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At the National School Board Association’s annual conference, I had the pleasure of sharing insights from KnowledgeWorks’ strategic foresight publications through a session on education in the year 2025. As we explored what the emergence of a vibrant and adaptive learning ecosystem might mean for the ways in which school boards operate schools, how teachers teach, and how school leaders interact with their communities, participants accepted the need for transformation but highlighted the need to build public will for change.
As I hear in so many conversations about the future of learning, they saw the need for stakeholders across their communities to see “school” differently. Districts face tremendous and widespread pressure from people who try to pull the education system back toward an outdated mental model of what school looks like and how it functions in communities. Those who steward them say time and again that the general public needs to understand the dramatic extent to which districts must respond to the changing environment. As learning de-institutionalizes and increasingly flows across traditional boundaries, districts need to consider how best to position themselves to be vibrant nodes in the expanding learning ecosystem.
The NSBA conversation also emphasized the need for communities to comprehend the vast changes coming to the world of work. Those changes promise to make college and career readiness for young people a moving goal, adding further complexity to the already extensive process of education system transformation. Those changes in work will also demand that many of us engage in continuous career readiness as we need continually to re-skill to stay relevant to the workplace and learn to manage mosaic careers.
As an article in the Economist proposed earlier this year, we face the potential for tremendous economic dislocation over the next two decades as automation continues to displace workers in existing industries and new industries develop. In response, the article proposed, schools “need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers.” The article also projected that the definition of a government-provided education might change to include far greater investment in pre-school along with support for continuous education for adults. As it forecast, “state education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.”
Thomas Friedman’s NSBA talk about the challenges of preparing young people for a “hyperconnected” world echoed this message of dislocation. As relayed in NSBA’s summary, he argued that “the ability of anyone to make a living in the 21st century will depend in large part on being self-motivated and “innovation ready’” because we will be moving from a paradigm of finding jobs to one of creating them.
As learning, work, and productive activity of all sorts increasingly takes place apart from traditional organizations and as the ways in which we interact with organizations becomes more various and more ad hoc, districts will need to consider how to facilitate an expanded range of learning opportunities for students. That will include determining how and when to broker learning resources and experiences across traditional boundaries. Districts will also have an opportunity to help learners move seamlessly among school-based and community-based learning experiences and to form new kinds of partnerships that could lead to new solutions. Those that cannot shift their approaches to learning risk undermining their students’ ability to prepare for and create careers.
New Tech Network and KnowledgeWorks will present at the National School Board Association Annual Conference beginning this weekend in New Orleans. The National School Board Association (NSBA) “supports the capacity of each school board, acting on behalf of and in close concert with the people of its community, to envision the future of education in its community, to establish a structure and environment that allow all students to reach their maximum potential, to provide accountability to the community on performance in the schools, and to serve as the key community advocate for children and youth and their public schools.”
Nick Kappelhof from New Tech Network will be presenting on why a A ’21st Century’ Education Is SO Last Century
Krista Clark and and Theresa Shafer, also from New Tech Network, will be presenting Branding and Marketing Your School with Social Media
And Katherine Prince from KnowledgeWorks will be delivering a Meet the Expert session on Education in the Year 2025 featuring Forecast 3.0: Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem. Look for a post from Katherine about the work later next week on this blog.
For a full conference schedule visit the NSBA Conference site.
Note: This post was edited to correct the topic of Katherine Prince’s Meet the Expert session description which was incorrectly identified as a collaboration with the American Alliance of Museums.
When presenting as part of a panel on the changing cultural and social landscape at the Center for American Jewish Museums’ (CAJM) annual retreat, I was struck by the extent to which the questions about mission, relevance, and ongoing viability that challenge educational institutions in this rapidly de-institutionalizing world also pertain to museums.
Like educational institutions, museums and other cultural organizations face exciting opportunities to enrich learning and support young people as we have more and more tools at our disposal and increasingly realize the need to enable many right approaches to learning. At the same time, institutions in both sectors can feel challenged to transition their historic missions and delivery systems to a world in which institutions matter much less than they used to and matter differently to different audiences.
As community-based learning providers play an increasingly prominent role in the expanding learning ecosystem, not just by offering programs through and with schools but also by offering them directly to more learners, there will be many right answers to the question of how historic institutions refresh and reinvent their offerings. Each learning provider, whether it considers the provision of learning experiences to be all or just part of its mission, is going to have identify and express clearly exactly what it’s offering learners. Any given organization could offer multiple value propositions spanning a range of learner profiles. Some value propositions might span traditional boundaries or engage audiences in co-creating experiences and value in ways that feel inconceivable or uncomfortable today.
