The future of Schools

Ask the average adult to describe a school and you are likely to get similar responses. There will be a focus on the places and spaces in which their education occurred, the teachers who taught, the rows of desks, the daily schedule of classes and breaks. They may reflect on the subjects they enjoyed and those they didn’t. If you asked the same question of your typical octogenarian the response would be similar and if you could travel back in time you would receive a similar response from those whose experience of school would not include electric light. It makes you wonder what makes a school and what might a school be like?

Karl Weick the organisational theorist wrote in 1976 an article titled ‘Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems’ in which he asks the questions ‘Why do all educational organisations look the way they do, and why do they all look the same?’ He suggests that the common structural and organisational elements in schools are not a result of the true task of education but a consequence of the certification and registration process. The implication being that if schools were designed to best serve their fundamental task they would look different and there would be differences between schools as a result of their intentions and purposes.

The unflattering description of the physical layout of most schools reveals much in common with factories. Raw product enters at one end, is acted upon through set processes and at the opposite end of the factory processed products exit ready for the workforce. Along the way the child learns how to fit into society, how to complete core tasks required for dutiful citizenship and is presented with the knowledge of content expected of an educated person. Pink Floyd’s gruesome portrayal of a school as a production line for humans resonated with its audience not only for its gore but also its metaphorical accuracy. Thankfully schools have a greater calling and are moving away from this archaic model.

The modern classroom is a space full of light and colour, with flexible furnishings and a degree of comfort not present in the classrooms many adults recall. Students are encouraged to take charge of the space and arrange its physicality to meet their needs. Design decisions are based around engagement, creativity, expression, imagination and an understanding of education as an active process that the student chooses to engage with. So important is the physical space that authors and architects for education OWP/P published a book titled ‘The Third Teacher’ as a tome for anyone wishing to enhance the effectiveness of their learning spaces. 

In this classroom you will likely find the teacher located somewhere amongst the students. The role of the teacher is transforming from the deliverer of content and enforcer of behavioural norms to one of facilitator of learning. Learning as an educational term is under re-evaluation as the profession and society considers what it means to learn. Once defined through connections to the recall of facts and the application of formulas and methods, learning is now seen through a wider lens. Learning is a process that you must learn to do, a process that involves imagination, problem finding, questioning, design thinning, collaboration, reflection and knowledge creation. The modern teacher is skilled in enabling dispositions, attitudes, habits of mind and thinking skills within their diverse learners. A successful lesson will be one that generates a new list of questions, not a set of answers. 

The students in this classroom are adept at asking questions but they do not expect easy answers and they do not rely on their teachers to be the source of their learning. They approach their learning with a sense of possibility and openness that the students in the Pink Floyd clip have had beaten out of them. They should experience a learning system that encourages creativity and prepares them for a world that will value them for their ability to find problems and solve them in unique ways.

What might the school day be like? The ever creative Finns are exploring a model of learning that does away with traditional subjects. Students instead of discretely studying mathematics or language will explore themes with opportunities to develop a wide mix of dispositions and skills around the exploration of central ideas. This model of themed learning is described as having more in common with how individuals learn outside of a school-based setting where they operate within a group to explore a set of closely linked ideas and find solutions to the problems they encounter along the way. Such a change will bring with it fundamental adjustments to the timetabling of the school day, the structure of schools around faculties and the compartmentalisation of knowledge that comes with this. The skill set of the art teacher, the mathematician, the scientist and the language specialist will be combined around a central theme with the students benefiting from the sharing of knowledge that this model creates as their teachers collaborate. 

If the process of modernising schools identifies a clear intent for schools with an equally clear model for how this is best achieved will schools still all look the same? Will a shift from schools as factories for the fodder of the industrial age workforce to a focus on the production of creative problem finders and solvers produce a greater variety of schools? Will Weick see a diversity of organisational structures? As we shift from the one-model fits all system of the past to a new model that celebrates flexibility and individuality will this be reflected by a diversity of school systems that follow? Will there be a common experience of school in the future or will the loosely connected structures, tasks, intents and people of a yet to be invented educational model centred on the networked individual even form an organisation that we can meaningfully refer to as a school?

By Nigel Coutts


If knowing is obsolete. . .

Speaking in 2013 at ‘TED’ Sugata Mitra (2013) posed the question ‘Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be that we are heading towards or maybe in a time when knowing is obsolete?’. This question has merit and far reaching implications for education. 

A range of factors make this question worth exploring. Firstly is the matter of what we teach and the curriculum documents we follow. For those in Australia we have the new syllabus to implement and while this makes progress in some regards by placing such things as concepts and skills at the centre of our focus there remains a good degree of content to be taught. Secondly the technology that makes it possible to ‘know’ something on demand is with us today. Through the devices we carry with us, with the resources of the Internet and thanks to the power of search it is possible to find any chunk of knowledge whenever and wherever it is needed. 

