Spent Wednesday at Warwick University with a group of headteachers, teachers and students from a dozen schools who are affiliated to or members of the Schools of Tomorrow group. As I wrote on Tuesday, I went with an open mind, keen to hear again from Keri Facer, professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol, but also to gauge whether this group would be one that we should be engaging with more in the future. I travelled up with students and staff from the Hazeley Academy, who have been part of this group, along with Brightfield Consulting, since its inception.
Keri was the keynote speaker and also led a 60 minute workshop in the middle of the morning. The last time I heard her was in 2011, and the talk she gave then I reported on here. The content was substantially the same, but as in all learning, hearing the same thing twice with a gap in between really roots it in your mind. I will report it in full in this blog or the next, depending on time.
The day kicked off with a welcome and introduction by Andrew Hobbs, the Joint Managing Director of the organisation, who introduced the Schools of Tomorrow Framework. Wednesday’s focus was on the south-west quadrant of the Framework – preparing young people for a future that they cannot yet imagine, and focused on themes of identity and learning. This also happens to be the title of a book that was published to sit alongside the conference.
The research that was done through the book led to some implications, and those formed the basis of the workshops that the day covered – identity and learning (led by Andrew Hobbs), social media and learning, and the process of going from a teacher to a facilitator of learning. I attended the first and third of these.
The key questions that the day dealt with were:
- How does my school think creatively about the future?
- How does it prepare young people for the future and help them shape that future?
Keri then got up and shared her keynote address, which weas entitled “Taking the 21st century seriously: challenges, possibilities and resources for action”
She began by commenting that when people ask “what is education for?”, the answers are invariably are about exploring possibilities for one’s life, of realising one’s potential, finding out what you would like to be, etc. Implicit in this understanding is an educational contract that says: if you invest in education now, you/the child/our society will be better in the future. Whether or not this is true, it involves the future, which is something that does not exist yet except in our imagination. There is no pre-determined future, nor can we (or anyone) predict what will happen. What we can do is to ask how we use it – we anticipate it, though it does not yet exist, but is there to be created. It won’t just happen. It happens as a result of human (mainly) agency.
What sort of futures are we imagining? She asked us how old we would be in 2035, then asked how old a child starting school today would be in 20135. What would the world be like, just 21 years hence? What are we basing our assumptions on, and how do we know that those are the right assumptions? We can’t predict the future, mainly because the simple law of cause and effect is not a reliable predictor. It is unlikely to be “business as usual” in the 21st century, and schools have a role in “tipping the balance” towards positive outcomes for individuals and our societies.
What contexts might we be working with in the future? What sort of backgrounds might we be working against? These were some Keri suggested:
- Constant connectivity between us and others, with the possibility that the individual was somehow “submerged”…
- Massive computing power on demand (as in non-human-like intelligence NHLI). How do we position ourselves alongside other intelligences and play to our strengths?
- the merging of digital and physical worlds – the “internet of things”, including augmentation of the human body and capability
- Large scale complex systems of systems (such as Big Data in New York) and the implications for crashing everything when one thing fails. These are things that we don’t know how they work or worse, why they fail. An example Keri gave was the 201o Flash Crash on the New York Stock Exchange. What happened there? Does anybody know? There are also massive new knowledge resources, highly complex. How do we position ourselves with regard to these?
- Biotechnologies and cognition enhancing drugs. She referred to the famous 2009 quote in Nature that showed that 1/3 of respondents would feel pressure to allow thier children to take cognition-enhancing drugs if other parents were doing so.
- Finally, the prevalence of remote weaponry, including nanobot armies and drones. These are obviously seriously undesirable applications of technology, but the “genie is out of the bottle” for them, and the military-industrial complex will find ways of using them in ever more destructive ways.
Other areas that had to be faced were driven by different factors:
- Demographics: 50% of the population of western Europe is over the age of 50 and has a life expectancy of another 40 years. This will lead to competition for ever scarcer public resources and the strong possibility of intergenerational conflict between the young and the aging. If we are to have a new intergenerational cohesion, how are we to do it, and do schools have a role to play? Some future thinkers imagine a time when we will be able to have unlimited intelligence, principally non-biological, and the opportunity to live for 500 years.
