Four Scenarios for the Future of Schooling

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

As education systems around the world continue to adjust to the realities of “Life after COVID” attention is continuing to focus on what the future of schools and schooling might look like. This thinking is driven in part by the need to build resilience with the prospect of further crises that may force the closure of schools again into the future, and also by the recognition gained from the experience of the COVID lockdowns that there are aspects of our current structures that don’t suit all learners and indeed contribute to inequities in our system and society, a point reinforced in a recent blog from the World Bank titled A lesson on the pandemic – the lesson we didn’t learn about inequality which states…

a fundamental lesson of this pandemic for government and societies is that we have an even better understanding of the immense equity gaps.  They have been made more evident, and the urgent need to act on them is even clearer. 

source: World Bank blog

In a previous post I highlighted the same issues regarding inequity in our system, referencing the work of the Learning Policy Institute and the case made for the re-invention of schools.

As a contribution to this discourse, the OECD has just released it’s Four Scenarios for the Future of Schooling, shown below:

Image Source: OECD

The authors of this report argue that there are always multiple versions of the future—some are assumptions, others hopes and fears. To prepare, we have to consider not only the changes that appear most probable, but also the ones that we aren’t expecting.

These four scenarios are inspired by the earlier work of the OECD to develop the six schooling for tomorrow scenarios that were widely used around the turn of the century by education systems, educators and researchers as they considered options for the future of schools and schooling. Twenty years later the original premise around a need for change remains, and yet very little has changed as a result. Apart from some bold changes made in just a handful of contexts, our schooling system in New Zealand (and the rest of the world) looks and feels very similar to what it did at the turn of the century.

With the benefit of 20 years to look back on, and with the imperatives raised by the COVID-19 crisis, the four scenarios offered here appear to me to be more practically focused, providing a more substantial set of options to inform what we might eventually design for our system. As with any good scenario planning approach, it’s not intended that any one of these scenarios will become the future – it’s more likely that a blend or combination of features may emerge as the preferred solution, and that will again depend on the context.

Again, the pre-text for considering these scenarios is that the status quo is simply not an option – at least, not for a significant number of our learners who are marginalised because of race, beliefs or culture.

Further, as society in general has changed significantly in response to various technological, economic and cultural pressures, we need to pause and reflect on the extent to which that has impacted on what we do in schools – both in terms of how our schools are structured and operate, and in terms of how we are preparing our learners for their future.

A recent TopClass podcast featuring an interview with Wendy Kopp, CEO and Co-Founder of Teach For All, Roberto Benes, Director of Generation Unlimited, and Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills highlights this concern. The speakers note that…

Coronavirus has rapidly accelerated society’s increasing reliance on technology, and any sector entrenched too deeply in the old industrial work organisation risks getting left behind. Is education one of them? Has the crisis exposed ways in which education simply isn’t up to date with the modern world? 

TopClass podcast: Episode 25: Will the coronavirus crisis lead to a fundamental change in education?

So how might you use the OECD four scenarios to inform your thinking about the future of schools and schooling? And how might you involve your students, parents/whānau and community in these discussions?

Here’s one way that may be helpful…

  1. divide the group you’re working with into smaller groups of 4-5 people
  2. provide each with the list of scenarios and invite them to imagine what that might look like and what would be involved. NB avoid and judgements about whether this is good or bad – at this stage it’s simply about scoping what the possibilities are. Collate all of the responses and list these on four large sheets that can be read by the larger group when they reconvene.
  3. now divide the large group up into different groups of 4-5, and allocate each one of the following roles (select as appropriate):
    • Student
    • Parent
    • Teacher
    • School leader (principal, senior staff)
    • Learning support person (teacher aide, specialist teacher etc.)
    • Board of Trustees
    • Employer
  4. Invite each group to now take a look at each of the four scenarios and consider the impact, possibilities, advantages/disadvantages they’d imagine each scenario would mean specifically to that person/group. NB it can be really useful to use a SWOT analysis template for this part of the activity.
  5. Allow a suitable period of time for discussion and then EITHER
    • have each group report back to the larger group what they decided, OR
    • have the groups change roles for as many times as you have time to allow for, so that each group gets a change to try looking at the scenario through a different lens.
  6. NOTE – to change things up a bit you may choose to be more granular in terms of the roles you use. For example, instead of simply ‘teacher’ you may choose to divide that up by the level being taught, or subject area. Instead of one group for learner you may divide it up into 2-4 age bands or you may choose to consider what each scenario might be like for students from different cultural or belief backgrounds for example.
  7. Conclude the session by drawing out the key points made, and focus in particular on the matters raised that relate to the concerns about (a) the consequences for many learners of cultural bias and systemic racism, and (b) the ability of the system to reflect the changes taking place in society.

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