What does the future of learning look like?

August 2017


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Author of The Future of Learning, MARK TREADWELL, says we need to embrace learning systems that have proven over thousands of years to be far more equitable and successful than rote learning has proven to be over the past 200 years.

Future learningQ: Education Review: If the purpose of education is to ready young people for the life ahead of them, what should the future of learning look like?

A: Schools were designed in the 19th and 20th centuries, where the focus was on selecting the top 10–20 per cent of ‘clever’ students to go to tertiary institutions to learn how to manage and tell the remaining 80 per cent what to do. The 80 per cent mostly worked in poorly paid, tedious jobs in factories, administration, service or manual work environments.

In the 21st century that landscape has changed dramatically with software-driven, automated, robotised, prefabricated solutions created using 3D printing processes, ordered online, while our personal lives are often lived out in a hyper-connected environment, resulting in further complexity.

We are quickly heading to a point where our personal lives and 80 per cent of jobs require creativity, competence, initiative, high levels of conceptual understanding, complex decision-making skills and most importantly knowing how to learn… anything.

The Global Curriculum Project has been working with schools across a range of countries over 15 years to answer a ‘big’ question:

“Why is it that everyone can learn to drive a car equitably in under 40 hours, while learning to read and write takes 3,000–5,000 hours and the outcome is highly inequitable and, from a cognitive perspective, it should be the other way around?”

This question required a scientific model for how the human brain learns. This emerging neuroscientific model identified unique but integrated learning systems. Four of those systems are equitable for everyone and one is not, as per the table below. 

The ‘answer’ to our question is that we have been using four of our learning systems for tens of thousands to millions of years, but learning by rote is something most humans have only been doing lots of, for the past 200 to 400 years, courtesy of reading and writing.

This intense process of rote learning how to read and write requires us to remember the shapes and sounds of 26 letters that make up randomly spelled ‘words’ that we then sequence into a specific order. From the 15th century onwards the increasing demand for everyone to learn to read and write required our most inefficient and inequitable learning system to dominate the learning landscape in schools.

For our first four learning systems, the genetic improvements in efficiency accrued over thousands and tens of thousands of generations, resulting in them being relatively equitable. The equity of learning to drive a car demonstrates how successful and equitable our conceptual learning system is. This is not true though for our rote learning system, which previous generations have demonstrated is not for everybody. 

If we give learners the option of learning via watching video and then creating videos of their understanding, the disparity in learning almost disappears. We are turning to YouTube to learn how to do … well, almost anything – especially if we are not fluent readers and writers, which, according to 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, accounts for 70 per cent of learners. Why YouTube? We have been processing and interpreting visual imagery and sound for millions of years so it is equitable for almost everyone. 

As educators, this is just one of our many challenges.

Transforming schooling

  • The shift to greater learner agency requires learners to develop the necessary competencies and have an effective language of learning so we can have effective learning conversations.
  • Learners also need to know what the learning process looks like and how to apply that independently.
  • We need to shift to a conceptual curriculum and have learners learn in the same way they learn to drive!
  • As educators, we need to become researchers of our own practice.
  • We need to ensure that assessment drives learning deeper rather than being the end-point of the learning.

The transformation of schooling is not a simple task, but rather it requires a well-planned implementation programme that will take between three to five years.

So, the final question: Are we bold enough to make these changes or do we sit back and watch our profession increasingly become irrelevant? As a profession, we only have one choice.

Future table

References available on request. Please contact editor@educationreview.co.nz.

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