- Economics: growing inequality is a feature of today’s world. The gap between rich and poor today is as large in the UK as it was in Dickens’ time. We have structural unemployment and the polarisation of the workforce into the global elite and the rest. Routine jobs are automated, leading to the creative and caring/teaching professions having the greatest job security. Jobs involving creativity, personal relationshipsand a strong requirement for adaptability will be the most secure. For schools this means that the idea of schools preparing for existing jobs is a poor one. Strengthening employability means teaching an economic resilience, adaptability and the ability to create work in multiple forms.
- Environmental and social disruption: A 2 degrees centigrade worldwide heating would result in up to a 45% species loss on earth. This is to be avoided awt all costs, because of the impact on people movements, famine and huge pressures on resources. Energy shocks (we are probably past the point of Peak Oil) and other resource constraints will lead to further pressures on living standards and the movement of peoples, as energy and food become ever more expensive. Even in well off countries the pressures of increased immigration, loss of low-level land, rail and other intrastructure disruption would be significant. And this would lead to a level of social breakdown and rioting.
We can respond to possible futures in one of four different ways:
- Business as usual – keep doing what we are doing and hope it all works out
- Managed decline – preparing for the worst and planning accordingly
- Collapse – the pressures overwhelm our ability to manage and our social and economic structures fail totally
- Transformation – the imagining of different futures enables us to respond in different and radical ways, as humans have often done in the past.
For schools, there are three different options:
- All Change…replace one dominant idea with another; chuck everything out (“because we’re all doomed, Captain Mainwaring!”) and adopt what Ivan Illich calls “apocalyptic randiness”.
- Cover All Bases…try and future-proof our schools by ensuring that we adapt to everything that the future might throw at us. This risks banality, a lack of aspiration and inspiration and has no desire, no volition and no ambition. We really do not want this!
- Imagine Future Possibilities…and look for the seeds of desirable futures; nurture these whilst recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of any system we desire to alter and shape.
A future-building school such as that in option 3 above, will see things differently, imagine a different future beyond the constraints of today (which may be a culture rather than a constraint), and have the following characteristics:
- Wonder, dialogue and relationship building as a basis for seeing new possibilities
- Created space for seeing possibilities – it will talk about the future and provide opportunities to try things out for its people
- A willingness to find allies and collaborators
- A recognition of our powers – that we are powerful, as employers, consumers, educators, community hubs, space-providers, researchers, leaders
School, Keri concluded, is already changing. There are plenty of “new versions” of school already – from the Schools of Tomorrow thinking, in online schools (such as the Khan Academy), Outward Facing Schools, moocs, Learning Futures, Germany’s Lab School in Bielefeld (the city where where I did some of my growing up) and such things as the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement which enables children to be connected with land rights issues. The book Changing Schools: Alternative Ways to Make a World of Difference (Ed Thomson, Wrigley, Lingard is a good summary of different approaches that already are having impact. In Bristol, Keri referenced the 80by18 movement which is trying to give young people in Bristol 80 things to do before they are 18.
Finally, Keri reminded us that at the end of the 19th century we faced a similar challenge, and we responded with new school spaces, public parks creation, universal primary education, laws banning child laboutr and the provision of cheaper public transport in cities. We are in a position to create something of real strength and schools are in a place where they can really contribute to that.
The trick wasnot to be governed by inherited and unexamined assumptions about the future, but to use the space to think about the future as a place of creative work and opportunity for the benefit of all who work in schools. She concluded with Antonio Gramsci’s famous dictum:
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
I found the talk encouraging and quite re-envisioning. On the way back in the minibus I read and re-read parts of Keri’s book Learning Futures, particularly chapters 7-9, which describe the characteristics of and conditions for, a future building school. This is probably essential reading for those seeking to find ways of making school meaningful in the long term.