Designs for social futures

Our picture of the New Learning emerges as we trace contemporary trends in education. In this sense, it is an evolving description. It is an educational response designed to meet the needs of communities of learners living in social conditions that are changing dramatically. It is also a series of prescriptive ideas, suggestions about the ways we might do things differently in education. New Learning is an agenda for the future of education, requiring the creation of educational processes and systems that are in many respects very different from those of the recent past, and the formation of professionals with new skills and sensibilities.

Precisely what shape will the New Learning take? No single answer to this question is possible. In this respect, our proposal for the New Learning is a series of open possibilities, educational agendas in the plural. ‘What might we do?’ is the key question. Even asking the question puts the educator in a definite position as an engaged intellectual and professional. Any answer is contingent upon a whole set of factors that require purposeful, deliberative responses designed to meet learner aspirations.

Whatever the specifics of the New Learning, several things are clear. Professional educators of tomorrow will not be people who simply enact received systems, standards, organisational structures and professional ethics. In this time of extraordinary social transformation and uncertainty, educators need to consider themselves to be designers of social futures, to search out new ways to address the learning needs of our society, and in so doing to position education at an inarguably central place in society. In fact, powerful educational ideas (about how people act and build knowledge in context and in collaboration with others, for instance) could become leading social ideas in currently more privileged areas of endeavour, such as business and technology. Perhaps, if we can succeed at putting education at the heart of the designs for society’s future, we might even be able to succeed in our various campaigns to ensure that education is innovative, empowering, just and adequately resourced.

The mission of educators is the mission of this book. Our case is built on the proposition that we are on the cusp of a revolution in education that will change at the core the structures of its institutions, the practices of its professionals and the experiences of learners. Some of this is happening now in the opening decades of the 21st century. Some of it may take decades to evolve. Whatever direction the revolution takes, professional educators must position themselves as significant players – imagining alternative scenarios and designing and testing alternatives. Educators will also need to become advocates in the public arena and within their educational communities in order to make sure that their new designs for education demonstrably work, to get the recognition and resources they need, and to be sure that their innovations take firm institutional hold.

In order to make our case for a New Learning, we will tell stories that trace the broad trajectory of educational change. Although we go back further than this at times, the primary reference point will be our earlier modern past. Learners of this recent past experienced a novel, mass social phenomenon: a peculiar world of schoolrooms, and lessons, and teacher talk, and textbooks, and learning tasks, and tests, and marks, and school reports. Roughly speaking, this began to happen on a mass scale in the now-developed countries in the 19th century and the now-developing countries in the 20th century. We will go back and examine these experiences, not because they could be considered an inevitable part of the human experience, but because they are so recent, and at the time they were introduced on a mass-institutional scale, for most people so novel. Nor do we examine these heritage school practices in order to disparage them, as though we should throw out all of the old to make way for the new. Rather, we need to go back and consider them again because our old educational habits can all-too-easily cloud our vision of what is possible, what a New Learning could be like. It is just too easy to regard our own experiences and the experiences of our modern past as universal, permanent and inevitable. They are not. It is easy to think we are doing something new because we are using new tools, or seem to have broken out of the four walls of the traditional classroom. But the pedagogy we are using may still be deeply influenced by an earlier age.

See The Fun They Had.

For many learners today, earlier modern or industrial-age schooling is still a reality, anachronistically in places in which the industrial age itself has now mostly passed, and where work and community life are heading in the direction of the ‘knowledge economy’. Such heritage education is also to be found in places in which people still live off the land and have barely joined the industrial age, in the so-called ‘developing’ world. There may be few alternatives in those places in terms of the skills of the teachers, the facilities available and the legacy understandings of education in the wider community. But, even in these places, the education that the learners are getting may not serve their best interests in the imminent future.

The danger is that if schools do not change in some fundamental ways, they may find themselves mired in a crisis of declining credibility. Children and young people are astute, and their senses of boredom, frustration and irrelevance will translate into ‘discipline’ problems or simply running away from school, in spirit if not body. Parents may come to realise that the schools are not working for their children. If they can afford it, they’ll be scouring the market for alternatives that seem to be worth the money. Not that these parents’ judgements will always be correct. Paradoxically, they may often end up choosing schools whose back-to-the-future air of discipline and rigour reminds them of their own school days – finding schools that are contemporary manifestations of what they remember from an earlier era of schooling. These parents may end up disappointed if and when these schools do not deliver what is appropriate to the contemporary world.

Meanwhile, employers may find themselves complaining about the quality of new entrants to the labour force. These employers might not be able to articulate terribly well what’s wrong with the young people coming out of school. They may only be able to express it in terms of superficial symptoms, such as the failure of the school to teach spelling and grammar, but may nevertheless correctly sense a deeper problem.

See Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap.

However inchoate the community arguments may at times be, the complaints seem to be more deeply felt today. Education faces a crisis of public confidence. If professional educators do not take a lead in the revolution in education, they will find other forces in the community taking the lead, and the outcomes may not be what they expect or consider best from a professional point of view. As a profession, teachers and their professional organisations need to take a clear and prominent stand in this debate, as advocates for the transformation of our institutions of education.

It is easier to chart the territory of the past and heritage teaching practices than it is to predict the future. We can describe the old teaching more easily than we can articulate the New Learning. The familiar shape of the old teaching is easier to capture in our mind’s eye than something that is still emerging and uncertain. If the future is unsure, old teaching is a rock of certainty to which we may feel we can safely cling. Except, of course, if we find that retreat is no answer, and that a back-to- the-future approach does not really solve the fundamental problems faced today in schools and their communities.

The New Learning we are proposing is not a destination, but a challenging journey. The debate about our educational futures is so volatile and stoops at times to such populist depths, that we can’t be sure how the coming revolution in education will unfold and what shape the New Learning will take. The consequence is that the New Learning is not an agenda that can be clearly formulated; still less a specific prescription. Rather, our New Learning is an open call to read the transformations going on in the world, to imagine the corresponding transformations that may need to occur in education, and to plan ways in which educators might lead these transformations rather than fall victim to changes over which they feel they have little or no control.