There is increasing awareness that schools around the world are failing to prepare students for the fast-changing and unpredictable future. Our current education systems are built on an industrial model that focuses on skills that will soon be supplanted by artificial intelligence. The unfitness of our education systems has never been more evident than during the current crisis. We have learned, over the last 9 months, that fixating on content knowledge and passive learning has not prepared students for the challenges of the pandemic. That some students are unable to demonstrate the resilience, resourcefulness, adaptability and self-regulation needed in order to cope well, is a failure of the education system and not of them as individuals.
In recent years, bold educators and leaders have been radically transforming the way students learn. In pockets around the world, a one-size fits all curriculum has been replaced with personalised learning, emphasising 21st century skills, dispositions and mindsets. As these progressive pedagogies are embedded, students become more engaged and empowered to shape their own futures, thrive in the face of adversity and help solve the world’s problems. But these changes have not been happening fast enough and are now in danger of being rolled back as new, often misguided, priorities take hold brought on by the pandemic. Consequently, many progressive schools currently find themselves in retrograde, giving ground in the battle for future-ready learning, in order to meet the challenges of the COVID era.
Pressures Facing Schools
The disruptions of the pandemic have brought new levels of parent anxiety about a range of factors, including loss of instructional time, increased competition for university places and the bleak economic outlook for future graduates. As a result, many parents are pressurising schools to focus on core skills and prioritise grades and academics over holistic education. There is also a growing demand for didactic teaching, whether online or face-to-face, which parents believe will help students “catch up” more quickly. This leaves less time for inquiry, creativity and personalisation, despite the fact that these approaches lend themselves well to distance learning, increase engagement and support wellbeing. As I outlined in How Do Schools Bring Parents on Board With Future-ready Learning? parental fears can prove a major hindrance to progressive learning even during normal times. As parents increase their demands for traditional learning to counter the impact of the pandemic, future-ready learning is being placed in jeopardy.
The economic challenges facing schools are also impacting progress towards future-ready learning. Many fee-paying institutions are struggling as parents request refunds for lost instructional weeks and enrolment is falling for many as families move to cheaper schools, leave the private sector altogether or return to their home countries. It is hard for progressive school leaders to stand by their future-ready principles when they risk losing students to more traditional competitors as a bums-on-seats mentality becomes necessary.
Staff reductions are also more likely to hit those working outside of the core academic subjects, with newly developed roles such as innovation leaders, instructional coaches, tech integration, makerspace and STEAM specialists all vulnerable to cutbacks. This is likely to go hand-in-hand with a decrease in funds available for risk-taking projects and innovation-related professional development. Future-ready pedagogies require highly skilled educators to implement successfully but this is in danger of becoming low priority as schools fight to survive.
The complexities of planning and facilitating inquiry, personalised and project-based learning requires creative teaching staff working in a highly collaborative environment to be most effective. However, the demands of working in schools during a global pandemic, whether it be face-to-face, online or in a blended model is exhausting our educators and draining their capacity to be creative. The limitations of social distancing in the classroom, or collaborating and teaching via Zoom all bring additional demands, leaving teachers with little energy for moving learning forwards.
Education at a Juncture
Real change often happens at times of deep crisis. In the midst of World War 2, the British government developed a bold vision for post-war education in its green paper “Education After the War” (1941), where the old framework and long-held conceptions were abandoned in order to shape something more relevant to the times. We now find ourselves at a similar juncture, where we have an exciting opportunity to rethink and redefine what education is. This should be the time to break free from the past and transform education to prepare young people for the challenges that await them and propel them and society towards a better future.
Although there is an appetite for change, fear and anxiety, brought about by the uncertainty and complexity of any crisis, drives people to respond with instinctive fight-or-flight reasoning. Anxious minds are not open to new ideas but instead hold tight to existing beliefs. Rather than being on the threshold of an educational revolution, we are instead at risk of regressing and moving further away from the future-ready education that our students so desperately need.
Failing Students Now and in the Future
Our educational systems around the world were failing before COVID-19 and will continue to fail when the pandemic is over unless we change the way that students learn. In schools where progress towards future-ready learning has been a hard-fought battle, against skeptical boards of governors, conservative parents and reluctant staff, it is devastating to witness a sudden return to a static, linear curriculum and teacher-led pedagogy. School closures have demonstrated that powerful learning can only happen when students are engaged, energetic and well. Although traditional academic skills are important, future-ready learning builds resilience, adaptability, self-regulation and supports student wellbeing. These approaches not only prepare young people to navigate the complex, unpredictable future but also the complex, unpredictable present. If we allow a rollback of future-ready learning to meet what are falsely perceived as the needs of the current crisis then we are failing our students once again and leaving them vulnerable not just tomorrow but today.