Can Schools Educate Kids for an Uncertain 21st Century?

As much as they claim to be oriented to the future, education reformers mostly assume that the way our world functions will stay the same.

A common theme in the education reform movement is that schools must meet the needs of the "21st century learner." But the rapid pace of global economic collapse and social upheaval means that educators are preparing students for a 21st century that reformers and policy makers aren't completely sure of. As much as they claim to be oriented to the future, reformers usually assume that the way our world functions will, for the most part, remain the same.

In June the UK's RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) launched a new project (PDF) to help educators and leaders focus on the future. In the video above, the participants challenge some of the common beliefs about what teachers and students need to do to thrive in a time of monumental change.

According to the project, a limited, present-centered vision of the future "may explain why, despite a century of highly disruptive educational change, it is still possible today to predict educational and employment outcomes based on social class, income and parental occupation." Even when reformers say we need to prep for a tech-heavy future, they fail to consider how those kinds of reforms "are usually modeled around adaptation of schooling to high technology contemporary working practices premised upon continued economic growth rather than, for example, aimed at equipping children for low carbon or post-breakdown futures or for transcendental post-human environments."

That sounds a little apocalyptic, so what should educators be doing instead? On a macro level, the project says they need to question assumptions. And, instead of having reforms instituted at the top and left to trickle down to the school level—where they're often out of touch and outdated by the time they're implemented—the conference panelists advocate empowering individual teachers to experiment and innovate based on what's happening at their schools. They also echo the growing call for schools to teach students how to think creatively and critically since they need to learn how to thrive in a world with few clear-cut answers.

Of course, whether the education community as a whole embraces these ideas remains to be seen. But thinking through them certainly seems like a smart thing to do.

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