The Future of Education is a topic often discussed, and at the recent gathering of educators in Florence, it was the title and theme for the conference. Now in its ninth year, The Future of Education is an international conference that attracts educators from around the world and across all domains touched by education. The conference is an inspiring two days of discussion and sharing, with the city of Florence, the centre of the Renaissance, providing a constant reminder of what might be possible when creativity and critical thinking combine. Here are my key takeaways from this event.
The thinking of Jon Dewey seems as vital and relevant to education’s future, as when he first shared his vision for a student centred model of learning. In the opening keynote of the conference, we were challenged by Austėja Landsbergienė, Lithuania’s Sir Ken Robinson, ponder the place that John Dewey’s work plays in our imagining of educations future. Originally published between 1900 & 1938 Dewey’s conceptualisation of schooling as a foundation for life-long learning continues as promising yet unrealised vision for education. Rather than trumpeting the far-sightedness of Dewey, she asked us to consider how it is that we have resisted the vision described in his work for 100 years? In this way, the conversation began, ‘do we have a vision for education that we intend to enact or does it exist only in documents’?
Education is inherently Political. Martin Laba of Vancouver invited his audience to ponder the role that political activism by students plays in their education. In a presentation titled “Learning in the Streets”, Martin discussed the part activism plays within the development of ethical understandings, citizenship, stewardship and student agency. Participation in political protests, discussion and debate in classrooms about the ethics and sustainability of the decisions backed by those in power have a part to play in our curriculum. Martin shares that we need a more expansive model of education than that which is defined by an economic imperative or market rationalism and that responding to the needs of industry is not sufficient.
Guido Giuntini of Boise State University shared a powerful project used with students to encourage a deep understanding of economic principles while also engaging them in the debate of significant ethical issues. “What is the value of a life?” As evidenced by a study which revealed that less than 25% of students were able to answer a simple economic question, even after being taught it, Guido wanted to find a better way. Through a student centred exploration of this highly engaging question, students became active participants in discussion and debate while utilising the economic theories and methods that were the course goals. It was inspiring to see this sort of rich inquiry task being used at a University level. As a Primary Educator, it is interesting to see pedagogies and approaches to curriculum which are common in this context used effectively in higher-education.
The importance of a curriculum that engages students in a substantiative social, ethical and political debate was a strong theme across the conference.
Bruce Underwood of South Australia shone a light on the need for greater care in the provision of education to Australia’s indigenous people. For Bruce the challenge is finding teachers who will thrive, not just survive when they adopt teaching placements in what is seen by all but the locals as remote communities. These communities are not well served by missionaries, mercenaries or misfits but require teachers who want to rise to the task of educating in ways genuinely respectful of the communities in which it is situated. While Bruce’s message relates directly to the remote indigenous communities of South Australia, all learning occurs within a community, and all educators need to be respectful of the community in which their practice is situated.
The research on the role of leadership in shaping change in schools by Maria-Antònia Guardiola was shared by Alan Bruce (Maria-Antònia was unable to attend). The importance of leadership was well illustrated, and the need for this leadership to be dynamic, collaborative, facilitative, distributed and open to a constant rethinking of education was made clear. The five concluding points from this research are worth pondering:
Educational projects based on distributed leadership identify professionals with talent and intention to improve through coordinated engagement and commitment
Trust is critical
Leadership can be shared
Change is ubiquitous
Organisational learning is the foundation for understanding educational leadership
Another strong theme throughout the conference, although it was less immediately addressed than others was the connection between student engagement and grades. Terry Lansdowne and Yiannis Argyropoulos of Harriot-Watt University in the UK shared their research on attendance rates of students enrolled in courses at the university. One interesting insight they shared is worth mentioning as it says something about the link between engagement and grades. It was noted that the scheduling of exams in one semester was likely to impact attendance as students chose to do exam prep in place of attending face-to-face sessions. What does it say about learning, if students stop attending the course so that they can improve their preparation for exams? Shouldn’t we be concerned that students believe they will get better results by not attending class and doing exam prep instead? One strategy suggested is to look at ways to make the learning more fun, but are we missing the point if we aim to increase engagement by making learning fun? Shouldn’t we make it purposeful and relevant - if we just “fun” up the irrelevant, what really changes? Might we not aim to have courses which are so relevant and powerful in the lives they will lead that the students want to take advantage of every learning opportunity available?
The power of grades and marks was reinforced in a session exploring the challenges of encouraging creative thinking. In this research, students involved in a university course struggled to approach tasks which required creative and collaborative thinking. It was not that they lacked the ability but that they demonstrated a fear of being wrong. Our learners are so used to playing the game of learning, of being the student who quickly and easily responds to the teacher’s question with the right answer. When they are asked to step into the role of the questioner, when there is no right answer, when they need to take risks with their thinking, learning is difficult, and they are unsure of how to proceed. In schools, we sometimes imagine that our young students are not yet ready to be problem-finders and creative risk takers. This study involving university students shows that it is not a matter of being ready for this type of learning but of having experience with it such that this becomes the norm. When we show our students that we truly value the creative process more than the memorisation of correct answers, and when we reveal this in every aspect of our teaching, especially how we grade work, we allow our students to become risk-takers.
This is but a snapshot of all that was shared, and I was only able to see a small piece of all that was on offer. The full list of accepted abstracts and the conference proceedings can be viewed online here - PIXEL FOE Conference
By Nigel Coutts