a long time: Quinn, Spreitzer, and Brown’s Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves: The Transformation of Human Systems. So much of it resonates and stretches my belief of what is possible that I want to sit with it beyond a single reading and a single post, so beware… I’m enjoying wading through some mud right now. 

I feel there is no doubt – regardless of logic, intention, or need – that most efforts to bring about change fail. Why? In a nutshell, we fail to appreciate the complexities of human systems and underestimate the degree to which a change is adaptive vs. technical. (Need a reminder? Technical change, while often challenging, can be solved by applying existing know-how and current problem-solving processes. Change that is adaptive in nature requires individuals to alter their ways and seek solutions beyond their current tools and expertise. Want more? Adaptive Work, Ron Heifetz). 

I believe the changes we need in education are undeniably adaptive in nature if we are to transform the system. Not only does this mean we need to bridge a significant gap between a new state of possibility and current reality by going beyond existing approaches, but it also means we need to accept that we ourselves are the problem. 

Quinn, et all highlight what is truly at the heart of adaptive change – and it is so much more than I had defined previously:

“In adaptive change, people… must surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system” (147). 

Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves

It’s worth reading that sentence again… surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system. In this brief article, the authors seek to answer, “How can an individual engage others in a change effort when doing so requires them to make painful adjustments and put themselves in jeopardy?” And the answer is straightforward: Changing others requires changing ourselves first. 

The authors present a set of principles that comprise what they call Advanced Change Theory, “a strategy less observable and more complex than the traditional change strategies of rational persuasion, coercion, or participation” (148).  [I’ve summarized it in the table below] What is significant for me is even at our “best”, such as engaging in models of change that are co-created and collaborative, our approach will continue to fall short of truly meeting the potential and possibility of this moment.

The ACT principles [the final column above] articulates a journey I’ve been traveling for some time, especially this curiosity around building an awareness of the realities of the emergent system. The authors highlight the importance of creating a new social reality, adjusting away from self-interest, to building an emergent community that can learn, adapt and grow (Quinn, et al. 150).  What this highlights for me is an essential question worthy of pursuing: How do I act from a place of integrity to my own values and beliefs, while being able to suspend those beliefs and engage the current context with an openness to new and emerging patterns?

This exploration of “lands that are foreign and uncharted in Western thought” (Wheatley, 139) has challenged many of my assumptions about change and put a lot of pressure on the typical frameworks many of us have employed (ie. Kotter’s 8-Step Process, McKinsey’s 7 – S Framework, Lewin’s change model, ADKAR, C-BAM, etc). Until we experience a new social reality and a true community of inclusion, we can’t recognize how powerful, how hopeful, an education can be.

Well, now what? What does all this swirling lead to when I go to work tomorrow morning? How can I consciously and continuously continue this dance of discovery, expanding and narrowing my gaze between the whole of the organization and the individuals who live, work, and learn there?

“Nano origami” @ Singularity Hub

For those who have been reading along, these pages have served to anchor me in a growing set of new practices as a leader seeking to be immersed in an emergent system. So, today, I’ll add just one: building on my capacity to see with fresh eyes. This means disrupting my habitual way of thinking and perceiving. Neuroscientist Francisco Varela calls this “suspension” – and as esoteric as this may sound, I’ve experienced tangible steps that are adding up to an ability to become aware of my thoughts, loosening their influence on what I see. It started here: I have completely changed my “protocol” of classroom observations – to no protocol at all. I show up early, stay for entire classes, linger in hallways and with teachers, going beyond the boundaries of the class period. I’ve let go of using our competency framework and referencing our learning principles and simply observe without forming conclusions to what those observations mean and I try to listen to what is beyond being said. I listen a lot. I sit with, sometimes draw, all the seemingly unrelated bits of information and every darn time, I’m amazed by the fresh ideas and the fresh conversations that emerge — and how things are connecting, how patterns are emerging. This is the shift in the generative social field. This is the practice I will take to work tomorrow – and the next day.


