Are we building the last generation of schools?

If you are over 30, think about what life was like when you were a child. Think about what things you did and what your parents did. Think about what you did at home on a typical day. Think about your life at school. Think about society’s expectations of you. Think about what you said when people asked what you wanted to be when you grow up.

Now compare that to what you experience today. Think about what kids experience today. Some things haven’t changed but so very much has. Think about the jobs that no longer exist in your local area and those that grew out of recent changes. Think about projects in which students can now engage. Think about what schools do now compared to what the expectation was 30 years ago. Most schools always considered themselves to educate the ‘whole child’, but now many schools are required to do so by legislation.

Many of my recent conversations eventually end up in the area of “future schools”. Usually we discuss what services they might provide and, inevitably, what they will physically look like.

Do we even know what a school will do, look like or be in 2047?

With advances in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, fragmenting of institutional trust the locus of learning is trending towards the individual student rather than a physical place or even a digital place. This rests on many factors, including economic circumstances. The digital divide has a dramatic impact on real life opportunity.

It’s been said for a long time… but those educational institutions that insist on an exclusive focus on content delivery and academic performance will be the first to be totally ignored when key stakeholders (students and parents in particular) decide that technology or non-formal experiences get the same outcomes but for less money, pressure or hassle. Note the word “ignored” here. There will be no large-scale revolution with pitchforks and placards. There won’t even be a social media campaign. There will be a silent but deafening absence of students. It will seem sudden but only to those who themselves have ignored the signs.

Students can already learn about myriad “subjects” in places like Khan Academy (and many will have a better learning experience than in school). Not restricted by time and place, there are still massive limitations on these “edtech” (education technology) tools and communities as having the same depth of experience as school. Many edtech tools simply try to bolt on software or hardware to the human experience, though this is changing as the users, research and policy makers begin to assert more power to choose.

Perhaps that’s part of the answer: Rather than focussing on improving what we have, we need to generate a completely new experience of school. This will be extremely difficult in some settings, and impossible in others. But we do have an opportunity to embrace the future and create dynamic, complex networks of people, places, resources and experiences that mean every learner can experience school as a place they feel they belong, where they can be stretched, where they can explore and be held accountable for their progress as a self-aware, self-determined but socially connected and socially responsible people, ready to play a role in their future and that of others.

This self-disruption has to happen from within so that we respect and retain the very best parts of what place-based learning can be: A unique harmony of people, practices, resources and experiences that generate a sustainable source of learning from which we can all draw inspiration.

As we consider building new learning environments, new campuses, new places of learning in a social-cultural context, we must accept change as a constant. We must build in flexibility, adaptability and a trust in building a learning community rather than just a flash new arrangement of bricks and mortar.

If we do not dramatically rethink what schools can be and will be, we must accept that we are building the last generation of schools.

Originally published on Medium