Social myopia is not new, but I do believe that it is a threat to the future of our schools.
And whilst this has nothing to do with simply spending too much time on our phones, most of us could agree, I think, that the daily distraction of the global pandemic has indeed drawn our eyes downwards. Our focus has shifted, slowly but inevitably, towards an endless stream of notifications, day-to-day crisis response, and a plethora of immediate needs and wants.
At the beginning of this extraordinary chapter in our lives, the voices of those who called for us to seize this moment and become vanguards of educational change were loud and strong. They filled us with hope, almost to the point of believing that this truly was the long-awaited “tipping point” into a new educational age.
The voices that are loudest today, by contrast, are the ones that complain of tired eyes.
Yes, we’ve all been on Zoom too much. We’ve mastered the wizardry of breakout groups and we are long over Sunday afternoon quizzes with long lost family and friends. But this is a tiredness that runs much deeper.
We are disconnected, disorientated and, despite our best efforts, it is getting harder and harder to look beyond the next governmental announcement or period of confinement.
In short, we’ve spent so much time looking down, focusing on the here and now, that it’s become increasingly difficult to look up and re-focus on the big issues appearing on the distant educational horizon. In fact, far from having (ironically) 2020 vision, it’s all become a bit of a blur.
So perhaps it’s time to look at the future with a new lens?
Inspired by a ground-breaking piece of scenario planning work in 2001, Back to the future of education: Four OECD Scenarios for Schooling (September 2020), invites us to look up and look forward and gives us the tools to do it. It projects the different ways in which schools may evolve in society between now and 2040, noting that the year 2020 is itself testimony to just how difficult a task this is.
Much of our thinking of the future is linear, and based on extending currently existing trends. But trends slow, accelerate, bend and break. Unforeseen events can disrupt even long-standing trends. Opinions differ on historical developments and, even when there is agreement, the future is rarely just a smooth continuation of past patterns. Moreover, we do not know in advance which trends will continue and which will change course, or in what context. Sometimes, we can just be plain wrong.
The Report deserves to be read in full and discussed in teams and their Boards alike. It isn’t always comfortable reading, but it does force us to look up for a moment at some of the issues that may be out there on the horizon.
It questions whether school modernisation is falsely masquerading as the disruption that will be required; it questions whether schools of the future will be capable of disrupting the inequalities that they create in the first place; it questions whether education systems are too often stuck in a paradigm of risk mitigation, which restricts lasting innovation and change.
More than anything else, however, I believe that it calls into question - without ever actually stating it - whether any of us can afford to keep on looking down.