A Short Rant on the Future of Education

Education is a well-established social institution. In modern history, it has served the multiple purposes to prepare young people to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of the society. They have also been developed to prepare novices to enter professions and function within organizations.

For many decades, that society was stable and slowly changing with the skills and knowledge needed by one generation also needed by their children. In that environment, an educational paradigm built upon assumptions about human nature and technology and that supported a well-defined collection of exemplary practices was dominant. Most of the society and its educational system existed in a print-dominated world. The stability and dominance of print in demonstrated in the fact that I have my a few of my grandfather’s textbooks on my shelves. We both studied biology at the same university; me 49 years after he did.

Computers and networks and the information available through those devices and over those networks are replacing print as the dominant information technology for many purposes, including much schooling. In human history, there is evidence that such periods during which one dominant information technology is replaced by another are marked by turmoil as social institutions adjust to new capabilities and new expectations. The current generation of educators is working at a time when we see evidence of that turmoil in schools. The education paradigm that has served many generations with satisfaction has largely been replaced.

To remain relevant, educators must recognize new assumptions about humans and human learning including new definitions of what it means to be literate and numerate and otherwise prepared for full participation in the society dominated by digital tools and information. Educators who remain must adopt new habits of mind and their success will depend on new support systems that expect and encourage ambiguity, flexibility, shared responsibility, and other unfamiliar approaches.

I had occasion to sit with a group of educators, including one person who was new to the field. Our task was to discuss two cases studies; one that school leaders clearly wanted their faculty to adopt while discarding the other. When it came my turn to share my thoughts, I ranted for several minutes about how both schools in the cases were the same as both sought to improve direct instruction so that test scores would improve.

I argued that performance on authentic tasks is more indicative of important skills than tests and students can develop essential skills and knowledge even if I don’t give direct instruction. I even indicated that, while collectively students’ scores on standardized tests scores may be meaningful, my child’s individual scores (which are reported to me) are meaningless. Several like-minded colleagues nodded in agreement, but the one individual new to the profession said, “I don’t know what to say. If you are right, then everything I know about school is wrong.” At the time, I thought, “yes, you are wrong.”

If I could talk to her again, I would explain that she is not wrong, she understands education as it was in previous generations. She assumed the students entering her class would be the same students that had entered class with her when she was a child. She assumed she would be preparing students for the world she entered as an adult. She assumed that the experiences she had as a student would prepare her students for their future.