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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

How Do We Actually Imagine the Future of School?

I've often found myself thinking and writing about the future of school. Over the years I've tried to draw upon insights from industry experts and futurists both within and outside of the educational domain.

As educators, we talk a lot about this future. In fact, if you've ever tried to search for Personalising Education in Post-Industrial Society, it produces 71.5 million results on Google. And that's nothing compared to the 4.1 billion suggestions, if you expand your search to the future of school.

Unless you've got a lot of time on your hands, ChatGPT gives a handy 10-point summary of where things appear to be going:

  1. Personalised learning

  2. Online and blended learning

  3. Collaboration and project-based learning

  4. Skills for the future

  5. Personal development

  6. Flexible learning spaces

  7. Data-driven education

  8. Lifelong learning and micro-credentials

  9. Global connectivity

  10. Sustainability and environmental education.

So far, so good. But, if I am really honest, this 10-point manifesto sounds remarkably like the same set of over-used educational cliches that most of us have deployed on our school websites at one time or another over the past ten years. And, even if some or all of these pedagogical coordinates end up playing a defining role on the other side of the educational horizon, if history has taught us anything, it is that history is far from being a straight line extrapolation of what we already know.

So how do we loosen our grip upon these patterns of thinking rooted in the past and begin to imagine what is within the realms of possible? How do we use our human capacity for imagining and telling stories to imagine what school could be, as opposed to what it is likely to be?

In her book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything―Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, Jane McGonigal offers us the chance to unstick our minds and learn some of the habits that have served professional futurists so well.

A photograph of a girl with her eyes closed

It begins, she says, by "learning to time travel" and, in a recent TED Interview, she describes it like this.

First imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning and envision it as vividly as you can. Even though it is only a day away, it is still mental time travel… Ask yourself questions to make it really vivid, specific, and detailed… Now, the trick is to do this for 10 years in the future. Now imagine, it's ten years from now and you are waking up.

Imagining something ten years from now, McGonigal goes on to explain, is hard, because your brain will often go blank and your first thought will be, How can I know? This is because it doesn't have the data it needs to simulate this scenario.

So what do we do? We choose.

We have to choose the details, moving beyond the realm of what is factual or probable. We have freedom to imagine and will often do so based on where our biggest meaning or purpose lies. And then, as we get better at painting these imaginary pictures in our mind, we start to build out the vividness of our picture based on "signals of change", the clues that are already all around us that help us to imagine different future scenarios.

There is so much more to say here and McGonigal's insights are worth reading for yourself, not least for the way in which her work as a futurist, specialising in game theory, led her to simulate back in 2008 with more than ten thousand people worldwide their responses to a global respiratory pandemic. Her work was instrumental in helping governments understand the likely reaction to voluntary quarantining and social distancing.

A few days ago, the World Health Organization declared that Covid-19 was no longer a global health emergency. As educators, many of us have spent the past few years thinking about school in a post-covid world.

So perhaps we should close our eyes really tight, imagine ourselves going to school tomorrow. And then, try to imagine what it is going to be like walking through those school gates ten years from now.



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