Speaking to a group of Year Six students the director of digital for a large Australian telco described the near future of technology. He started with a brief history of technology and described in pictures how computers have changed from the time he was a teen experiencing computing for the first time to the technology we all carry with us today. He described how Gordon Moore of Intel had predicted a doubling of chip speeds every two years and how this came to be known as ‘Moore’s Law’. He demonstrated how computing technology has continued to shrink and described how this has allowed for technology that we can not only carry in a pocket but also wear. If the tech companies are right and wearables begin to gain traction in the market our reliance on ‘knowing’ will only further decrease. Once the watch or glasses that I wear are able to provide me with the answer to my knowledge based questions why would I burden my memory with these details?

The New Media Consortium, Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition identifies Wearable Technology as one of the important developments in technology for school with a time to adoption in the four to five year category. Wearable technology is defined by the report as technology that can be worn in the form of jewelry, sunglasses, backpacks or items of clothing. The impact is described as being most significant in the enhancement of field trips and excursions and augmented reality. But this ignores the great ease of access to information that this style of device offers and ignores the potential for these devices to provide context aware notifications. How far can it be from a time when my watch or my glasses prompts me with potentially relevant ‘knowledge’ based on the data it is gathering from my environment, my online presence and the online presence of the people and things around me.

As we move towards a Web 3.0 world we will increasingly rely on machine learning to access and present data from diverse sources, including an expanding ‘Internet of Things’ in ways that we are able to make use of. The early signs of an internet populated by articles and sources created purely by computer are the ‘Knowledge Graph’ results Google provides and the emergence of articles written by algorithms. The ‘Knowledge Graph’ presents information based on a search query and compiled from a mix of sources as a result of Google’s algorithms. Steven Levy wrote an article for ‘Wired’ titled ‘Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?’ in which he describes technology produced by ‘Narrative Science’ that produces articles based on the data fed to its algorithms. A BBC report from 2014 describes the writing of an article for the LA Times that is reportedly the first written for a newspaper by a robot. The challenge for machine generated content will be finding an audience for the content that is generated and most likely this will be facilitated by models of content delivery where the information finds its user rather than relying on the user finding the content.

The implications of the evolution of technology, of search, machine learning and of ubiquitous access to knowledge are yet to be fully understood and explored but are part of the rationale for Ian Jukes to declare, while speaking at EduTech in Brisbane in 2014, that knowledge work or routine cognitive work will become a thing of the past at least in Western nations and that schools need to stop preparing students for jobs that will not exist. We need a greater emphasis on what Ian and others refer to as ‘Long Life Skills’ (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving and social intelligence) and an ability for individuals and even groups to learn and unlearn the skills required for specific tasks. New opportunities for enterprise bring with them new challenges for learners e.g the birth and growth of the app developer. But this does not mean we teach app design in the same way we taught grammar, the skills needed now will be outmoded by next year or sooner, according to Ian we need teach the mind set required for app design.

Ian says ‘Our present system is not broken, it is obsolete, outmoded. We cannot make little modifications, it is time to redesign’ and that if schools are in the content delivery business then we are going to be out of work soon. Looking for the silver lining in this the future of education and of teaching is exciting. Freed of the need to teach content we can focus on teaching what matters most, what excites and challenges our students and builds capacity for creativity, knowledge creation and innovation. 

By Nigel Coutts






Schools, learning, innovation and student futures

For all of us, learning was an innate part of life. It was something we just did, that was as natural to us as breathing. If not for this innate desire to learn and with it the ability to do so, we would never learn to walk, or speak or interact with others.

But at some point learning stops being something we do and becomes more like something that happens to us. Our initial self-drive to learn is replaced by learning as a part of our life that is highly regulated, controlled, monitored and externalised. For some people this compartmentalisation of our lives with learning as a self contained piece that takes place inside of schools results in the belief that it is something we can opt out of. 

Learning becomes the ability to absorb and make use of information and skills that are presented to us in a manner that another person or group of people decides is best. Learning becomes something we do in a specific place and at a specific time, for a set number of years and via a lockstep sequence with a group of peers sharing a common age.

From this model of learning comes a string of consequences. It separates learning from the control of the individual, it places the decision making process about learning priorities into the hands of others and it dictates what is and is not success. It divides us into people who are skilled at learning and those who are not skilled at it according to this model and subsequently for the first time it forces us to evaluate our ability to learn. This assessment of our ability to learn and indeed our ability in general is placed into the hands of others and this assessment of us by others for many plays a critical role in determining our self worth. 

All of this does not stop learning from happening outside this controlled environment. Children continue to play games, to learn from their peers, to discover ideas for themselves, but this model does separate and devalue this learning from the supposedly real learning that occurs in schools. 