On the CAJM panel, Peter Linett of Slover Linett Audience Research emphasized that we’re facing these kinds of questions and opportunities not just because any given sector is changing but because we inhabit a cultural boundary moment that calls for fundamentally different training, values, assumptions, and revenue models than our current institutions have grown up with. As KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 highlights, this is a time of disruptive change. Existing institutions have to stop tweaking and start transforming, or they risk becoming obsolete amid the rise of social production and the proliferation of new platforms for exchanging and creating value.
Richard Evans of EmcArts, also on the panel, offered a way for institutions to rise to this massive challenge: engage in adaptive leadership that relies upon cross-functional teamwork, enables flexible and collaborative cultures, continuously incubates innovations, and keeps some organizational capital liquid enough to support change. As he put it, we need to shift our underlying organizational assumptions in order to identify viable strategies and “next practices.”
In this time of fundamental transition, organizations need to develop capacities for change more than they need to develop any particular solution. We’ll identify new value propositions. And then we’ll keep refining and evolving them as the impacts of this cultural shift continue to unfold.
For more on how museums might contribute to and create the future of education, see Elizabeth Merritt and Scott Kratz’s paper, “Museums and the Future of Education.”
Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Houston Foresight spring gathering, where I learned about developing research on the future of student needs in 2025 and beyond that the Lumina Foundation has commissioned from the program. The Student Needs 2025+ research project is forecasting baseline and alternate scenarios for six domains:
- Learning – Will institutional pressures keep education basically as it is today, or will learning move so far beyond institutions that it is all contextualized and on demand?
- Participating – Will technology and activism converge in a “nationcraft” scenario in which we re-engage and rebuild toward an ideal society, or will we hack our way toward multiple co-existing societies and increasing pitfalls around privacy and security?
- Working – Will we continue on a trajectory toward rapid career changes that require broad skill sets and interaction with both people and computers, or will the middle class face a tight squeeze the rise of artificial intelligence and the need for continual re-skilling make put many people out of work?
- Playing – Will play be bundled, scheduled, and justified by a productive agenda, or will gaming specifically, and play in general, come to pervade daily life?
- Connecting – Will we continue to use technology to find more ways to connect, or will we move beyond connecting through technologies to immersing ourselves in them?
- Living – Will we continue to look for most things in life to be easier (even if they aren’t better for us) and to focus on instant gratification, or will we make a big shift toward collaborative consumption, with social capital and group orientation outstripping individual gain?
Each of these scenarios could have very different implications for students of higher education, as well as for students of other levels of the learning ecosystem. The project’s next step will be to explore those implications for four categories of students: traditional students, first-generation students, adult learners, and independent learners.
I’m excited to follow the developments. In the meantime, you can check out the presentations and ongoing reflections via Houston Foresight or follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Vine at @houstonfutures and join the conversation at #studentneeds2025.
As learning de-institutionalizes, we are moving toward an expanded learning ecosystem that has the potential to provide radically personalized learning for all young people. It also has the potential to let many learners fall through the cracks or simply survive – but not thrive – in failing institutions and disrupted learning environments.
A recent webinar that I facilitated with alumni of the Noyce Leadership Institute helped advance my thinking about how we might all collaborate to ensure that the learning ecosystem is vibrant and that all learners can thrive within it. One way of approaching that crucial challenge might be to think in terms of local learning ecologies’ co-existing and overlapping within the broader learning ecosystem.
Some attempts to map local learning ecologies have been emerging (see our community learning resources map, an artifact from the future, for an example of what such a map might look like). Surfacing local learning opportunities and their intersections seems helpful. But they aren’t necessarily going to add up to a system that seems coherent from the perspective of how we’ve been accustomed to thinking about education systems. As one participant suggested, it could be more about creating anchors than about putting all the pieces back together.
Another suggested that we might think in terms of riparian zones or wildlife corridors, the idea being that establishing learning corridors could be one way to begin to connect the nodes across a local learning ecology. Institutions – schools, museums, libraries, and others that step up to the challenge – might serve as buffer zones in communities, particularly while we are bridging from today’s education system to an expanded learning ecosystem.
