Why is it that when we talk about the future we assume we are talking about the same thing?
Looking ahead in time can be such fun, though. Start with your world as it is and then imagine how it could be. Yes! That must be the future. But—what is your world? Is it something you see objectively; items neatly categorized, facts all checked and with foundational ideas have been agreed upon? Is it instead something seen only by you, interpreted through your own biases, experiences and cultural background? Is it the network of relationships, personal and professional, that you have built or is it a construct that you have assembled from numerous sources including experience and research?
Look back on previous attempts to divine the future. Read some science fiction written in earlier times. Look at some of the fanciful pictures drawn by artists who, long ago, turned their pens and brushes to the task of looking far ahead. Read some of the more scholarly works along the same lines.
No matter the source, here’s what you find: While some of the predictions were more-or-less correct (radio and flight are fairly common now, as was predicted) most of the things that define our future were not predicted at all. Not even all that close. After all, 100 years ago who could have predicted the massive wars, the rise of petroleum as fuel and the explosion of communications technology, birth control, the communist-capitalist struggle, the increased focus on women’s rights, human rights and on the person as individual. These unforeseen but world-changing things, among many others which Nassim Nicholas Taleb has termed “Black Swans,” in the end gave us a world that few, if any, even had the slightest hint of.
And yet here we are, well into the 21st century and with hardly a clue at all it seems. I read a lot and, as such, find myself inundated with pieces from those claiming to be experts. They confidently talk about our modern times and then go on to make equally confident predictions about the future. As a group they leave me with just one thought: yes, they do have a superpower, an ability that just plain transcends description…or even belief.
The superpower? The ability to see the future? So, silly, they’re generally wrong but, despite that they always bounce back with an explanation of why they were simply misinterpreted and then go on to make yet another equally stupid prediction that people still seem to buy into.
No, that’s not the superpower. So what is it? Self-promotion, of course!
That said it makes no sense at all to just sit back and wait for the world to unfold; to allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro as if a cork on the waves, bounced about by whatever educational approach, theory or tool seems trendy at the moment. That sort of strategic inaction not only wastes valuable resources on things that are un-proven but also puts the future of our students, and, by extension, society, in the hands of whoever is best able to market educational products at a profit.
What, then should one do? Given that futures are so unpredictable it makes little sense in planning too far ahead. Perhaps the best approach is one that acknowledges two important things:
First, there are some features of education that we can safely assume will remain in relatively steady state. Enrollments tend to remain fairly steady and, at any rate, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. Legislation, funding sources and core values tend not to be changed much over time.
Second it is important to acknowledges some limitations up front and abide by them. In some areas, particularly electronic technology, it is only possible to foresee changes three to five years in advance with any degree of accuracy. Perhaps more importantly, there is always the possibility that the aforementioned black swan can create unanticipated but profound changes and leaders need to be always on the lookout for them. When encountered, most long term plans need to be extensively revised if not abandoned completely.
With these two items agreed upon it is possible to make some predictions and statements about the future of learning and particularly of learning content.
Next: What’s the good of it?