One of the most exciting parts of exploring the future of learning is identifying what we want from the future and what role we want to play in shaping it. When we articulate preferred futures, it becomes incumbent upon us to ask what we can do today, tomorrow and further down the road to bring them to life. If we describe a preference for the future of learning without taking action, we are effectively gambling with children’s opportunities and ceding our own agency.
In winter 2019, KnowledgeWorks convened two workshops inviting learners, along with leaders, innovators and influencers from K-12 school-based education, postsecondary education and community-based learning, to explore what our latest ten-year forecast, Navigating the Future of Learning, might suggest for their organizations and others like them. The purpose of these convenings was to inform a strategy guide related to the forecast.
Future Vision Elements
During those convenings, we asked participants to imagine what they wanted for the future of learning, identifying key attributes and values of their ideal future learning ecosystems. Across the two groups, the qualities below emerged as key elements of a shared vision. (These qualities are excerpted from Navigating the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide.)
- Learning is human-centered. It prioritizes healthy human development, joyful experiences and positive relationships. It supports individual practices of resilience and adaptation. All these hallmarks are foundational for encouraging lifelong learning and for navigating uncertain, complex futures.
- Learning is equitable, comprehensive and inclusive. Education promotes meaningful teaching, learning and development across life stages for all community members through equitable access to resources, relationships and opportunities.
- Learning pathways are limitless. Recognizing learners’ diversity, distinct needs and aspirations, learning pathways are as varied and valid as students. No learners reach dead ends, and no single pathway represents the only path toward success.
- Education is structured and governed as an ecosystem. It is comprised of diverse actors and stakeholders interacting with one another through robust, adaptive networks and exchanging resources and expertise to produce meaningful, sustainable learning opportunities for all its members.
- Education decision-makers balance short-term needs with long-term aspirations. Stewardship of the learning ecosystem recognizes the immediate needs of learners and institutions while building capacity for future adaptation and relevance.
- Education is capable of systemic transformation. Because it is adaptive, flexible and responsive, education can be not only continuously refined and reformed but also systemically transformed to meet the needs of all
These elements suggest values and attributes that workshop participants felt were integral to achieving more dynamic learning ecosystems and organizations that are aligned to the changing social, technological, economic, environmental and political realities of the next decade and beyond.
Identifying and Bridging Gaps
Later in the convenings, we asked participants to explore gaps between what they wanted for the future of learning and how education typically looks today. Then we asked them to identify potential strategies for bridging those gaps. An example of one group’s take on this process appears below.
This exploration drew upon a systems thinking tool called the vision deployment matrix to help people compare future visions with current reality. The basic idea of this kind of activity is to start with what we want for the future, identifying vision elements and then considering what assumptions (or mental models), strategies and activities that would need to be in place to support that vision.
Then, participants turn to the present, starting with the most concrete observations. They identify what activities typically characterize education today and then to move up the levels of perspective, describing the strategies, assumptions and vision that seem to be currently in place. Often what people describe is not what they would state they want today – much less what they aspire to for the future. But those activities, strategies, assumptions and visions are what is actually being enacted in the current reality.
At KnowledgeWorks’ workshops, we did this work at tables and then looked across all those takes on what the future of learning might look like compared to what education typically looks like today. Our aim was to identify the most critical gaps and strategies between the ideal future and current reality that must be addressed. The rich picture that emerged from this line of inquiry during the Denver convening is shown below.
Participants identified gaps such as:
- A gap in imagination about what is possible for learning
- A lack of time, space and patience to pursue educational change
- A lack of knowledge about how to lead change at scale
- A lack of trust among the various players and people affected by education
- Conflicting views of the purpose of education
- A perception that education is working better than it is
- Not facing racism adequately
- Too little involvement of community
- A paucity of joy and fun in learning environments
- Too little learner agency
- Misalignment of educator preparation and reward systems with future aspirations.
In Navigating the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide, colleagues and I have translated these and many other ideas into five opportunities to shape the future while moving toward the vision elements described above. The specific strategies that you choose to pursue will depend on your vision for the future of learning along with your organizational mission.
The first part of seizing the opportunity to shape the future of learning is identifying what we want from it. The next is to understand what might need to change and how we might begin doing things differently to pursue those changes. The changes on the horizon are many, but so are our options for helping to ensure equitable opportunities for all children. We can all be active agents of change in shaping the future of learning.