The people working in institutions could then function as learning agents in a variety of ways, an important one being to serve as guides who help learners and their families discover the learning corridors and find strategies for making strong use of them. These guides’ early efforts could help people see pathways for migrating from today’s landscape to the new one.
As you can see, the group engaged very thoughtfully with the learning ecosystem metaphor, highlighting how much we can learn from natural systems as education shifts from an industrial era model to a living system. As part of that, designing strategies for what one participant called “the bridging times” could be a useful way of supporting all learners in adapting to the emerging learning landscape.
Yesterday the Donnell-Kay Foundation announced ReSchool Colorado, “a game changing, multi-year effort to create a new state public education system where learning is reimagined and students graduate energized and equipped to thrive in a rapidly changing world.” It aims to be, as they put it, “transformative to the core,” recreating the whole system of learning to prepare today’s students for an emerging world whose contours we can only partially anticipate today.
I’m delighted to see an organization taking the leading in creating the kind of deep system transformation that promises to move a whole state toward being a vibrant learning ecosystem of the sort that KnowledgeWorks aspires to activate and develop through our work. In helping education leaders around the country grapple with the strategic possibilities set forth in our current ten-year forecast, I’ve been noticing ever-greater awareness of the colossal pivot point at which we stand. An awareness that the world has evolved beyond the current public education system’s capacity to serve learners. That today’s system often serves the needs of adults better than it meets the needs of learners, especially and tragically those learners who are most vulnerable and who are most in need of the equity and accessibility to which it aspires.
As one state-level education leader said in a recent meeting, “It’s time to transform the whole system of learning.” I’m hearing increasing frustration with attempts to defend the public education system as it stands today, as such defenses increasingly reflect the understandable but unproductive desire to hang on to the status quo simply because that is the system that we know and in which many of us have been successful. I’m also hearing caution about creating change simply for the sake of change. We should never do that, especially when young people’s quality of life is at stake. But there’s a broad, rich space between the status quo and change for change’s sake.
We need to cultivate that space. We need to envision, seed, and grow a new learning ecosystem that puts learners at the center, that makes best use of the many ways and settings in which we can support them, that approaches infrastructure as connective tissue, and that creates adaptive cultures and structures. We need to get serious about supporting learners in attaining the learning that they want and need, in the ways that they want and need it, when they want and need it. As ReSchool Colorado’s vision for Colorado’s new learning system articulates so well, we can orient learning around learners while also situating learning in community and articulating shared learning outcomes.
We need to do this work now. Together. From each of vantage points. For today’s and tomorrow’s young people. Even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable for us.
“Let’s face it, parents want schools to provide free babysitting,” a district superintendent said in one of my recent workshops on the future of learning. Although I hadn’t framed it that way, I’d been thinking about this dimension of the many services besides learning that the current public education system provides when considering the demands that creating more flexible combinations of learning experiences could make on parents and families.
One of the signals I like to cite in that regard is the amount of time that the New Hampshire Virtual Academy suggests parents devote to serving as “learning coaches” for their children. The average learner devotes four to six hours to schoolwork each day, and the academy estimates direct parental participation at 80 percent for the early grades and 50 percent for middle school. As much as I would want to devote that much time to supporting my daughter’s education if attending such a school proved to be right for her, it’s hard to imagine having the time to coach her effectively while working full-time. And I’m relatively well positioned to support her in finding and pursuing the right learning choices.
Then, at the Texas Association of School Administrators’ Mid-Winter Conference , a superintendent asked me whether I could imagine a future in which learning centers, some of which might be today’s public schools but some of which might be other kinds of organizations, existed mainly to provide custodial care. His idea was that “schools” might function learning centers that gave kids somewhere safe to go during the day while serving as portals into a wide array of learning experiences.
As I told him, yes, I can imagine such an arrangement, at least for some, if not for many, learners. For example, when developing the persona of a future learner named Devan Williams back in 2010, my colleagues and I positioned him as dropping into a community learning center some of the time but learning largely via a gaming platform. His question reflects a realistic assessment of the many functions that today’s schools serve.
As learning happens increasingly via platforms versus institutions (see Ohio State University professor David Staley’s intriguing article on the university as a platform as well as the De-Institutionalized Production disruption from KnowlegeWorks’ Forecast 3.0), we need to make sure that we’re solving for everything that we need learning environments to do. That’s not to say that babysitting, free or otherwise, must be part of the design. But we can’t solve only for learning without working through such practicalities.
