For the UNESCO Chair on Global Education at the Institute for Strategy of Education Development of the Russian Academy of Education
I’ve come to a realization. Effective education is simply, and exactly, this:
To encourage and inspire people to communicate well; and through this process, enable them to develop their inner selves and their potential as it relates to both their success and that of their communities.
What we learn is not inconsequential, but to presume we can teach someone, anyone, to be good at anything in particular, is, I believe, misguided. People take themselves on those journeys and end up in places that are entirely of their own discovery, making, and determination. We can guide, suggest. Put coals on fire, and stoke it; but the direction the flames take, should there even be any, has nothing at all to do with us. We can stand by, watch, and, perhaps, become inspired ourselves by witnessing the potential people have within themselves. Our role, as teachers, is quite straightforward: to stoke the inspiration that will take people on journeys of their own determination.
This realization rests at the core of this, my little exploration into the future of education. It’s a simple idea, not reliant on technologies or trends or modes of pedagogical thought that are, on many occasions, flavours of the day. Indeed, it’s an idea that I believe has never changed. While the tools, science, social systems, modes of thought, and resources that surround us today most certainly have evolved, we are ultimately the same vulnerable, sentient beings that have existed for millennia. We share the same capacities, strengths, limitations, needs, desires, hopes, and dreams as our distant ancestors who learned to control fire itself (something, incidentally, we’ve yet to perfect). We learn what is relevant and necessary for survival determined by the environments within which we live. Beyond that, we learn best those things that catch our interest and inspire us to delve more deeply. We learn best in an effort to define who we are, to ourselves, to others, in ways we hope to be perceived, and in ways we yearn to be able to interact within our communities.
The future of education, I believe, is no different than the past of education. While trends in education will continue to come and go, trends are derivatives of a whole; they tend to be particular aspects, qualities, approaches, activities, and philosophies elevated to lofty cultish heights. The truth is, when separated and formalized into “new approaches to learning,” they lose both essence and effectiveness. Without delving too much into current trends and directions in educational thought, theory, and application, safe it to say that much emphasis is currently placed on the notion that our level of technological prowess enables approaches to learning that are somehow superior to “traditional approaches.” Here, and pointedly, I disagree. First, the notion of a traditional approach to education is a vague one that tends to fall apart with closer inspection. And second, while our current state of technological prowess enables us so much further than humans have ever been enabled in the past, those technologies are not capable in themselves to improve how and why we learn.
So, what, in my mind, is the future of education. This is where I return to my opening words. The future of effective education lies in what effective education has always been: “To encourage and inspire people to communicate well; and through this process, enable them to develop their inner selves and their potential as it relates to both their success and that of their communities.”
How do we proceed? We forge communities of learning, something that has always been core to effective learning. We create reasons for people to be together that hinge on shared challenges. While our social and environmental surroundings define basic levels of understanding that we share and require to participate and survive within them, we then and together discover how each of us carries some particular solution to the larger questions we face as a whole. There is a place for learning skills we apply in unison. And there is a place for our individual strengths to benefit those communal needs. While society requires us to work in teams, in synchrony, according to requirements that apply equally to each of us, it also gains from individual understandings and approaches that can and do improve the ability of the community to improve how it behaves as a whole.
We all must learn to read, write, sing, count, and strategize. Beyond that, we all should be enabled by and engaged in the breadth and depth of the tools and capabilities now available to us: incredible technologies, fantastic mobility, and seemingly instantaneous access to information, anywhere, and anytime. Human society has changed dramatically in the preceding three decades. We live in a world that I believe is experiencing a schism of a magnitude never before seen. On one side we have the political orders, isolated communities corralled by power structures and defined by invisible and arbitrary boundaries determined (more than we’d like to admit) through oppression within and beyond those boundaries. On the other side we have an entire world of people all sharing the same needs, hopes, desires, and goals: to live, love, succeed, survive, and to feel included in community.
As a direct consequence of our incredible technologies, fantastic mobility, and seemingly instantaneous access to information, traditional borders are rendered meaningless. Power structures of the past should remain there. I have spent my professional career in education, and in particular international education. And through my three decades in this field, I have concluded this: technology has brought together people from around the world in different locations for different purposes and to accomplish goals that are relevant to all of us. Each of us today belongs to social circles where colleagues, mentors, friends, teachers, mothers, fathers, relatives, brothers and sisters were, only a half century ago, bifurcated as allies or enemies. For the most part, we were led to believe that “they” were not “us.” The fact is, what we have discovered in recent decades, is, indeed, exactly the opposite. The past 30 years has provided all of us an emancipation of thought and being that changes everything… except for how we learn. That remains the same, and rests at the core of our future together.
Our incredible technologies, fantastic mobility, and seemingly instantaneous access to information will only improve, and dramatically so. As a global society we will continue to use those tools and technologies to bring us closer together in greater diversity to face challenges of survival and social improvement that will benefit all of us. We will continue to require education in fundamental skills and awareness. At the same time, the opportunities available to each of us as a consequence of our own unique talents and dispositions will increase exponentially as well, and as a direct result of the exponential increase in the kinds of communities we are now capable of creating.
Tokyo, June 7, 2019