Review - Books - Vital vision for future learning

20th May 2011 at 01:00

Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change

By Keri Facer



We were all supposed to have robot servants and jet-packs by now. Instead we walk around with tiny phones in our pockets which have powers that 1960s sci-fi authors might have written off as fantastical.

Predicting the future is always risky as there is a high chance you will end up looking silly. So it is brave of Keri Facer to explore the challenges she believes teachers will face in the coming decades, and attempt to describe what a good school could look like in 2035.

Professor Facer has the advantage of having spent the past 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. Her experience means she can see the mind-boggling potential that technology has for improving education and society. But her book, 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. The notion 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, which 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 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 own vision is the opposite.

Schools will become even more important as physical institutions, she argues, as they will increasingly be the sole place where children from different backgrounds get to meet, play and work together. "The public educational institution may be the only resource we have to counter the inequalities and injustice of the informal learning landscape outside school," she writes.

Her vision of schools is not one where the teaching staff just try to "future-proof" pupils so that they can cope with whatever global problems exist. Rather, it is one in which they "future-build" together, trying out new democratic ways of working and researching so they can change the world for the better.

If that last sentence makes you reach for a sick-bag, you will probably find lots to dislike in the book, not least Professor Facer's insistence that schools should be "a pre-figurative space for building social-technical futures". Cynical teachers may have particular problems with one of the final sections in which Professor Facer describes an imaginary visit in 2035 to a future-building school - bluntly a cross between Summerhill and California's High Tech High, only with groovy techno-bracelets. The school admits about 300 pupils aged four to 19, yet works with up to 1,400 affiliated local adults who drop by to share their skills. Test scores are not central here: instead children and adults have their own electronic "maps", which are both a uniquely styled portfolio and a record of their lives and activities (in some ways like a richer version of a Facebook page).

The description of the school may leave pragmatic headteachers grumbling. What about CRB checks? Tests? Checks on levels of progress? Ofsted?

But that is the whole point of Learning Futures. The education debate has become narrow, defensive and backwards-looking. As Professor Facer notes, "its reduction to neurotic comparison of statistical evidence has changed the quality of discussion about educational purpose from a debate about 'what education should be for' to a search for 'what works to get people up the league tables'".

To break out of that pattern, we need books like this one. Professor Facer's vision of what learning could look like in 2035 may turn out to be no more accurate than the schools depicted in The Jetsons cartoon - and the kids there had the advantage of robots and jet-packs. But Learning Futures poses the right questions about what teaching should look like, and makes a powerful case to start the ethical debates about learning enhancements now.


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. From 2001 to 2008, she was research director at Futurelab.

The verdict 910.

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