Defining the School of the Future

Text Philip J. Bossert
Thread School of the Future

Many schools, both public and private, are struggling to figure out what a 21st century education is or should be, as well as how best to deliver such an education to current and future students.There are also many institutions that are not struggling with this issue, preferring to ride the tried and true 19th century models of teaching and learning a bit longer in the hope that the educational chaos of the technologically accelerated present will somehow sort itself out without the need for too much change.

We have watched print media, travel agencies and brick & mortar department stores take a similar wait and see attitude only to disappear beneath the steady tide of the Internet. So why should schools be any different? After reinventing the music and phone industries, Steve Jobs said that education was the next industry to be technologically disrupted—and then he introduced iTunes University.

So, how does an institution become a School for the Future—or, if it is reinventing itself, a School of the Future—to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist and problems that have yet to be identified? It’s possible that the “jobs” issue will work itself out, even as physical robots and software programs take over more and more blue, pink and, yes, white collar jobs. But that would still leave schools with the “future problems to solve” issue—one of which might be to figure out what people without jobs are going to be doing with all of their new-found free time.

Schools for the Future need to be focusing more of their curriculum on problem solving activities, i.e., inquiry-based learning, innovation, critical thinking and research & development.

But equally important, perhaps: educational institutions seeking to prepare their students for the future should lend more attention to art, music, dance, theater, film and sport.A colleague of mine once described the university at which he worked as “a football team with an associated faculty.”He meant it as a criticism, but perhaps there is an insight there. And a high school principal told me recently that the dropout rate for boys at his school was disturbingly high, but that it likely would be much worse if it weren’t for the fact that they needed to stay in school in order to play on the sports teams.

Every high school senior with high grade point average and standardized aptitude test scores applying to any of the top universities is competing against 20,000 other students with equally high scores. But those who score high in golf, tennis, basketball, or are competitive swimmers or accomplished violin or oboe players, will often find “reserved” slots waiting for them.So maybe more of those“extracurricular” and “co-curricular” activities should be moved into the regular curriculum alongside history, biology and Chinese courses.

Academic blasphemy, I know. But, as the saying goes: it is the students’ future we are preparing them for, not our past. What does a 21st century curriculum look like then? Well, responsible citizenship still requires that we need to be able to read and write (though responsible citizens got along just fine without reading and writing for centuries prior to the technology’s invention some 3,000 years ago). And the effective and ethical use and creation of digital media should be in there as well.And also multiple courses in the plastic and/or performing arts should be required of all of students—and sports should be treated as performing arts.

Since the standard nuclear family seems to be increasingly going out of style, perhaps we need a few courses on responsible and viable relationships, as well as effective socializing, both in person and online.We will probably still need the “childcare”-controlled learning environment at the elementary level; but, by secondary school, physical attendance in a School for the Future should probably be optional, and grading would be based on a micro-credentialing or “badging” schema of some sort.

Becoming a School for the Future might involve changes like these, and it might also require entirely different approaches that I cannot begin to imagine. Such is the limitations of one’s own vision, education and life experience. But the disruption of our 19th century learning environments is already occurring, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And so I will leave you with a warning from The Second Coming by the poet W. B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


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