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The Future of Learning

By Jenny Thomson

As part of this series of commentaries on the Futures of School Reform, this week we think specifically about the Future of Learning. In order to prepare our students to be confident 21st century citizens, what needs to change about how and what they learn? As asked by one of this week's contributors, David Perkins, how do we bridge the "relevance gap"?

At the Harvard Graduate School of Education a series of conversations has been held, specifically around three key drivers of change: digital technology, globalization, neuroscience, and their interactions. We have debated questions such as, is the kind of "cosmopolitanism" that some have advocated for the contemporary globalized world really within the reach of human nature? How is personal identity changed as a result of the use of a range of internet environments where one can construct distinctive identities unlike ones physical identity? Does/how does the brain change to enable more multi-processing as a consequence of widespread frequent immersion with diverse media?

Over the coming days, you will hear diverse opinions from contributors to this discussion that reflect upon both the nature of changes in learning, as well as how educational systems can optimally scaffold positive adaptation.

A question coming up in my own research and practice concerns the relative roles of "keeping up with" versus "offsetting for" 21st century learning changes. Take digital technology, for example, and a classroom assignment of researching the current North-African unrest. The students may be more nimble than the teacher in perusing websites and gathering information, suggesting a learning shift occurring in spite of school actions that teachers must keep up with. But as the proliferation of information continues, how do we help students discern the reliability of their sources? Also, as non-linear clicking through multiple web sites makes the task of higher level text comprehension more challenging, how do we compensate for aspects of higher level cognition that risk getting sidelined as life becomes more digital?

Let us know what you think.


Jennifer Thomson is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and part of the HGSE Future of Learning Initiative. David Perkins, a key synthesizer of the groups' discussions and questions is the Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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