Schools of the Future

Recently I went back to the Schools of the Future report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). It’s dated January 2020. If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at their recommendations and the exemplary programs they chose to highlight, you probably should take a minute to do that now. I won’t be offended.

If you want a preview, here are my takeaways.

The report recommends shifting the learning experiences we educators provide our students. They encourage teaching and learning to look like this:

  • Personalized and self-paced learning;
  • Problem-based and collaborative learning; and
  • Lifelong and student-driven learning. 

To better understand the need for a shift, we could ask ourselves what we are shifting away from. So let’s imagine the opposite. I’m going to overstate the contrast here a bit, but I think my list is a good discussion starter. In short, the WEF is recommending we do less of this:

  • Depersonalized learning that maintains the myth of students learning in sync;
  • Focus on recall and the insistence of “eyes on your own paper” / “do your own work;” and
  • Content from a worn out canon determined by institutional inertia, which limits the creativity of schools and teachers.

Does this second list describe too much of the way we go about education? Does it describe what you see and hear, what you perhaps feel pulled into more often than you would like? 

Do systems like off-the-shelf and/or standardized curricula, bell schedules, assessment regimes, curriculum mapping, over-reliance on rubrics and other accepted teaching practices pull us toward the second list, the list of WEF opposites? 

And what are we to do about it?

The authors of the report note that “Much work is being done by private sector chief human resource officers on customizing work experiences to enable lifelong learning and integrating alternative work models to improve flexibility” (Schools of the Future, 2020 p. 11). They refer to a table in an earlier WEF publication (Shaping People Strategie in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2019) about the “changing nature of how learning is approached in an organization” (p. 18). They report again on a shift:

From Know-it-all mindset … to Learn-it-all mindset

From Planned learning programs … to Lifelong learning culture

FromPeriodic learning … to Continuous learning

From Company-directed learning … to Self-driven learning

From Homogenous learning … to Personalized learning

Are we doing our part by preparing students for an adult life characterized by the right hand column above? I’m frankly worried that it is too easy to make parallels between much of our current teaching and learning with the column on the left. For starters:

We as teachers may not feel comfortable in an environment where we are not the expert, limiting the chances we provide to explore with students, to allow them to teach us, to be learners side by side. Our assessments reinforce this know-it-all mindset because they are overwhelmingly about being right or wrong, black or white, true or false. (See Elon Musk’s entrance exam to his school, Ad Astra, for a refreshing contrast.)

Further, our curriculum and instruction is full of planned learning, in quite specific and predictable periods (grade 10 biology, grade 11 chemistry, grade 12 physics – sound familiar?), overwhelmingly decided by the “company” and certainly favoring a particular style of learning at a predetermined pace. 

Companies are shifting. I believe schools are trying to shift, too. In schools, however, there is less fear of shareholders, competition, and going bust. There is perhaps too much room to be cautious, changing perhaps so slowly that it’s hard to notice much change at all.

Self-paced, student-driven, collaborative learning that creates lifelong learners is not unattainable if we let go of the assumptions and practices that constrain us most. Be courageous to identify those assumptions and practices and to openly question them. If you are a teacher, create the conditions the WEF is recommending, when and where you can. If you are an administrator, avoid the temptation to sound smart by reciting yesterday’s “knowns.” They are safe, yes. But they are hamstringing us, and worse, our students. When you can, be bold. Be just a bit more outspoken about how teaching and learning can fulfill the promise of self-regulated learners. 

Or, I suppose, let companies re-educate adults who didn’t get the right hand column from us when they were students.

World Economic Forum. (2020). Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Geneva, Switzerland.

World Economic Forum. (2019). WHR4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva, Switzerland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.