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The 'big shift' in education

The education landscape is evolving more rapidly than ever before

The changing educational landscape brings with it challenges for everyone involved in teaching and learning, but it also offers huge opportunities for schools to look at how they can best meet the needs of their students, both now and in the future.

In this first of a series of blog posts on the future of education, I shall be discussing some of the changes we are experiencing and the implications for us as educators.

Life has a way of catching us out. Just when we thought we could predict what is coming, something momentous takes place which throws our careful plans up in the air. As teachers we are very used to this - the number of times our day’s itinerary is thrown into disarray by unexpected cover or a last minute meeting with a parent. However, this does mean we tend to approach the future with a healthy dose of scepticism and a readiness to adapt.

The world of education is particularly affected by change. Children enter school to be prepared for a society they won’t join for at least 11 years or in some cases as many as 17 years in the future. The scale of advances in technology and their impact on society is now so rapid that by the time these children leave education there is a significant danger that their learning will already be obsolete.

This being the case, where does the future of education lie? Of course, I’m asking this question in the full realisation that whatever prediction I make will no doubt be utterly irrelevant in a couple of years time…

Before we assign schools and teachers to the scrapheap, it is important to remember that this is not the first time we have faced such a challenge. Since the first Industrial Revolution in 1765, society has experienced momentous changes to work practices.

The first industrial revolution used water and steam to mechanize production, the second used electric energy to create mass production and the third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Today a fourth industrial revolution is underway which builds upon the third revolution and the digital revolution that has been taking place since the middle of the last century.¹

Each of these revolutions have a key point in common. They all resulted in the deskilling and automation of particular roles in society, and the digital revolution we are currently undergoing is no different. Even as I write, the development of autonomous vehicles looks set to change the face of the transport industry, whether it’s driver only operated trains or self-driving lorries, the roles and employment associated with this area are set to change dramatically in the years ahead.

But, each time we have experienced upheaval of this sort, society has adjusted to the demands and new opportunities that have been presented to it. So what do we need to prepare ourselves for in order to make the most of this new technology dominated landscape?

Patrick Bassett described Knowing versus Doing as the first ‘Big Shift’ towards schools of the future.² For the first 12,000 years of human existence, knowledge was power and it was deliberately restricted to the elite of society. This changed gradually with the introduction of universal education, but it was the widespread availability of the internet at the start of the 21st Century that truly opened up access to knowledge - with just a few taps on the screen of my mobile phone I can find anything, from the quantum theory behind the weird behaviour of photons, to the perfect cocktail recipe for a summer party.

This democratisation of knowledge will surely come to be viewed as the greatest revolution in the history of society, but if we consider the transmission of knowledge as one of the functions of education then where does this leave us? Don’t get me wrong, I know that there is a significant difference in reading about quantum theory and actually understanding it, but in this modern era how important is it to be able to remember facts and figures?

Technology and the internet will continue to challenge the dynamics of the classroom and the expectations of teaching.

One way that the process of education is likely to change in response to this shift is in taking advantage of the power of networking. The ability to share knowledge and understanding has always been a key driver for innovation and scientific progress, with great leaps forward occurring in tandem with improvements in travel or communication, for example the World Wide Web was first created at CERN to better facilitate collaboration between scientists. But, historically this ability to network was limited to very specific purposes and was both expensive and time consuming.

If we look at the rise in the number of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) on social media platforms, we can see that more and more people are now reaching out to their peers for advice and guidance in the workplace. As we might expect, students are leading the charge with Whatsapp study groups or Facebook pages devoted to swapping revision tips and subject help. Sharing knowledge across a class of 20 or 30 students is one thing, but when you can harness the knowledge of hundreds or thousands of people the effect is significantly multiplied, and again it is technology that facilitates this process. The power lies in the size of the network - a platform like Facebook is successful because it has something like 1.4 billion people using it every day.³

Of course the other advantage that lies with a large network to call upon, is the quality and quantity of data that it will produce. Now I know that some teachers look upon the collection of data with deep suspicion, but I am talking about data that helps to inform my understanding of my pupils, or as a school helps us to make better decisions regarding strategy and policy. Call it formative assessment, or assessment for learning, the easier it is to collate and use this data, the more agile we can be as teachers and the more time we actually have for teaching. Good use of data is not about working harder, it's about letting us work smarter.

So what are the implications for schools moving forward? As in the previous industrial revolutions there will be ‘winners and losers’. In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport looks at which skills will be important in the future:

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

Note that he does not talk about the ability to retain knowledge in the traditional sense, whilst we can’t all be the best at what we do or have access to the necessary capital, those individuals who can think, and use technology creatively will be the real winners in this bright new world.

As schools we need to recognise this ‘big shift’ and adjust our teaching and learning strategies to prepare our students for the future, whatever that may hold. There are many opportunities ahead of us - the challenge now lies in how to place ourselves to take advantage of them.

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