Future debate starts now

6th May 2011 at 01:00

Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change

By Keri Facer

Routledge pound;19.99

4 out of 5

We were all supposed to have robot servants and jet-packs by now. Instead, we walk around with tiny phones that 1960s sci-fi writers would have written off as fantastical. Predicting the future is always risky, so it is brave of Keri Facer to explore the challenges she believes teachers will face in the coming decades and describe what a school could look like in 2035.

Professor Facer has spent 10 years investigating this subject, first as research director at Futurelab in Bristol and now with her work on educational change and digital cultures at Manchester Metropolitan University. She clearly can see the potential that technology has for improving education, but Learning Futures is neither Utopian nor a piece of tech-evangelism.

Professor Facer is acutely aware of the problems technology could create. Rather than helping all young people, it could "massively amplify social and economic inequalities" and make communities even more segregated. That everyone will get creative jobs in an ever-expanding knowledge economy is a politicians' pipedream, she adds, and global divisions between the haves and have-nots are likely to deepen.

Further challenges for teachers are created by developments in technology and pharmacology that she suggests may be closer than we think - from microchips embedded under the skin, to pills that make children learn more easily and methods of patching the brain into computer networks. If these go unchecked, the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils could widen even faster.

In the face of all these potential changes, some futurologists envisage children spending more and more time learning from computers on their own. "The future for the school, in some visions of the next two decades, is that it should disappear," Professor Facer notes. But her vision is the opposite: schools will become even more important as physical institutions, because they will increasingly be the sole place where children from different backgrounds get to meet, play and work together.

In her vision, they will "future-build" together, trying out new democratic ways of working so they can change the world for the better. If that makes you reach for a sick bag, you will probably find lots to dislike in the book. Cynical teachers may also have problems with a section where Professor Facer describes an imaginary visit in 2035 - bluntly, a cross between Summerhill and California's High Tech High, only with groovy techno-bracelets.

The point of Learning Futures is that the education debate has become defensive and backwards-looking: "Its reduction to neurotic comparison of statistical evidence has changed the quality of discussion about educational purpose from `what education should be for' to `what works to get people up the league tables'." To break that pattern, we need books like this one.

This vision of what learning could be like in 2035 may be no more accurate than The Jetsons cartoon - and those kids had robots and jetpacks. But it poses the right questions and makes a powerful case to begin the ethical debates about learning enhancements now.

About the Author

Keri Facer is professor of education at the Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University, where she works in the fields of digital cultures, educational change and social justice. She was research director at Futurelab from 2001 to 2008.

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