  • Wheatley, Margaret J.. Leadership and the New Science Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves (linked)

Push Pause: The Compassionate Pre-Mortem

[Before you start reading. I committed to posting weekly, so I’m posting. It’s a reflection I started early last week, before May 25. It is hard to ignore what is happening in the US right now, and quite frankly, the world. The pain and injustices of black people – marginalized people – is all of our responsibility. I post today not blind to the inequities that exist but because of those inequities. I went into education for a reason and that reason has never been more clear. If we don’t think differently about how to cultivate a system where everyone has a right to thrive, then we are the problem. Perhaps what follows may provide a step to honoring the communities that we serve, wherever they may be.]

Wherever I seem to turn these days, people are posting plans for reopening, redesigning, or reimagining school for August and September. I get it. It’s a critical time in education. It’s during such moments, however, that stepping back can make a huge difference when it comes to creating a possible future. Unless we pause during this planning stage, “we will fail to see the blind spots of our change efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas. We will fail to see that transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.” (Peter Senge)

What could that look like? A key tool I return to again and again is the process of the pre-mortem. In brief, a pre-mortem is a meeting before a plan is implemented or a project starts in which a team imagines what might happen to cause it to fail. The team then works backward to create a plan to help prevent potential obstacles and increase the chances of success. This technique is recommended by behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists as an especially effective way of combatting cognitive bias and reducing project risk. I was introduced to the pre-mortem by a colleague from the Learner-Centered Collaborative while designing an onboarding experience for new teachers. Since then I’ve used it for things such as developing our professional learning framework, in-service days, schedules, and projects with students. There was even one awkward moment when I tried to use it with my husband to plan an especially complicated climbing trip.

From Gamestorming

What do you do? The process is deceptively simple.

  • Prepare: Before you start the pre-mortem, make sure everyone is clear on the plan. And by everyone, I mean a team of representative stakeholders. It’s best to have a full range of perspectives. I’ve messed this up before. For example, the first pre-mortem of our professional learning plan was with our senior leadership team. However, when I reran the process with a few teachers, I discovered a whole pile of challenges we couldn’t even see. Once everyone has the plan, drop the bomb and let them know the project was an epic fail.
  • Why Did the Project Fail? Give the team an hour or more to identify why the project failed. I usually start with individual brainstorming and then shift to small groups. Tell them to be as imaginative as they can, capturing all their ideas in writing.
  • Share Reasons for Failure: Ask each person to share one item on their list and continue to go around the room until everyone has exhausted their list. Record all reasons on a whiteboard or a shared digital document. Depending on how long the list can get — and sometimes it’s overwhelmingly long – if need be, spend some time prioritizing which ones feel like challenges that significantly impact the success of the project.
  • Brainstorm with solutions: Get back into those small groups and begin to tackle possible solutions, mitigating risks to success and strengthening the plan through adding or revising their original step.

Here are a few prompts I’ve used to get the ball rolling:

Describe the failure.

  • What important stuff did we not do?
  • What unimportant stuff did we do?
  • What current problems remain?
  • What new problems emerged?

Consider Symptoms and Causes.

  • How will we know we failed?
  • What got in the way?
  • Was there something we lacked?
  • Was it not well coordinated? Communicated? Supported?

If you get this far, then it’s a win. You’ll get a whole bunch of mileage from this process. However, recently, I’ve added a new dimension to the pre-mortem using a lens of the Center for Systems Awareness’s Compassionate Systems Framework. It has elevated the process and guided me in considering more systemic outcomes. By simply reflecting on the three core capacities of system leaders as part of this process, I noticed not only better plans but more authentic work.

The three capacities represent an inter-related set of competencies (as Peter would jokingly refer to as, “the three sides of the same coin” or, more practically, the three legs of a stool) for a deep commitment to learning.  As a result, they engender an alternative set of behaviors needed to allow a  group of people to work at their best so that the organization creates the results that matter to them. The first is the spirit of deep intention.  The Learner/Leader crystallizes their vision of what actually we are trying to accomplish. The second leg represents the capacity for reflective conversation. The third leg is about seeing the larger system to understand complexity.  

Where does it fit? For the most part, the process is similar, but I’ve integrated additional reflective prompts to use during the pre-mortem stage to help uncover blind spots and pursue a more generative social field. I noticed in the first round of prompts, I focused teams more on reactive problem solving without acknowledging long-term value creation.

