Will We Make the Future of Learning Equitable?

Topics: Education Equity, Future of Learning

When we look to the future of learning, we place the established masterwork of today’s education systems and institutions next to a fresh canvas. Traditional structures and practices persist unless challenged in sustained and systemic ways. Some of them persist for good reasons, but others perpetuate the inequities that have plagued our education systems and institutions for far too long despite many people’s best efforts.

As colleagues and I observe in our new strategy guide for navigating the future of learning, “Historically, education has largely been designed by white, middle-class leaders for white, middle-class students. The needs and conditions of other cohorts, such as students of color, rural communities and immigrant families, have not informed the dominant design of education systems, institutions and organizations. Gaps in resources and opportunities are not simply a feature of our current education landscape; they are a direct consequence of inequities built into the frameworks that drive our present systems.”

Among those inequities, many states have inequitable or even unconstitutional public education funding formulas, and states with more equitable regulations can struggle to deliver upon them. These and other factors have been contributing to increasing racial and economic segregation. Cultural biases baked into standardized tests and other education instruments can reinforce achievement gaps and societal marginalization. Accountability systems often fail to reflect the full range of learners’ needs or their and their schools’ progress. At the postsecondary level, access challenges, lack of belonging and insufficient support for persistence continue to undermine completion rates. At both the K-12 and postsecondary levels, inequities in social capital can influence who gets access to specific institutions or supports. In addition, the flaws and incentives built into education can lead to situations in which families who can manage it often supplement what public institutions provide or even game the system to secure their children’s success. Many students succeed despite the system, not because of it. Yet we generally think of education as a meritocracy in which anyone who works hard enough can succeed.

For some time now, KnowledgeWorks’ exploration of the future of learning has been raising the potential for education stakeholders to create flexible and radically personalized learning ecosystems that meet the needs of all learners and have the adaptability to evolve with our rapidly changing world. We have also been flagging the possibility that we could instead end up with increasingly fractured landscapes in which only those whose families who 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 the drivers of change shaping the future of learning could help education leaders, innovators and influencers deliver on the promise of vibrant learning ecosystems, they could also introduce new inequities – such as increasing technological or cognitive divides – that could exacerbate the possibility of more and more learners’ being trapped in fractured educational landscapes.

Exploring the future of learning with equity at the center requires courage. Institutional and cultural barriers are too strong for education stakeholders to assume that equity will automatically be the byproduct of adopting new approaches. It will not be enough to tweak today’s education systems and institutions with the hope of making education just a little bit better. It will not be enough to continue supporting pockets of excellence that fail to spread much beyond their inception points. People’s lives are at stake. Communities’ vitality is threatened.

To make the future of learning equitable, education stakeholders must “make equity an explicit aim and a core design principle of all efforts and reforms,” as colleagues and I wrote in Navigating the Future of Learning, KnowledgeWorks’ fifth comprehensive ten-year forecast. They will need to rally their publics, colleagues and supporters behind bold visions. They will need to pursue strategies that focus on specific populations and on individual students’ needs. They will need to engage in frank and inclusive conversations about how and why inequities in learning persist.

In short, education leaders, innovators and influencers will need to transform education, leapfrogging past today’s inequities to implement high-quality, future-informed solutions. Equity, defined in our strategy guide as “each learner having access to all the resources and opportunities they need to discover and reach their full potential,” will be a necessary starting point and design criterion for any strategic initiative for education transformation.

An equity focus prioritizes:

  • Structures and cultures that are inclusive
  • Processes that clarify assumptions and surface bias
  • Language that builds bridges and understanding across differences
  • Funding models that deliver equitable opportunities for learners regardless of location
  • Principles and policies of universal design that explore how to meet specialized needs in ways that benefit all.

To begin moving towards an equitable education system, education stakeholders can pursue the strategic actions listed below:

  • Reflect on current approaches to equity and closing achievement gaps, engaging members of their learning communities in inclusive conversations about how they define equity, how it manifests in diverse issues, where efforts to address equity have fallen short, how equity might be prioritized and what aspects of education need to change.
  • Evaluate how decisions about learning and organizational climate are made, who is involved in those processes and whose vision for the community is prioritized.
  • Ensure that educational organizations maintain a welcoming environment for all learners and families, explicitly affirming the belief in their humanity and in their potential for learning and addressing disrespectful behavior and speech when it occurs.
  • Assess current governance structures and processes to determine how authentically learners, parents, community members and other nontraditional leaders are engaged in governance and what barriers to their involvement may exist.
  • Collaborate with representatives of other education organizations to explore what guidelines or frameworks might help the field navigate and work with an increasingly engaged civic sector and build trust with previously marginalized or disengaged groups.
  • Adjust leadership development pipelines and pathways to ensure that current and future leaders represent the communities they serve.

At KnowledgeWorks, our desire for the future of learning is that education promote meaningful teaching, learning and development across life stages for all community members through equitable access to resources, relationships and opportunities. That we create vibrant learning ecosystems for all learners. Those who care about the future of learning need to take courageous action to paint a new educational canvas that recognizes learners’ diversity, distinct needs and aspirations and enables learning pathways that are as varied and valid as they are.

As one participant in a recent workshop declared, “We have the opportunity to start over using what we have learned from our mistakes.” The time to shape the future is now. What will each of us do with this opportunity?

Our strategy guide for navigating the future of learning will help you engage in conversations now to start the work of creating a more equitable future of learning.