We might also need to explore adjacent cultural shifts that could help make the expanded learning ecosystem truly workable for all kinds of parents and families. Yes, I’m talking changes in how we structure work (which are happening rapidly apart from disruptions to learning). Changes in how communities own and support learning. Changes in how we distribute food to learners who currently rely on school meals to get enough to eat.
The possibilities are vast. But I think that shifting our conception of school to one of learning centers (with the expectation that such centers would take many different forms) could be a good way of beginning to the transition to an expanded learning ecosystem while stewarding today’s education systems.
When leading a workshop on the future of learning for the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders last week, I was struck by the ways in which the conversation kept cycling back toward two seemingly disparate but intricately intersecting themes:
- The need for the new learning ecosystem to be led by learning agents who manage decisions with learners and their families locally
- The need to cultivate wide ownership for learning among families and across businesses, communities, and other stakeholder groups.
These two strands of insight wove together as the discussion raised foundational conditions for learning:
- The need to build a foundation of learning skills and dispositions upon which learners could build in pursuing their particular learning journeys
- The need to instill responsibility in learners for their own learning, both for its intrinsic value and out of a sense of stewarding public funds
- The need to situate learning in community even as learners exercise more choice around their learning options
- The need to decide as a wide community how we will communicate about and cultivate an interest in learning among young people who today seem unmotivated by or disenfranchised from their educational experiences.
At the heart of the discussion was a deep belief that learning matters, not just for individual development and well being but also for communities’ vitality. And a deep recognition that the current educational system simply doesn’t meet the needs of all learners. In opening up the conversation to consider an ideal learning ecosystem, participants sought both to lessen restrictive regulations whose generalities cannot reflect knowledge of individual learners’ needs and to extend responsibility beyond the narrow range of today’s teacher evaluation systems, whose metrics can only reflect part of what makes for successful learning.
In the third scenario of Learning in 2025 we explore learners foraging for resources.
“This is a world in which virtually all resources have been withdrawn from public education. Content is provided by learners and learning agents in a vast and unconnected marketplace. The quantity of material is not matched by its quality – content tends to be shallow, and much of it is repetitious. Without a strong set of guidelines or standards that material has to meet most of it has tended to devolve to the simplest possible expression. As resources have been withdrawn, fewer adults have been attracted to work in the public education sector. Home and peer learning have become the norm.”
In this look at the future of education “we envision a world in which a central government and state departments of education have agreed to a standardized national learning system in order to ensure global competitiveness. The experimentation that characterized the early part of the century has given way to a narrower field of learning providers working to highly specified standards and systems of oversight.”
Some may say that the Common Core has already created such a learning system in the U.S. – but that scenario would ignore the abundance of consumer created learning opportunities and state-led movement towards competency-based education.
In 2011 KnowledgeWorks published multiple resources to help imagine and prepare for the future of education while reflecting critical uncertainties: whether the learning system of the future would be created in abundance or scarcity and whether it would be controlled primarily by providers or by prosumers (proactive consumers who co-produce what they consumers.
This week I hope to encourage our readers to revisit some of these scenarios and consider the long view of education reform. When we project out to 2025 are we building a learning oasis or a learning desert? View the infographic here or read more about a vibrant learning grid in this recent World of Learning post.
At the American Alliance for Museums’ convening on the future of education in September, I had the pleasure of sharing two scenarios of the future that seem plausible in light of our forecast on the future of learning:
• A vibrant learning grid in which all of us who care about learning create a flexible and radically personalized learning ecosystem that meets the needs of all learners
• A fractured landscape in which only those whose families have the time, money, and resources to customize or supplement their learning journeys have access to learning that adapts to and meets their needs.
While we’re working to contribute to the creation of a vibrant learning grid and I travel the country helping education stakeholders envision possibilities for moving toward a dynamic learning ecosystem that adapts to learners, getting there is not a given. It will take distributed and concerted effort to envision best possibilities for making use of future trends and to pursue sustained systemic transformation from multiple vantage points, some of which sit within today’s K-12 public education system and some of which extend far beyond its boundaries.
So I was excited when some of my fellow convening participants elected to focus during our ideation time on imagining what it would take to build a vibrant learning grid. To roll up our sleeves and begin some big systemic architecture.
