Scenarios for the future of schooling


Over the past few weeks I’ve been leading and participating in a number of webinars focusing on the theme of hybrid learning, building on the papers I’ve shared recently on this topic. Inevitably the conversations include discussion about the drivers of change and the future of schooling. The need for this is illustrated by the feedback from the participating teachers and principals who share stories of teacher stress and burnout, lack of learner engagement, frustrations with lack of resourcing, limitations on learner choice, lack of career pathways for teachers etc. While expressed as being problems, these are actually symptoms of the fact that we are grappling to find relevance for an education system that was designed and built for a different time.

I’ve frequently referenced the OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling in these discussions as a way of highlighting the problems and the complexity of thought required in moving towards a solution.

While produced in Sept. 2020, the content of this doc is still well worth engaging with. It states that to prepare for the future, we have to consider not only the changes that appear most probable, but also the ones that we aren’t expecting.

I have a particular liking for scenarios in helping shape and form thinking, and the OECD work is extremely useful in this regard – you can find more on their scenarios here. The important thing is to appreciate the scenarios don’t paint an absolute picture of any future certainties – rather, they provide a way of understanding how our response to the different drivers, issues and perspectives may lead to certain outcomes.

The OECD document provides the following set of questions at the end that I’d encourage educators to use as a starting point in staffroom discussions, or at board level:

  • How could potential shocks and surprises (natural disasters, economic shocks, cyberwar, etc) impact the functioning of education under the different scenarios? Can you identify something that your education system should start doing differently / preparing for?
  • What are the main factors behind the persistence of the massive schooling model? In the next 20 years, can we imagine that formal education could be considered less important?
  • What are the ultimate goals and functions of education? Are the goals and structures in your schooling system aligned?
  • Looking at your education system, what can be incrementally improved and what needs fundamental transformation? What is the strategic inventory of actions available (funding something, banning something, promoting a new practice, forming a partnership, etc.)?
  • What is the right balance between digital environments and old-fashioned physicality?
  • What do the scenarios imply for teachers, teaching and teacher policies (human resources in schools; professional status, certification and collaboration, accountability, etc.)?
  • Does the system allow for the failures that come with trying out new things?

There are no straight forward solutions. Responses to these questions will inevitably reveal the underlying beliefs and values we subscribe to in our own mental models of what schooling should be. Often they’ll reveal our alignment in thought with some, and mis-alignment with others.

But honest discussion on these issues is what is required to avoid simply pressing ahead with finding solutions that are simply adding patches to patches on a system under stress.

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