There’s no shortage of different opinions about how the education system should adapt to a shifting world and a future with unknown demands, but for the most part, only two dominant narratives of education reform have emerged.
“The predominant narrative is that schools are broken,” said veteran educator and author Will Richardson recently at a gathering of teachers at Educon. “Our test scores aren’t great and kids aren’t learning what they need to be successful.” This narrative is dominated by those who believe schools need to be organized and funded differently, but Richardson claims that the essential outcomes of improved test scores and other measurable results are the same as the current system. “Different isn’t really different,” Richardson said. “It’s the same outcome, but maybe different paths to get there.”
The other dominant narrative holds that schools aren’t broken — they just need to do what they’re already doing, but better. To improve education, this faction argues society needs to support teachers more and limit standardized testing. “It’s this idea of preservation and improvement rather than doing it in any way fundamentally different,” Richardson said.
But neither of these narratives frames the core goals and elements of a successful education differently. Richardson believes there are many educators that don’t completely agree with either of the narratives dominating the debate about education and wants to define a third narrative for those who think education needs to radically shift away from current models. That third narrative would help articulate what goes into creating powerful learning experiences and holds that technology will be a crucial factor in future learning.
“We need to begin to think about schools in a fundamentally different way,” Richardson said. In his vision of this third narrative, reformers would focus on creating an education system that supports inquiry-based, student-centered learning, where students are encouraged to find entry points into the mandated curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them. Technology is an integral part of Richardson’s vision because it allows students to create and demonstrate their knowledge. “That piece of it really allows kids to create things and connect with other people, arguably more important than much of the traditional curriculum that schools are built around,” Richardson said.
A group of progressive educators at the Educon conference discussed other qualities that successful future citizens will need and that a good education should offer. A successful student should be able to manage massive amounts of information, a crucial skill as life becomes more digital. Students should learn in ways that disregard traditional disciplines like English and math, instead focusing on real world problems that allow for crossover and interplay. The focus should be on providing student-centered experiences that bring out qualities in students that aren’t necessarily measurable. Students should learn to build and manipulate computers, not just use them. Perhaps most importantly students should be taught how to learn, especially since the content or specific skills needed in the future are as yet unknown.
These qualities are different than what one might find in an average public school, but they aren’t impossible to achieve. In isolated pockets around the country schools and teachers are already teaching using many of these principles, but they haven’t coalesced into a movement.
“We need to find a narrative that has at its core a very different valuable thing,” said Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA). “It may not be the most efficient thing, but it could be the most quality thing to do.” It’s hard to convince people that a new narrative can work until they see a physical manifestation of it. “What we have become is a place that people can see and hold onto,” said Diana Laufenberg, lead teacher at SLA, which has based its foundation on inquiry-based, student-led learning. “We’re a place that can get kids into college.” Now families clamor to get their students into the school, but they didn’t trust the idea at the outset.
“Modern learning is about the ability to self-organize your education, to create meaning for things that have value in the world and not answer to this institution,” Richardson said. But as educators discussed the issue more in depth, it became clear there was more than one definition of what a third education narrative would look like. “I’m not sure if we all wrote down our definition of modern learning right now that we’d all be near each other,” Richardson said.
And yet there was a clear hunger for something other than charter schools or a defense of the status quo. “The underlying problem for any new kind of education is putting out there that level of uncertainty, that level of messiness that exists in the world, the ugly problems that are going to need to be solved by people, not by corporations,” said one teacher. An ambiguous vision of education is hard to sell to politicians, parents, and students.
“Most teachers didn’t sign up for this moment that we’re in, this shifty moment,” said Richardson. As ideas about what makes a useful education morph, some educators are feeling left behind, reeling from all the changes. Others are fighting to hold onto the accountability tools that were used to measure them. But assessing this as-yet amorphous concept of the future of learning would necessarily be varied. More than anything, educators would guide students on a learning journey through the lens of their interests and help them discover who they are as learners.