As we chatted, we kept circling back to an idea that’s stayed with me. That’s it’s not enough simply to diversify pathways along a fixed curriculum or to personalize supports to help learners do their best in something that looks only a little different from today’s industrial-era education system. That instead we need to design for interest-based collaborative learning that supports learners in directing their own learning journeys according to their interests and goals (with skilled guidance and brokering that helps them connect those interests and goals with the exciting array of opportunities that we expect will proliferate as well as with what we know of future careers, further education opportunities, and the civic and societal dimensions of learning). That personalizing learning for all can’t equate to designing primarily solo learning opportunities, even though some individual pursuits will be appropriate for some learners some of the time. Because we are social beings, and we learn well together when motivated by relevant and authentic challenges.
Since September, I’ve continued to circle back to interest-based collaborative learning as a key facet of the radically personalized learning ecosystem that we hope to create with all of you and many others. The crux of the matter? We need to stop designing for the convenience of adults and start designing for the passions of young people. As we do that, we can’t let any particular systemic structure, however radical it might seem today, become the only one supporting learning. Because learning ecosystems have to keep adapting to stay vibrant.
As I’ve worked with superintendents’ groups around the country this fall, conversations about the potential to create radically personalized learning for all young people have consistently highlighted the need to think anew about the many kinds of infrastructure that might support districts in making such a shift – or prevent them from doing so. As a New Hampshire superintendent in whose district one elementary school is pursuing mass customization observed, today’s data systems and curricular resources do not align with such tailored support for learning. Innovative districts are often working around such systems and are coming up against the limits of their individual spans of control.
The further we move toward radical personalization, not just along a single pathway but along multiple pathways driven by interest-driven collaborative learning, the further out of alignment our current education infrastructure threatens to become.
In order to build the vibrant and diverse learning ecosystem that we would like to see in ten years, and to make it readily available for all students, we need to take a hard look today at the infrastructures surrounding learning. We need to ask whether each one is supporting the kind of learning that we want to promote, whether it is impeding that approach to learning, whether it is simply obsolete, and whether it is working with other systems in a coherent way. This scrutiny will involve designing at a broad scale for a very granular, or individual, level of learning.
More specifically, to support radically personalized learning, our education infrastructures need to have the flexibility to support multiple kinds of learning experiences happening at anytime, anywhere, and in any way. Whether we’re talking statewide data systems of the kind that inBloom has been attempting (amid much controversy) to initiate, data backpacks that enable learning records to follow a child across learning experiences, learning-focused assessment and accountability systems, or some other type of infrastructure, we need to put learning and learners at the center and design from there. That process will involve crossing any number of boundaries that can serve as barriers today. As the inBloom controversy has been demonstrating, it will require careful examination of critical issues such as privacy and clear communication with our publics.
It will also involve taking nothing for granted. While we might end up doing some things exactly as we do them today, doing them that way simply because that’s what we’re accustomed to will not suffice. We won’t be able to deliver on the promise of radically personalized learning without challenging layers and layers of assumptions, setting aside our stake in the current game, and keeping our service to learners front and center. Nor will we be able to do so without enacting courageous and creative leadership that looks beyond today’s constraints to possibilities and designs back from our highest aspirations for all young people, regardless of their families’ means.
District participants at a recent Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents workshop on the future of learning emphasized the potential to pursue regional solutions that can meet the needs of more learners, instead of every district’s struggling to meet every need on its own. They saw the potential both for districts to collaborate in creating regional solutions today and for those solutions to open the way toward even greater innovation tomorrow. As we looked ten years out and envisioned the best possibilities for learning, participants saw such boundary-spanning as a strategy that they could employ today to move toward a personalized future of learning that truly meets the needs of all students.
I see this kind of boundary spanning within the public education system – and with other kinds of entities that could also have a role in delivering or supporting learning – as being a key way of pursuing the diverse learning ecosystem toward which future trends point. It also promises to be critical in making that learning ecosystem vibrant for, and accessible to, all learners. Designing for learning – and especially for the kind of radically personalized learning that we think will be possible – will require what the Institute for the Future describes as organizing learning not around educational institutions but around learning flows. It will also require designing for learners’ needs and convenience, not for those of adults.
In one example of such cross-boundary collaboration, in 2011 North Carolina passed legislation authorizing multiple school districts to establish a regional school serving students from multiple districts. The Northeast Regional Early College High School of Biotechnology and Agriscience draws students from five school districts in partnership with North Carolina State University and operates at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Tidewater Research Station property.