Many have written and spoken about the current education paradigm as being modeled around the needs of the industrial revolution; that schools are modeled after factories with students entering as raw product, teachers performing the routine labour of transferring information and skills and adults leaving at the other end as product ready for the needs of the industry.  It is also well documented that the world we once prepared children for no longer exists. Through a mix of economic forces, changing priorities, technological change and globalisation our children will leave school requiring a different skill set marked by an ability to creatively identify opportunities and develop creative solutions to capitalise on these. In his book ‘Creating Innovators’ Tony Wagner describes the mindset and orientation of an individual prepared for this world. He identifies what is required to be an innovator as ‘some of the qualities of innovators that I now understand as essential such as perseverance, a willingness to experiment, take calculated risks, and tolerate failure, and the capacity for design thinking, in addition to critical thinking.’ These are not skills developed through even the most judicious application of a ‘chalk and talk’ methodology which while less prevalent today remains a common pedagogy. A similar set of skills required of the innovator is offered by Tim Brown CEO of IDEO writing for Harvard Business Review and cited by Tony Wagner, is ‘empathy, integrative thinking (the ability to see all the salient and sometimes contradictory aspects of a problem), optimism, experimentalism and collaboration. Tim states that ‘My experience is that many people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking, which the right developmentand experiences can unlock.’  Sir Ken Robinson’s often cited comment on creativity and education reveals his beliefs on why there are not more people leaving school equipped with the skills of the innovator: ‘I believe this passionately: that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it’.

Through a series of interviews with successful innovators Tony Wagner describes the forces and people that shaped them and influenced their development. In most cases these influencers fell outside of the normal systems of school and college, educators and mentors described as ‘outliers’ by Tony, educators who despite the system, manage to encourage young innovators to follow their passion and seek out challenges that matter. 

Ian Jukes is another educator calling for change to educational systems. At ‘Edutech’ in Brisbane last year, he described the disappearance from western nations of careers based upon routine cognitive tasks, the traditional office jobs which are so easily relocated to countries with cheap labour. Tony Wagner echoes this ‘A growing number of our good-paying blue-collar and even white-collar jobs are now being done in other countries that have increasingly well-educated and far-less-expensive labour forces’. Ian calls for an educational paradigm through which students develop an ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn and to do so rapidly. Students leave this system not with a pool of knowledge but with what Ian calls ‘Headware skills’ creative skills that are rapidly adaptable and within the control of the individual. Ian calls for educational systems to not just shift teachings to new ideas delivered in the same mode but for a shift in the focus towards providing opportunities for students to become creative problem finders and solvers. As an example a school may identify the emerging App economy and desire to teach students this new skill but this does not mean we teach app design in the same way we taught grammar, the skills needed now will be outmoded by next year or sooner, we need to teach the mindset required for app design; a problem solving, design process with inquiry skills and the ability to quickly learn and unlearn skills to suit the needs of the task.

To meet these challenges and to ensure the learner is at the centre of the learning with a voice and opportunities to self-assess and self-direct, schools need to change focus. Ian describes two sets of skills, short life and long life. Short life skills are the ones that quickly become redundant or outdated. Long life skills are creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving and social intelligence and have value to the individual even as circumstances change. These are the skills schools need to develop but these skills will not develop in a system where the teacher is a content delivery mechanism.

They may be developed in a system that embraces Sugata Mitra’s view of learning as an 'edge of chaos phenomenon'. In this, the individual is provided with opportunities to discover and solve problems that matter but in allowing learners to imagine the problems, the control and organisation loved by too many schools is lost.  Only by understanding that the value of these experiences lies in the life long skills that students will apply and experience and by not focusing on the content lessons missed as a result of the chaos will schools truly prepare their students for the tomorrow that already exists just outside their classrooms. When schools do this, maybe learning will remain an innate and natural part of ones life.

By Nigel Coutts

Leadership for Everyone

Leadership is a skill and attitude we are keen to promote in our students. To do so we provide numerous opportunities for this and a variety of formal Leadership Positions. Even so it is worth asking what does it mean to be a leader and how can we provide every student with the experience of leadership.

There is much debate about the nature of leadership and the character attributes that make an effective leader. Some feel strongly that leadership is an innate quality and that some people have it and others don't. This form of Natural Leadership is not common and while schools can encourage the growth and positive application of these characteristics this approach offers little to those who are not natural leaders. The other side of the coin is that leadership is a set of behaviours, attitudes and knowledge that can be learned. If this is so then schools can make a real impact in developing leaders.

The second question is how can we provide every child with leadership experiences? Even if we subscribe to the Natural Leader model we may never see this side of a student unless we provide the right experiences. The video below provides an answer to this by viewing Leadership not as the actions of the great and mighty but as the little actions we can all take that change a life. Drew Dudley relates Everyday Leadership to Lollipop Moments based on a story of how he came to realise the potential he had to change lives. This is a TED Talk worth sharing and discussing with your students.