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On PBS, 'NOVA' Foretells the 'School of the Future,' Hoverboards Not Included

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When TV shows and movies envision the "future," they tend to hit viewers over the head with sleek designs, faster and creative forms of transportation, and improbable inventions.

In the episode of the PBS science show "NOVA" titled "School of the Future," which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings), the documentary at one point has some fun with such expectations by interviewing a student who predicts that his future school will have kids "riding hoverboards in the hallways."

But the essential lesson of this two-hour film written and directed by Phil Bertelsen is that the "school of the future" is already here. Or, more accurately, the education of the future is being delivered today in many places and programs.

The documentary is probably the most significant and lasting offering of the spate of special programming about schools in PBS Spotlight Education week. LeVar Burton, a familiar presence on public television from his "Reading Rainbow" days, is the host of the film, which is mostly fast-moving but still seems a bit long.

"How can we transfer our one-size-fits-all education system for an unpredictable future?" Burton asks.

Remember, "NOVA" is a science show, and much of "School of the Future" searches for the answer to that question by exploring topics such as brain development (we hear from neuroscientist Joanna Christodoulou), growth mindset (psychologist Carol Dweck and education entrepreneur Sal Khan), grit (psychologist and author Angela Duckworth), and emotional engagement (researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang).

The film also explores the future of education in terms of equity, the gender gap, social identity, and racial and ethnic stereotypes. But it steers clear of issues such as school organization, governance, and accountability. And except for those student hoverboards, there's not a word about school transportation of the future. 

Among the schools visited are East Palo Alto Academy, a charter school in East Palo Alto, Calif.; the private AltSchool in Palo Alto, Calif.; the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, a public school in Goleta, Calif.; the KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate charter school in Lynn, Mass.; and the Workshop School, an innovative site in the Philadelphia school district.

The enduring theme of the film is that the school of the future is going to be a more individualized, more innovative, more engaging learning experience tailored to the whole child. Of course, the future is already here in some of the featured schools and communities. But most of the nation's schools are stuck in the present.

Of all the documentaries and special programming about education on PBS this week, "School of the Future" is probably the one that will have legs, in terms of repeat showings and community screenings. And years from now, viewers will order up the film from the Netflix-Hulu-Apple TV chip embedded in their brains to see how well it predicted the future.

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