Thinking about the future of schools and schooling …

I was recently asked by a reporter from The Straits Times to comment for an op-ed piece on ‘what schools might look like in the next fifty years’. With Singapore celebrating fifty years of independence the paper is running a series of articles on what society might look like in 2065. The eventual article is here, but I thought it might be interesting to reprint my longer set of comments (below). On the one hand, looking forward fifty years is a fool’s errand. On the other hand, it is an interesting exercise in making sense of the issues that matter most when thinking about the current state of schools and schooling.

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  • Looking ahead 50 years is very tricky. There is a saying that anyone claiming to know what will happen in the future is speculating, or simply stating what they want to happen. Even people who consider themselves futurists tend to limit themselves to the ‘near future’ – e.g. 10 to 25 years. So anything we can say about 2065 must be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
  • The main question is will we even have schools at all? I am willing to imagine that there will be some form of school system, but not in the shape that we know it now.
  • The main reason we might still have schools in 2065 is not to do with technology but to do with the economy. Schools play a key role in child care – a place that looks after children and young people while adults go to work. Until someone comes up with an alternative, this is going to be a key driver for schools to continue to exist. Of course, more people will be teleworking in 2065, but many jobs will still involve going somewhere else and doing something – so these classes of people will need their children looked after.
  • It may well be that we get a two track system of schools. A cheaper blend of online classes and some face-to-face tuition for the masses. And an elite system of more ‘traditional’ face to face schooling for those who can afford to pay a lot of money for it. Technology already allows for mass tuition – so having the attention of a teacher face-to-face for 5 days a week will be a luxury product. This is already happening in the US, where  cyber-schools and virtual classes are become a common part of the public school system – especially in under-served areas.
  • Technology-based education works well for older students, but young children need face-to-face nurturing and learning environments. I can still see most (if not all) children going to kindergarten and primary school for all of the important social elements that we know drive learning and development.
  • Education in 2065 will undoubtedly be a highly commercial affair. Technology is already allowing big businesses to provide education, and this trend will increase over the next 50 years. Whatever is the equivalent of Pearson and Kaplan will be running schools, and we won’t think twice about it.
  • For a taste of what this might look like, it is interesting to look at a company such as Knewton – which provides personalized learning and ‘recommender systems’ of the most appropriate learning pathways. This all works on principles of big data and algorithms. Even in 2015, machines and coding is deciding what a student learns, and how they learn it!
  • The most interesting technologies to think about in 2065 are not digital technology but bio-technologies. There is so much work going on in the areas of neuro-education and the cognitive sciences that the human brain is the main area of technological advance. Smart-drugs, cognitive enhancements … this is an area that should have finally come to fruition by 2065, and will change the way we think about learning (and indeed change the way we think!)
  • The other big technological shift for 2065, is of course environmental. All of what I have just outlined assumed that our environment remains intact to allow for life to go on as we know it. You could come up with a more dystopian scenario where it is not safe to leave living areas and where we need technologies to support more rudimentary forms of teaching and learning. In this case, not having schools might be the least of our problems!