In another example, the Providence After-School Alliance brings community-based learning experiences into the Providence, Rhode Island, school district. Connecting middle- and high-school students with community-based experiential learning opportunities, this nonprofit organization not only connects young people with after-school and expanded learning programs but also partners with the public school district so that students earn badges for participating in those experiences. In other words, they get credit in the public school system for their community-based learning experiences.
Lastly, the Virtual High School Collaborative highlights the possibility of exchanging learning resources across as well as within states. Charging school districts a nominal membership fee to cover basic expenses, this network operates as a barter system in which each participating school offers one teacher to teach 25 students from member schools. In return, that teacher’s home school gets 25 places for students to take any of the 200-plus courses that the collaborative offers.
While today’s districts might or might not be the ideal unit of organization for the future, such examples highlight the potential to enrich possibilities for learners by working creatively within and across those structures to enable more kinds of learning experiences. As our forecast highlights, the future of learning promises to be one in which educators create many right solutions to meet different learners’ needs. Why should we limit ourselves to a structure that evolved to suit an outdated industrial education system? Instead, let’s work with existing structures, and within existing regulatory frameworks, to create more pathways toward success. Regional partnerships, community-based learning brokers, and interstate collaboratives represent just some of the ways in which we can think creatively about organizational structures in order to transition today’s public education system toward being a viable node within a vibrant and radically personalized learning ecosystem.
Looking back at where we’ve come since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” thirty years ago from the perspective of looking ahead to the trends shaping learning ten years out provided, as my colleague Jesse Moyer anticipated in his related post, much food for thought and commentary.
Given my focus on looking ahead toward a vibrant learning ecosystem in which all learners have the opportunity and support to prepare to their fullest for college, career, and civic life – which would represent a profound system transformation from an industrial to an ecological paradigm – it struck me that the report’s authors wrote of “the task of rebuilding our system of learning” (14). More particularly, they envisioned a Learning Society at whose heart:
are educational opportunities extending far beyond the traditional institutions of learning, our schools and colleges. They extend into homes and workplaces; into libraries, art galleries, museums, and science centers; indeed, into every place where the individual can develop and mature in work and life.
Thirty years later, education remains so separate from other domains that I counted it as a big victory when I had the opportunity last month to join the American Alliance of Museum’s convening on the future of education. Because I work in education. K-12 education, to be exact.
Instead of generating creative possibilities for how schools might interact and intersect with many other kinds of community resources to create a diverse learning ecosystem that makes it easy for each child to engage in the rich and particular array of learning experiences that he or she needs to thrive, the standards-based reform movement has generally focused the national education conversation ever more narrowly on what’s happening in schools – including calls for spending more time doing more of the same even though it only works well enough for some students. This movement has attempted to clamp down on and further control an industrial system whose time has passed and which cannot possibly serve the needs of today’s learners because the era of factories and routines has simply ended.
In the emerging creative economy, there will be fewer full-time jobs. Those jobs that do exist will be relatively specialized. More and more of us will find ourselves creating mosaic careers and engaging in ongoing learning in support of continuous career readiness. Forecasts on the future of work suggest that the only constant over the next ten years will be change. Indeed, a recent Aspen Institute report highlighted dispositions related to managing change as being among the most important career-ready skills.
And we’ve all seen in recent weeks ample evidence of the dysfunction toward which U.S. civic society is sinking as strong opinions, strongly held increasingly fracture conversations about governance and threaten to bring not just the federal government but also the economy to a screeching halt.
We simply can’t keep tweaking the current education system and talking about incremental reforms. We can’t keep treating teachers as if they are cogs in an industrial machine and students as if they are empty vessels waiting to consume the kind of information that fits well into standardized tests. We must treat teachers and learners as creators. To have any hope of being more than a nation at perpetual risk, we must transform learning.
And we must do so with a clear vision for what we want to create, planning backward from the future instead of forward from today. “A Nation at Risk” attributed the decline of American education to a “weakness of purpose, confusion of vision, underuse of talent, and lack of leadership” (16). To transform learning for the future – for all kids’ futures – we must take a huge collective leap forward toward a shared vision for a diverse learning ecosystem that has the flexibility and resilience to adapt not just to individual learners but also to our ever-changing times.
Otherwise, the U.S. will be not just a nation at economic and civic risk; we will be a deeply inequitable nation in which only those with means are able to avail themselves of the very resources and tools whose emergence highlight the promise of an expanded learning ecosystem.
