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Guest Blog: Navigating the Future of Learning

• Katherine Prince

ExcelinEd is excited to share KnowledgeWorks’ recent forecast, Navigating the Future of Learning, and the following guest blog from their VP of Strategic Foresight, Katherine Prince. The report outlines the new societal paradigm schools and students face and presents a clear framework for policymakers, educators and other stakeholders to navigate. This work is important. Not only is the world surrounding our students changing rapidly, but the brain research illuminating how children learn is growing. Both of these require us to think about education and learning in very different ways. The flexibility and support schools will need to innovate and meet these challenges is at the heart of ExcelinEd’s Next Generation Learning Policy.

~ Karla Phillips, ExcelinEd’s Next Generation Learning Policy Director

Preparing All Learners for the Future

It is becoming commonplace to hear people talk about how rapidly the world is changing. That can start to seem tiresome or overwhelming, but change really is unfurling at a breakneck pace: people, smart machines, and the code that powers them are interacting in new and deeper ways that are requiring us to redefine our relationships with one another, with our institutions, and even with ourselves. In addition, shifts in the social landscape – including revisions to our economy, our neighbors and neighborhoods, our politics, and the stories we tell about them – are changing the landscape in which education operates and the future for which education systems are preparing students.

Among the changes impacting learning over the next decade and beyond:

  • Algorithms and artificial intelligence are becoming embedded in our lives, automating many services, experiences, and interactions.
  • Individuals, nonprofits, and volunteer organizations are flexing their civic muscles, using smart tools and other approaches to help fill a growing governance gap.
  • Rapid advances in technology and neuroscience are combining to transform our cognitive abilities in intended and unintended ways.
  • The narratives and metrics of success and achievement that shape people’s aspirations, choices, and behaviors are undermining individual and social health and are contributing to growing toxicity in systems and institutions.
  • Migration patterns, small-scale production and efforts to grow place-based and cultural assets are remaking geographies as communities struggle to respond to economic transition and climate volatility.

These changes and their potential impacts on learning are explored in greater depth in KnoweldgeWorks’ fifth comprehensive forecast on the future of learning, Navigating the Future of Learning, and a related guide for policymakers.

Ensuring Every Student Succeeds

As policymakers and other education stakeholders work to build capacity, empower student learning, ensure quality, and cultivate systems change, considering opportunities and taking action with the future in mind will help expand innovative approaches to learning and ensure that all students are ready for a complex and uncertain future.

To help identify positive ways of navigating the future of learning, KnowledgeWorks convened a wide range of stakeholders to grapple with future possibilities. From that exploration, we identified five opportunities to respond to the changing landscape while creating more equitable, varied, and human-centered learning.

These opportunities present a framework that policymakers, educators, and other influencers can use to develop their own strategic approaches to advancing student-centered education systems. I highlight two of them that invite careful policy consideration: systemic interdependence and smart technologies for all.

Systemic Interdependence

Many stumbling blocks – including diminishing funding, political stasis, and complacency from portions of the public – can get in the way of making education systems student-centered. To help combat narrowing forms of support from traditional sources, education stakeholders can draw upon and strengthen the broader webs of interdependency in which the country’s public school systems operate. Recognizing any given education institution as part of a learning ecosystem can help stakeholders leverage existing partnerships with diverse institutions and organizations from across their communities and states. It can also help them build new partnerships toward the common goal of ensuring that every student succeeds.

Adopting such an ecosystem approach can help education stakeholders seek common ground across boundaries and discover pathways toward mutual support. Bridging the public-private divide can be one way of seeking solutions to issues of mutual concern, such as college access, teen stress and anxiety, and growing income divides. In addition, facilitating interdisciplinary work for students can help them prepare for the demands of a changing workplace that increasingly requires interdisciplinary thinking and problem solving.

Working with other vital community systems can also help those stewarding education systems support students while augmenting their own institutional resilience. Sectors adjacent to education such as housing, food, health, law enforcement, and transportation can be partners in addressing and preventing structural and systemic inequities. For example, pursuing partnerships between foodbanks and education systems could help ensure that all students are ready to learn. Furthermore, engaging in peer-to-peer support and professional development across sectors could help experts across education and other systems identify new approaches and engage in new kinds of problem solving to bolster the social landscape.

Smart Technologies for All

Advances in smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and neuro-enhancement tools promise to enable new approaches and efficiencies that expand access to education resources, provide greater personalization of learning, and result in stronger supports for students. Yet smart technologies are only as good as the code that powers them and as the practices that guide their use. If smart technologies encode biases or draw upon biased data, they could deepen structural inequities and undermine education systems’ core values and stated aims. Policymakers and other education stakeholders have an obligation to steward smart technologies carefully in order to reap their benefits without introducing unintended negative consequences.

Spotlighting digital rights can be one way of raising public awareness about smart technologies and their implications. Helping students and community members understand the ethical stakes of smart technologies will position them to make wise decisions for themselves and to express their expectations for those technologies’ use in education systems. Hosting ongoing community and information training sessions can be one way of promoting digital literacy. Another is to support learners in being wise consumers and co-creators of these technologies. In addition, co-authoring a Bill of Data Rights governing the use of smart technologies in education could help education systems articulate what rights educators, policymakers, community members, and students expect to be protected.

Furthermore, open governance models can assist education stakeholders in implementing and protecting their values in their use of AI, neuro-enhancement tools, and data-driven processes. Along with that, open conversations about possible cognitive divides can help education stakeholders explore the consequences of smart technologies on students’ development and achievement gaps.

Creating Positive Futures

Policymakers, educators, and other system influencers today have much to consider in navigating the future of learning. They can lead the public response to the changes reshaping education by honing shared visions for the future and pursuing aligned strategies. While the prospect of impending change can be difficult to swallow, this moment represents an opportunity to dream anew about what we want from education systems and for all students and to bring people together to pursue desired futures.

For more on the opportunities described in this post, see KnowledgeWorks’ Navigating the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide. To read about designing education systems where every student succeeds, see that organization’s State Policy Framework for Personalized Learning.

About the author

Katherine Prince

Katherine Prince leads KnowledgeWorks’ exploration of the future of learning. As Vice President, Strategic Foresight, she speaks and writes about the trends shaping education over the next decade and helps education stakeholders strategize about how to become active agents of change in shaping the future. She tweets as @katprince using the hashtags #NavigateFutureEd and #FutureEd and can be found on LinkedIn: