‘How do we prepare our children for the future?’, they keep asking. Grand conferences, small round tables and research seminars acknowledge that the pace of change has overwhelmed us and we no longer can survive the future if our next generations only learn what we know and do. Implicit in this is the acknowledgement that we no longer have the capacity to teach them, nor therefore, the moral authority to design their learning pathways. Then does it also not follow that we cannot, in all honesty, prepare them for a future we cannot recognise.
So, the simple answer is, we don’t.
We don’t seek to prepare them for the future. That does not mean that we abandon them, or leave them to their own devices. There is still much value in the basics that will help them deal with their lives and livelihoods. Reading, mathematics, basic science, money management and more. But the question upgrades itself to – how much of each, and to what end. We have reached the statute of limitations on much in education. For example, is there any value in preparing for the traditional professions of a doctor, a lawyer or a consultant – if an AI engine can deliver better results, faster and more reliably than humans, and not even need a day off.
But if we don’t prepare them for a future that we don’t know (note the circular argument), then will they not be as lost as we are about to be soon? What is our role as the elder generation now? How do we ensure that our children and future generations of humans survive the singularity? Or do we give in, and allow the end of Homo Sapiens, as we know it?
We could just give up – but we must not.
There are two ways that we could approach this question.
One, we watch the trajectory of our own overwhelm, our own sense of losing control and try to fill the gaps we find, as we skid along. That’s what we have been doing in the quest for 21st Century skills. Let’s figure out what will work as each of the planks that built the ship we sail on is removed one by one – and replaced with another – or not. This approach seeks to deal with the metaphorical rocky ship, in troubled waters, where everything that we depended upon is coming lose. The skills we need for this is the stuff of crisis management – and the 7C formulaic skill-set is redolent of such scenarios. Communication, Critical thinking for problem solving, Co-operation, Compromise, Creativity, Curiosity, Care, and Cultural understanding. Given the current privacy and gender debates, I’d add – Consent. We work and re-work these skill sets, and try to build them into the curricula, hoping they will prepare the children for the unknown. And they just might. These are all good foundations for any age, not just a future one. Hark back and imagine any time in history- who would not want a reliable risk taker by their side, especially one who is competent and cares.
This is not preparing for the unknown future. This is a consolidation of what we have known to aid survival in the past. And for that, it has value, but we must not delude ourselves into believing that we have thought and solved for what is ahead. We find ourselves unable to envision this future, and its contours, indeed, even its value sets. We do see the evolution of current technology, and its applications, sure, but that takes us only a few decades ahead. Our failure is a failure of Imagination, and that itself is a core ability that will help solve this conundrum. To plan for the future, we must be able to envision it, and to do that, we must be able to imagine the possibilities. To Imagine, we must unshackle ourselves from the limiting paradigms of the past – such as survivalism. Or skilling.
The second approach is to pre-actively build the future.
To imagine, design and create a world that works for us, both collectively and individually.
We already do that in dribs and drabs, and give it different names. Sometimes we call our patchy efforts a ‘Sustainability goal’, sometimes we acknowledge that our current ways have seeded destruction on Earth and beyond. Our vision of the future, our understanding of what it entails for lives and our abilities to create systems and structures are limited. As we stand today, our actions as a people are in no way coherent. At best they are a response to impulses and intuitions about the future. This is our moment of acknowledging our (current) inability to imagine and design a better world than the one we have inherited. But as we approach an acknowledgement that the socio-economic systems need a recalibration of its goals, that transactions between humans need empathy and trust, that our science must have an appreciation of ethics and values, we find ourselves at a point in time where we see the glimmerings of what we can create.
Our acknowledgement of our inabilities leads us to the quest for the abilities we must evolve to seek the contours of a better world that we can design and build. It is easier to move from what we have learnt towards what we must build. Much work has been done on the skills of the future, but that is only a start. From skills to future ready systems entails a series of transitions along the vectors of abilities, values, metrics, goals and outcomes. We need to move beyond curiosity towards possibilities, beyond critical thinking to design, beyond communication to building systems that work, beyond co-operation-collaboration-compromise-care towards reducing conflict and destruction, and, finally, beyond care towards creating a world (even worlds) that are structured to enable constructive dialogues that enable and seed their own re-invention.
To do that we need to shift the paradigms in education from the cycle of Learning-Practice-Assessment-Grade(LPAG) to Imagine-Design-Build-Adapt(IDBA) iterations. For this we need to be able to create not just experiences for the young, as we do now, but entire systems that allow for risk taking via supported experiments into the future. Education systems are already geared to serve the 4th Industrial revolution, we are already in the world operated by IoT devices, eased by AI services and enabled by socio-political structures that were negotiated. This is the present, not the future. The future still lies in our ability to imagine it.
The future depends upon our education systems enabling the Age of Imagination, supporting the flights into the unknown, and building equity and empathy into our knowledge networks. We need to design our learning systems to enable experimentation, experience and evolution. To prepare our students for the future, what we truly need to do is to invite them to share the journey of imagination and design with them. It is our future, but it will be their present. They must participate in the building of the future now, in the present, not as receivers but as the drivers of these experiences.
From a pedagogical perspective, at the very least, we need to move students through skills, then abilities towards demonstrated capabilities at the next level of performance. The skills that we have identified as essential to the next century, need an upgrade with an eye on evolving goals. But these cannot be imposed or even selected by our generation for the next – this is the journey of sharing that education systems have to create now. This is not an easy ask. For an established institution to go beyond all that it knows and leapfrog to a paradigm of sharing not just outcomes(as they have so far) but also control over the process is fraught with doubt, ego and failures. At the meta level, this is precisely the transition that both the institutions and students must undergo.
There is only one way to do it – and that is for education systems to transition into the Age of Sharing. Education systems themselves must become more open and move beyond the silos of the previous century. Knowledge not available at the point of need or inspiration is wasted behind paywalls. Pedagogies must transition to become more inclusive across geographies and domains – this is the end of walls in a classroom. Assessment systems must acknowledge collaborative creation and reward it in meaningful ways that go beyond artificial constructs such as grades that do not necessarily become currency to a successful outcome. Outcomes of education systems need to recognise that they do not belong in the education space at all, and are merely borrowed from the world of work when the impact resonates enough to breach the walls. To redesign the metrics of outcomes is a subset of evolving goals – which again becomes an iterative sharing process, or indeed a marketplace, depending upon the governance norms that are negotiated in the coming years.
Many of these changes have begun, but these are mere baby steps to explore the tools rather than the paradigm shift that is required. We already know that peer learning succeeds, that social skills are an integral part of advancing learning, that inclusion is essential for sustainability and that tribalism and silos in education have to give way to directed and open access pathways for seekers.
What we do not know yet is how the establishment will learn to let go and invert the structures of the past, which is essential to the redesign. The key to the the paradigm shift has to lie in the philosophical foundations that will have to be re-cast for the future. Be it values, such as inclusion and equity; a transition of power structures such as tribalism and empires; or incentives that often colour the implementation of principles, it is the philosophers who must speak up now. If they do not, the negotiation for the contours of the future will be between accountants, innovators and investors – which has been shown to have very shallow roots. To move away from hyper dynamism, also called chaos, it is imperative to initiate conversations between philosophers and practitioners to create a stronger foundation for the shift. It is shape of that negotiation between the philosophers and practitioners that will decide the stability and shape of the future of education.
(c) Meeta Sengupta
(This is a (fairly dense) thought note that will be recast into a paper in the near future)