Imagining the school of the future

Imagining the school of the future

When David Willows asked children in his class to imagine the future they pictured a colourful place where schoolteachers would only be required to attend class in an emergency...

The idealism that inspired us to enter our profession, driven by a clear understanding of how we would make a difference to the future of our world, is little more than a forgotten dream, perhaps even considered a propaganda tool imposed upon us by those who want us to put up with lack of financial recognition and ever-increasing administrative demands.

In short, we no longer have the time or energy to consider the big picture. Our 20/20 vision has long gone and we suffer a form of short-sightedness, whereby we count ourselves lucky if we can just see as far as the end of term!

Their words, even today, are powerful enough to make me think.

I am particularly struck by the refreshing simplicity of the child’s perspective. Children do not have the critical awareness that comes with adulthood. They envision the future without any care for strategic business plans, external moderation or effective resource management. They are therefore free from the constraints that can so easily shatter our dreams and compromise our ideals. For the children in my class, in other words, the future of education was clear. It will be a more colourful, more efficient and more ‘virtual’ experience than is currently available, with the teacher taking a far less active role in the process of learning.

Wow. That’s cool!

How then would we answer this question of the future of education in the year 2050?

What will life be like in the year 2050?

With this central question, the children in my class of 10 year olds began to imagine an island that was both conceivable and based upon their dreams of a utopian society.

Having discussed amongst themselves the way this island would be governed, basic human rights for its citizens, transportation and other aspects of day-to-day life, they turned their attention to their vision of future education.

This was back in 2003 and this is what they said:

Schools in the year 2050 will be far more colourful than they are today. As far as reading is concerned, there will be a book that reads itself to you over and over again, helping you to memorize all the facts that you need to know. For maths, you will just need to learn how to use a calculator. And instead of helping the children, the teachers will learn with the children. Teachers will only need to be there in case of emergency.

Most of the schools will be free, but for well-known schools people on the island will have to pay. Children will learn at home as well. They will have computers to help them. However, they will not look like normal computers but will be the size of a book, making them very easy to take outside.

In the year 2050, everyone — including children — will possess a Comobile: a pocket-sized computer that is close to being a human being. A Comobile, being a virtual teacher, will give children two-hour lessons (on two subjects) and four pages of homework per day.

In thinking about this question, I am reminded of the notion of ‘second naivety’ as outlined in the writings of American theologian and philosopher, Paul Tillich.

According to Tillich, we understand our world from one of three perspectives. First, he suggests, we begin our lives with a ‘mythic-literal’ view of the things around us. We take everything at face value and are essentially naïve. Ours is a kind of fairy-tale existence whereby we project a ‘Disney-style’ landscape onto the future.

As we grow older, however, things change and the complexity of the world begins to impact upon the story of our lives. We begin to experience the pain and contingency of human existence and gradually we exchange our naivety for a more critical, even cynical, perspective on the world around us, fully aware of the brokenness of the ‘myth’ that once we held. We grow ever more aware of both sides of an argument. We begin to see shades of grey where once we could only see black and white.

As educators, those of us who are caught in this phase will think of future education only as a set of dilemmas, so complex that it is impossible to discern an emerging pattern amidst the unceasing presence of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts

Sadly, Tillich argues, many people never manage to move beyond this stage of development. But, he says, there is nevertheless the possibility that we will find a way to transcend the complexity and discover a ‘second naivety’ whereby we are able to re-envision the world. The goal of human understanding, in other words, is at once to be aware of the messiness, the complexity, the contingency and loose ends, and yet also be able to discern a pattern — a vision of the future — that drives us forward in hopeful expectation.

So how does this happen? How do we start to re-envision the future of education? Are we simply to lay to one side our critical understanding and in-depth project plans, exchanging them for simplistic visions of seamless, hi-tech, educational provision?

Another philosopher, Michael Polanyi, suggests a model that may be helpful to us in his consideration of ‘tacit knowledge’. To put it simply, Polanyi argues that we already know more than we think. We narrate what we can about our world, but in telling our story we are unconsciously (‘tacitly’) aware of the fact that there is always more to say, there is always another side to every story. This tacit, unarticulated, knowledge, he suggests, is what drives our search for new visions of the future which more adequately articulate the world in which we live. Moreover, he concludes, in all forms of human development, the critical moment is when we suddenly experience a paradigm-shift in our understanding that leads us to explain the world around us in a new and more truthful way.

Concerning education, then, imagining the future is not a flight of fancy into a technological dreamscape, but the struggle to articulate what we already know to be true. It involves taking all of our good practice, our experience and our knowledge and re-formulating our understanding into a story that better articulates the motivation and vision of our profession.
David Willows
David Willows is Director of External Relations at the International School of Brussels

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