Thoughts on The Future of Schooling

At Zurich International School, we’ve got a weekend “InnovateZIS” think tank approaching in which the topic is “Schools Out: Learning 2030. Will schools as we know them be needed in 2030?” A series of essential questions have been posited, including:

  • What is the role of creativity in school?
  • What core elements should the curriculum of the future contain?
  • How will Learning 2030 affect social relationships in schools?
  • Should schools prepare students for the world of work?

Two other questions deal with learning spaces, which is an important and fascinating topic that I have been thinking about regularly since a recent visit to Microsoft Switzerland’s headquarters. But beyond physical environments, what is the future of curriculum, creativity, and relationships in school, particularly in terms of what students should know after they leave school?

Thinking about the future of school is tricky. As Dr. Seymour Papert pointed out, “It is impossible to predict what the school of the future will be. History always outsmarts the futurists.” A large disconnect already exists between what the world of today is and how schools operate. Schools are inherently conservative institutions, where change comes slowly. As such, we continue to sort by age ( rather than interest area or fluency level, for example. As such, kids are robbed of a diverse community of learners, one more socially traditional than the hierarchical age model. Learning 2030 should be about social relationships predicated on a shared journey of discovery across age groups, including a student-teacher relationship of cooperative learning. As a teacher, I’d rather be a learner than an authority – a guide with experience in my areas of interest who creates opportunities for students to learn and build meaning individually and socially. As Papert goes on to say, “But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like. I am sure that the practice of segregating children by age into “grades” will be seen as an old-fashioned, and inhumane, method of the “assembly line” epoch. I am sure that the content of what they learn will have very little in common with the present day curriculum.”

I hope Dr. Papert is right. A responsive curriculum is no curriculum at all. Curriculum tends to focus on facts that need to be learned or a banal, arbitrary “spiral” of skills; learn persuasion in 10th grade English as you read Julius Caesar, learn comparison in 11th grade English as you read Othello. Dr. Papert also described an “intellectual diet” of content for children and a broader curriculum predicated on fluencies in various skills like accessing information with “knowledge technologies.”  Teachers engaged in a mutually engaging, constructivist process of learning with students can craft this diet to help kids explore their passions by doing things. Doing is creating, permanently, temporarily, or ephemerally. The role of creativity in school is central, or should be. Standards and curriculum can’t really address that without being extremely broad.

At the end of the day, I don’t know any happy people who make a living doing something they hate. As such, preparing students for the world of work means helping them build positive working relationships, understand their areas of interest, build fluencies in skills essential for life in the 21st century (most of which were essential in the 19th century), and create habits of mind and habits of work for success, happiness, and ethical engagement in society.

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