Additional Prompts:

  • Do we allow people to orient themselves toward what they truly care about?
  • Do we provide the space for people to change in ways they want to?
  • How does this align with our shared vision or help us continue to deepen our understanding of a shared vision?
  • Have we identified what we can do with the new thinking that emerges?
  • Do we build on our habits of reflection and inquiry?
  • Have we designed so we can learn from the insights of all individuals?

These few “simple” questions led to a big shift in my plans for a faculty conversation last week. Originally designed as a workshop model where I had planned to solve what I perceived as a school-wide challenge, I completely shifted the structure to invite people to explore their own challenges, offering up shared tools as a lens to see if it helped them make sense of things they cared about. I shifted the bulk of the meeting from the whole group to small group dialogue, bringing people back to share reflections and insights.

It was an interesting first step in reorienting myself. So many of us are eager to step into this time of possibility with dreams that perhaps were seeded decades ago. (At least that is true in my case.) Yet following the approaches to change we’ve always followed is unlikely to lead to the potential we see, and is likely to perpetuate the same systemic shortcomings. As Peter points out, “organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together.”

…. creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. Right now, it feels like we have a long way to go.

Learn More

Please stop using the term “non-essential worker” and think about the job to be done

If I’ve learned anything about schools during this most unusual time, I’ve learned school is about community. This isn’t a new insight for many, I’m sure. Yet, in all my work of thinking through how to do education better, I failed to place the right amount of value on this fundamental truth. Without a doubt, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the complexities of community. But for now, the questions on my mind are how do we support our communities? More importantly, how do we value everyone in the community through honoring all they can contribute?

This is why I bristle at the term “non-essential worker” and applaud schools that are rethinking the role people play when taking responsibility for the education of children. (For example, I applaud the districts, like Austin ISD, who are using school buses to establish wifi hotspots for students that don’t have access to the internet). During this time of crisis, I’ve had to shift my thinking away from the jobs people were hired to do and instead focus on the jobs that needed to be done.

I first learned about the jobs to be done theory when I was lucky enough to work on a project with Michael Horn. For me, the jobs to be done theory (JTBD) is best defined as a perspective — a lens by which one understands some area of life where a customer is at the center of a struggle, and they want some help solving the problem. I use this lens a lot because it helps push my thinking beyond typical solutions so I can serve others better. In this case, the customer is our school community and the job to be done is simple. It is connection. Now more than ever, the connection of community is critical to well-being.

With this lens in place, with this clarity of what people were struggling with in this moment, I recognized that those that had the time, like our transportation manager who couldn’t do the job she was hired to do, were invaluable, not non-essential. She, along with 27 other invaluable members of our staff, organized to reach out weekly to every family with a phone call asking how they were doing. They weren’t asking about a missed assignment. They weren’t updating them on reopening plans. They were simply checking in on how they were experiencing this time as people. And the results blew me away. I discovered talents on our team that only came into play because we were able to see beyond their everyday role and instead, shift their efforts and offer the support to ensure they could address a clear need.

Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done Framework

I’m finding the JTBD lens a crucial tool at this time. There is a thundering call for change in education based on challenges we cannot turn away from and opportunities that are emerging. It’s both exciting and daunting. As a leader, I’m beginning to sort through the possibilities that are emerging for our community. This framework is especially helpful when you begin with the end. What are we trying to achieve and more importantly, for whom? How does understanding the struggle of students and teachers especially give us greater clarity on how we employ the talents of a community and refine – even transform – our services? Michael’s latest book Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life was a good catalyst to return to the JTBD theory to sharpen our school’s strategy. I worry that all the chatter about change, although well-intended, is disconnected from the jobs our students and our community are trying to accomplish. What is emerging for me is the tension between what our community is hiring our school to do and what I think should be done. This, I suppose, is the challenge of Servant – Leadership. What is helpful at this moment is to be crystal clear on who I am here to serve and whose struggle I can help solve. Right now, our community is in need and the tool led to a solution that expanded beyond the boundary of what we were hired to do. Ultimately, however, I am here to serve learners. In what way might the tool lead to a solution that expands beyond our current traditional jobs at school? That is what I’ll tackle next.