The Future of Learning in Retrospective

Topics: Future of Learning

With the benefit of hindsight, the drivers of change we thought would shape the future and the possibilities they suggested come into clearer focus. We can see how they came to pass, faltered or shifted in a direction that we did not anticipate.

Reflecting across KnowledgeWorks’ look back at our 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, my sense is that the impacts of the drivers of change that it described have mostly played out as expected in the broader culture but that their impacts on education have been more limited than we imagined. (The reverse is true for the impacts of the Maker Movement.) The picture that is visible from the vantage point of the year 2020 feels more complex than the broad brushes of change we sketched ten years ago.

The 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, published ten years ago, revealed how many of our fundamental relationships — with ourselves; within our organizations; and with systems, societies and economies — were being reimagined and re-created in ways that could disrupt the status quo and challenge our usual assumptions.
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Education now versus then

Education systems are undoubtedly different than they were in 2010. For example, I see much greater –though uneven – interest in and adoption of innovation and design thinking. This interest reflects the shift that KnowledgeWorks forecast toward more and more influencers seeking to create the future of learning. There has also been considerable progress in putting learners at the center through personalized, competency-based learning and other student-centered approaches. Many education changemakers now speak in terms of cultivating learning ecosystems; that language was new when we used it in the 2020 Forecast.

Despite such shifts, and despite how much the broader environment has changed, education has remained relatively stable compared to other sectors. Education has been increasingly contested, and it has become more distributed, yet teaching and learning have remained rooted in traditional education institutions. This stability reflects education’s important role as the intellectual infrastructure of society. This stability also reflects the difficulties inherent in fostering sustainable change in vast, complex social systems. Until recently, the dominant narrative for change in education has been more focused on reform than on deep change. I wonder whether traditional education institutions will continue to hold such sway or whether the sector will remain so stable when we reach the year 2030.

Grappling with change

When I compare the 2020 Forecast to our most recent forecast, Navigating the Future of Learning, I notice a change of mood. Ten years ago, when KnowledgeWorks considered the potential of increasingly distributed and immersive technologies, our view of them tended to be rosy. We focused on what they might enable, namely more distributed leadership and influence and new structures of learning. Today, we see those technologies through more nuanced lenses. We now have a better understanding of the ways in which they can contribute to individual and societal strain and a deeper awareness of their power to shape our decisions and alter our brains. We also see their potential either to close equity gaps or to exacerbate them.

Time illuminates such insights. We can also generate insight by using frames for applying a futures perspective to our contexts.

KnowledgeWorks has been creating forecasts on the future of learning since 2006. In Forecast 5.0: Navigating the Future of Learning, you can read about the drivers of change for the next ten years.
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When I first got involved in producing the 2020 Forecast, I felt alarmed by some of its elements, including the potential for increasing bio-distress, the need to consider platforms for resilience that would help individuals and institutions navigate increasing turbulence and new layers of diaspora. For years, I felt unsure about how to make decisions in face of such factors. It seemed as if everything could change quickly and fundamentally. I was experiencing future shock.

In part, that reaction reflected my being relatively new to strategic foresight and having spent some time reading dystopian fiction. I did not understand the agency we all have to shape the future. It also reflected the inherent difficulty of navigating rapid change. It can feel overwhelming to face myriad challenges and opportunities, especially when they are surrounded, and even created, by uncertainty.

KnowledgeWorks helps education stakeholders respond to the external forces described in our forecasts by hosting sensemaking workshops and other engagements that give participants a chance to grapple with the changes on the horizon, consider their implications and identify possible strategic responses. Ten years ago, those engagements took different forms from the ones that we host today, but they served the same purpose. Even though one of our experiences got described by a participant as having been like stepping into a bad science fiction novel, we have generally seen strategic impacts derive from them. Engaging with the 2020 Forecast helped educational organizations challenge the status quo and remove barriers, led some to shift strategic direction and helped frame the conversation about the future for the sector.

Pressing goals

The 2020 Forecast highlighted the need for schools and centers of learning to be life-affirming organizations and emphasized the need for learning to be an ongoing process shaped by everyone concerned about the future of learning. While we have moved closer to those goals, they seem more pressing than ever. Life as we knew it continues, and yet it doesn’t. We stand at the precipice of a new era.

Those of us who care about the future of learning are fortunate to get to shape what learning looks like. It is incumbent upon us that we do so with intention and care. We must continue to peer into the future to discern what education might look like and how we might want to sketch its contours over the next decade.

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2020 Forecast Retrospectives