At StriveTogether’s network convening last week, I had the chance to hear Joseph Jezierski of Red Wing Public Schools, Scott Jones of Every Hand Joined, Dan Ryan of All Hands Raised, Carole Smith of Portland Public Schools, and George Tang of Educate Texas discuss what it takes for school districts and community stakeholders to partner for success in pursuing shared outcomes and aligning community resources toward cradle to career success for all students. They emphasized how very different this kind of collaboration is from that to which superintendents are accustomed. So different, in fact, that “it can feel like creating another school board.”
The crux of the difference? In collective impact approaches such as StriveTogether, community organizations are shifting from looking for students for whom those opportunities might be a fit to collaborating with school districts toward a shared goal. The panelists described it as breaking down the silos of everyone pursuing their own goals and approaching schools from the perspective of “not to you or for you – with you.” For schools, they said, it’s about moving beyond community engagement to cultivating commitment among community partners.
This kind of shared ownership and community-wide accountability for learners’ success reflects the ways in which we need to rethink the interrelationships among learning and other aspects of community infrastructure in order to create a vibrant learning ecosystem that can meet the needs of all learners.
As our most recent forecast highlights, trends such as a move toward a sharing economy, the emergence of a do-it-yourself culture, the proliferation of real-time feedback about what is happening in communities, and inside-out urban schools point toward the potential for learning to become embedded across civic landscapes in ways that are hard to envision today. As we increasingly approach cities as shared spaces that we not only cohabit but also co-create, we have the potential to re-imagine learning as a shared community asset. Indeed, those communities that create rich learning landscapes could revitalize not just their education systems but also their economies and cultures.
To get there, we need new kinds of partnerships, new kinds of learning experiences, new kinds of infrastructure, new kinds of data flows, and new kinds of roles for supporting children across their learning journeys. It will be a shared journey toward equitable, interest-driven, collaborative learning. We will all chart the way together.
Katherine Prince guest blogs this week for ASCD’s Whole Child blog in “A Resilient Learning Ecosystem or Fractured Learning Landscape.” From her post:
The great challenge of the coming disruption is whether we will deliver on the promise of radical personalization for all children, not just those whose families have the time, attention, and means to shape and supplement their learning journeys. If we do not take a deep look at redesigning the education system, we risk creating a fractured learning landscape dominated by two parallel and unequal pathways: an ailing public education system and a rich array of alternative and customized approaches to which only the fortunate have access.
In July I had the pleasure of collaborating with ASCD to design their Leader to Leader conference around KnowledgeWorks’ forecast on the future of learning, Recombinant Education. It highlights the emerging opportunity to combine talent and resources in new ways to ensure that every child has the best possible support in realizing his or her full potential.
Indeed, as the accompanying infographic details, we think that it is possible to create a diverse learning ecosystem characterized by radical personalization, one in which learning adapts to each child. Getting there will require a collaborative and ongoing design process out of which many right solutions will emerge.
At the conference, many compelling questions about how to design for the future of learning emerged. I’ve shared three of them below, along with insights from participants and my reflections on what our strategic foresight work suggests.
• How are we going to articulate the value of public education compared to other kinds of learning experiences? Public education represents important shared values as well as essential goals such as equity for all learners. We know the best of it when we see it. But we don’t yet have good ways of articulating why a learner should stay. In addition, there’s great potential for diversification with the public education system. Not all learners need the same solutions. Furthermore, we no longer operate in the industrial economy for which the system was designed. It’s time to think anew not just about how we describe the value of public education, but about what that value is and how that system supports learners. Indeed, public education, or any learning experience, could have multiple value propositions, each of which might appeal to certain learners.
• Could there be a referral system across nodes of the learning ecosystem? In other words, might it be possible to think of public education and other kinds of learning experiences less in terms of either/or but in terms of both/and? Our forecast highlights the need to blur and span boundaries across many aspects of the learning system. If we truly designed the future of learning for learners, knowing that any given learner might need a different mix of learning experiences and supports at various points along his or her learning journey, we could create an interconnected learning ecosystem in which learners moved seamlessly across learning experiences, public or otherwise. Public education could serve a vital role in providing informed referral services to help ensure that learners’ needs, interests, and goals drove the individualized learning playlists that we think will be not just possible but prevalent.
• How can we accelerate or leapfrog our collective progress in helping all learners succeed for college, career, and life? Even where the educators at the conference were seeing progress toward competency education, which we at KnowledgeWorks support as a strong pathway for moving toward radically personalized learning, they saw the need to shift from simply moving at students’ own pace to being driven by what students want to learn. Our forecast suggests that it’s entirely possible to shape learning around students’ interests while still ensuring that all students attain a common set of learning outcomes. That’s a design choice we can make. And we have many other choices to make in using future trends to take learning in the direction that we want it to go.
