Six Big, Hairy, Inevitable Changes on School's Horizons
By Grant Lichtman, an internationally-recognized thought leader on the transformation of K-12 education and author of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education
Two years ago, I visited and wrote about Rios Elementary School in the Cajon Valley District, built in the 1980's to serve about 750 students in the sage-covered rural hills east of San Diego. Over the last three decades, with new schools built to support suburban sprawl, and the advent of district-wide school choice, Rios had dwindled to 200 students, many of them from underserved neighborhoods, as families chose the newer, shinier options across town. Superintendent David Miyashiro knew he had to make a dramatic change or risk shuttering a neighborhood school.
About the same time, I had a call from the trustee chair of strategic planning at a private east coast day-boarding school, a school with a firehose demand for admissions entrance, a college matriculation list rivaling any school in the country, and a multi-hundred-million-dollar endowment. They had realized that, in the current environment, a five-year strategic plan was way too limited. They decided to look ahead 20 years, and in doing so came to the conclusion that they, one of the best resourced and best positioned schools in the world, might not even be in business in 20 years unless they considered some dramatic changes.
How do two schools, at nearly polar opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of demographics, geography, and resources arrive at the same conclusion: that in this time of rapid global change, only those willing and able to significantly evolve, stand the best chance of survival?
In researching and writing my new book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education (Wiley, 2017), I found agreement amongst dozens of educators and educational thought leaders on two big fronts. First, changes in education over the next 20 years are going to be vastly more dramatic than almost anyone is preparing for now. The trajectory of change in schools will either keep up with those in the rest of the world--technology, consumerism, global flows of people, ideas and capital, science, media, politics--or schools will become irrelevant bystanders to likely the most dynamic period in human history.
Second, despite a decades-long record of systemic inertia, some schools have already launched dramatic changes in ways that do not require permission or empowerment from the forces that created that inertia in the first place. Schools as widely divergent as the two I described are contemplating, or have already launched, major innovative disruptions in how students learn because they recognize the moral imperative of preparing our students for a very different future, and also because they want to still be operating ten or twenty years from now.
In this post, I want to tackle the first big takeaway from the book: the inevitable, dramatic changes in education that will occur in the next two decades. Here are a few of those changes, distilled from talking to dozens of people around the country. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I invite us all to merely use this kind of crystal ball as a launch pad into our own community-wide discussions, not as a cookbook recipe for the future:
- Schools will increasingly engage both teachers and students in emerging challenges that were not on our course lists, syllabi, or even radar screens just a few years ago. Big learning challenges we can identify right now include the nature of civil discourse; the nature of, and respect for, expertise; media literacy in an era of conflated fact, opinion, and fiction; and global environmental sustainability. These essential learning tracks must form the future equivalent of basic literacy and numeracy around which education was designed in the middle of the 19th century. They cut across subject, discipline, and age.
- Students will learn and progress along highly differentiated and increasingly individualized learning pathways based on interests, passions, and learning style, rather than being lumped together based on age or the ability to take a test scored against a meaningless average. In order to serve their students in this very different modality, teachers will also differentiate into a wide range of functions best described by words like coach, mentor, tutor, guide, facilitator, director, shepherd, and farmer.
- Schools will participate, and empower our students to participate, in the just-now-evolving global social-neural network of everyone who is connected to the Internet. I have called this new global system the cognitosphere; others have used terms like metaverse, neurosphere, or merely "flow". The currency of schools for the past several millennia, transfer of knowledge from a teacher to a student, is already rapidly being replaced by a system that supports and rewards creation and free sharing of information, knowledge, and wisdom.
- The boundary between "school" and "world" will dramatically smear. We are rapidly understanding that our communities hold an enormous treasure of learning opportunities, many of which schools can access for free, and that hold win-win-win experiences amongst students, teachers, employers, universities, trade associations, non-profits, and other community stakeholders. The range of learning opportunities starts at the lintel of each classroom door, and extends as deeply into our communities as people of good vision are willing to explore.
- Technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, if combined with effective new pedagogies, will transcend the physical and temporal boundaries of what we think of today as "school". Much of our current educational technology is highly transactional; it pushes the same content more efficiently. Evolving technologies will allow highly relational learning to take place without the constraints of a physical campus or building, one teacher or one subject at a time.
- What we know as powerful intrinsic motivations for learning--passion, interest, and relevance--will replace what we know are the less effective extrinsic motivations of our schools: grades, test results, and standardized college admissions criteria. Both K-12 and college educators are waking up to the deep harm that has been created by assessment systems that fail to measure both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities that we actually value. It will take time, but over the next two decades, we either will have re-married intrinsic motivation to learning and assessment per the ageless wisdom of John Dewey and the other founding progressivists, or we will have utterly failed to match our education with the outcomes we need, want, and value.
As I wrote in an article for a team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as schools traverse this period of evolution, they will be abandoning the existing school "operating system" that has been largely unchanged for the last 150 years, and designing, testing, iterating, and implementing a wholly new operating system. This process will not be smooth or linear, and perhaps only one outcome is completely predictable: we will not arrive at another one-size-fits-all solution that will serve for the next many decades to come. That outcome would be utterly antithetical to the realities of an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.