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Destiny's children

Don't let whizzy computers control the way we think about the needs of tomorrow's society, urges Keri Facer

When we think about which way education is going, we do so in terms of technology. We discuss The School of the Future and imagine shiny, glass-fronted buildings filled with next-generation hardware.

What such visions imply is that the basic business of schooling will stay the same as it is now, with an added "whizz" of technology. But living and learning in a society rich in digital technologies will pose serious challenges for teaching, learning and, inevitably, assessment.

Assessment, after all, is society's way of saying what sorts of knowledge and ways of knowing we value. And in a digital age, these things may change significantly.

In a world where we can write, discuss and talk with colleagues at almost any time in almost any place, does it still make sense to assess "individual achievement"? Or should we move towards an assessment system that values knowing how to work together, how to ask questions and give advice, how to become "greater than the sum of our parts"?

Is it any longer logical to assess memory skills when we have the World Wide Web? Or should we move towards an assessment system that values knowing how to find things out, how to make connections between pieces of information, how to analyse and interpret data?

Scientists at CERN, the particle physics laboratory, are on the point of generating more data in a year than is currently produced by most of the world's universities combined. Does it therefore make sense for students to learn how to conduct empirical research, or to learn current scientific "truths"? Or should we be encouraging students' ability to manipulate complex sets of data, to be open to scientific controversy and constantly to reflect on and update their own learning?

When we think of the School of the Future, we ought to look beyond the computers, the interactive whiteboards, the internet-connected mobile phones. We should also consider new ways of thinking, learning, working, sharing and creating ideas across the curriculum.

Let's not resign ourselves to the dictates of new technologies in shaping our lives and learning. Why don't we have a debate about what sorts of people we want to see coming out of the doors of our future schools, and how we want them to engage with the world. This conversation needs to start with a reflection on the nature and purpose of our assessment systems.

Keri Facer is director of learning research at NESTA Futurelab

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