Looking across these questions and reflections, it’s essential to approach the future of learning from a generative rather than a defensive stance. Gaining insight into future trends gives us all a chance to steer learning toward the outcomes that we want for all learners. We need to focus on creating those outcomes instead of preserving today’s structures simply because we’re accustomed to them. We need to design for learners and let the structures follow.
For the past several years, we’ve been referring to students as “learners” in our strategic foresight publications as one way of making the point that we need to rethink not just how, when, and where learning occurs but also what relationships exist in relation to it. As I’ve worked with education stakeholders around the country to envision their ideal future learning ecosystems, the structures and details have varied, but the designs have consistently put learners at the center.
When the staff of NC New Schools approached this task last month, one of the groups decided that “learners” didn’t go far enough in conveying the change that needs to take place. Instead, they deliberately placed “scholars” at the center of their learning ecosystem map in order to make the point that young people need to become active agents of their own learning.
Their map placed self-directed scholars at the center of the future learning ecosystem surrounded by and moving seamlessly across physical, virtual, and community-based learning experiences. Their map also depicted a whole host of learning agents supporting each scholar toward success. Those learning agents ranged from parents and friends to life coaches, healthcare providers, advisors and learning mentors, policymakers and budget managers, community organizers, and business liaisons.
Both the emphasis on the word “scholar” and this broad view of future learning agent roles underscore the need to expand our mental models about every aspect of teaching and learning. As we face the exciting and monumental task of transforming learning to make best use of the disruptive forces shaping our future, we need to question every assumption. Redesigning learning around learners – or scholars – means reconsidering every aspect of it and being willing to discover multiple good solutions. It also means questioning and spanning boundaries and getting far more granular than we have been about how to support each individual in reaching his or her full potential.
As our recent infographic highlights, it’s looking possible for learning to adapt to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school. But we have to be willing to let learning look quite different than it did when we were in school, and quite different from one scholar to another.
At the Council of Chief State School Officers’ deputies’ meeting in July, I shared the big story of our forecast on the future of learning, Recombinant Education, as a way of situating a conversation that Education Delivery Institute was leading on building state education agencies’ capacity. The forecast served as a frame for encouraging deputies to examine their strategies and operations in the context of aspirational visions for learning in their states.
In addition to underscoring the possibility of enabling radically personalized learning that prepares every child for college or career, the conversation raised the need to manage against potential negative outcomes of future trends. As with any future forecast, it is possible with ours to draw out scenarios that we would not wish to see realized. For example, there is a plausible future in which no child with means remains enrolled in public education. There is another in which personalized learning opportunities and supports are only available to learners whose families have the time and resources needed to customize their learning journeys.
When addressing how we might manage significant issues such as equity, quality, common learning outcomes, and helping learners know about and access options in a more diverse and more student-driven learning ecosystem than exists today, I usually raise two questions:
• Is the public education system meeting the needs of all learners today?
• How could the public education system position itself in relation to other nodes within a diverse learning ecosystem such that it provided safeguards against socioeconomic gaps and disparate outcomes?
In addition, I see the potential for state education agencies to take a leadership role in working with the full range of future learning providers to establish new ways of ensuring equity, establishing quality, agreeing core outcomes, and ensuring that every learner knows about and can access learning options. State education agencies can also play a key role in establishing shared infrastructure that enables learners to move seamlessly across learning experiences regardless of geographic boundaries (including state lines).
Some areas where state education agencies might enable the shift toward an expanded learning ecosystem include:
• Creating space for innovation within the current public education system
• Working with other stakeholders to waive seat-time requirements
• Encouraging multiple pathways toward personalized learning
• Encouraging learning solutions, such as regional schools, that meet specific learning needs apart from traditional boundaries
• Supporting the development of a shared inter-state technical infrastructure that enables the data about learners’ experiences to flow appropriately across learning experiences
• Enabling mechanisms for learners to gain credit for informal or community-based learning experiences
• Exploring with other stakeholders new funding mechanisms that can help learners cross traditional boundaries.
Whether state education agencies explore these or other paths toward a future that realizes the best possibilities for all learners, they have a key role to play in building not just their own organizational capacities but also the capacity for education transformation in their states.