Sea change to wash away the rulebook

4th September 2009 at 01:00
With education set for drastic technological upheaval, reliance on 'best practice' will be best forgotten

At a conference recently, I was talking about some of the major changes that we face as educators over the coming decades - you know, small stuff like climate change, demographic shifts, developments in neuro and bio science, that sort of thing - when a leading local authority figure stood up.

"That's all very well, Keri," he said. "But it's not my job and I haven't got time to think about the future of education."

This raises a question: when did it stop being everyone's job in education to think about its future? When did we stop imagining the future world that we hope education will create? When did we stop thinking about the future worlds that our children will inherit?

My hunch is, we stopped doing all of this when we started thinking that best practice was the answer to our educational problems; when we began thinking we could improve education with off-the-shelf strategies and that the only question that mattered in was "how?" rather than "why?"

In that context, you don't need to ask what sort of future education is preparing children for, or what sort of future it is creating, because someone else has already done that thinking for you. Instead, your job is simply to deliver their vision efficiently. The only problem is, this approach just won't work over the coming years.

Not only because the most creative, autonomous and responsible teachers may begin to leave in droves. Not only because responsible educators know that an education that doesn't involve them using their discretion and experience to engage with the complexity of local contexts and individual children is not really an education at all, but merely training for the knowledge mills of the service industry. But also because there are a whole raft of social and technological developments potentially coming up that we simply do not have the off-the-shelf, three-part lesson plans or school-improvement programme templates to deal with them.

Consider, for example, some of the technological trends for the coming decades identified by leading scientists and social scientists during the recent Beyond Current Horizons project, which explored what education might be like beyond 2025.

Firstly, the development of ubiquitous and pervasive computing infrastructure, creating the possibility of being able to access information and to network with people wherever and whenever you might want.

Secondly, the capacity to bring massive computing power to bear on any problem and any issue we might consider relevant - enabling things like instantaneous translation to become accessible to all.

Thirdly, introducing new interfaces between brain and body, and merging biology and computing in ways that challenge our understanding of what it means to be human.

Fourthly, building increasingly complex t echnical systems that will be a challenge for human intelligence to comprehend, let alone control.

And finally, developing online environments that connect learners, resources and educators across the world without recourse to the institution.

Of course, these potential technological developments are dwarfed by the twin possibilities of significant demographic and climate change within the coming 20 years. A temperature rise of 2 degsC by 2020 (currently looking like the optimistic scenario) means potentially massive changes to the UK economy and infrastructure.

Also demographic estimates suggest that, by 2030, half the population of Europe will be aged over 50 with another 40 years to live.

These potential social and technological developments provide significant challenges to our understanding of what it will mean to be a teacher and what a school will need to do over the next 25 years.

Among other things, they challenge our understanding of what counts as useful and meaningful knowledge; what counts as wisdom and expertise when information and social networks are constantly available?

They also challenge our understanding of what the individual unit of education could be - should we educate the student, or the student plus their technologies, or the student plus their networks?

They even challenge our assumed patterns of generational relationships in education. At what ages - early years, middle age, later life - should educational resources be allocated? Do younger people have the capacity to play a role in educating their elders?

We cannot simply respond to these challenges with a sanctioned set of best-practice guidelines because the practice does not yet exist. These challenges require fundamental debate about the aims of education, and the least successful strategy for responding to change and uncertainty is one that relies on a single universal solution (and the future is nothing if not uncertain).

If we are to ensure that education systems can cope with a wide range of possible futures that the next two decades might bring - at individual, community and societal levels - we need to recognise that diversity and responsiveness, rather than uniformity, is a positive strength.

This need to rapidly create new approaches, to ensure meaningful public debate and to ensure diversity of responses means that we cannot rely on central government to lead this debate. Instead, schools and educators are going to have to reclaim the responsibility not only for developing new teaching and learning strategies, but for debating and shaping educational aims and curriculums with their students and their communities.

Such innovation is the opposite of best practice as it begins by questioning the assumptions upon which we base our educational imagination. In addition it reasserts that educators have the right to ask, and need the time to question not only how, but why we educate.

Keri Facer, Professor of education, Manchester Metropolitan University

More information about the Beyond Current Horizons programme can be found at www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk.

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