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Building the future of education: what comes next?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Many thanks to all of you who have sent feedback and expressed support for CFM’s recent report “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem.” Please accept my apologies if I am not able to respond in depth to all of your communications right now, but be assured I am logging your emails and compiling lists in people (and museums) interested in being engaged in some way in building the “vibrant learning grid” of the future.
Here at the Alliance, I’m helping us figure out how we can help make this vision of a “preferred future” real. I am sure you face similar dilemmas in your work: Out of the many good things you could do, which would have a lasting effect on the world? Where can you best spend your time, funds and influence to actually change the world? I feel this acutely, when it comes to museums and education, because it is clearly possible to pour huge resources into improving American K-12 education, and not significantly move the bar. If you need evidence of that, total up the dollars being spent on education reform–charter schools, common core, new standardized tests etc.—$44 billion in federal stimulus funds alone, and by one estimate at least $4 billion in private philanthropy. Contrast this amount with the country’s dissatisfaction with the performance of our children as measured by standardized testing, college preparedness and employment (if you even grant the premise that these are valid measures of success).
Studying the forecasting work done by KnowledgeWorks, the Institute for the Future, and mainstream educational reformers has convinced me that the changes we need to make in K-12 education are transformative, not incremental. Even if we find the magic fix that makes the current system work perfectly—raises testing scores, increases graduation rates, enables more kids to matriculate into college—we would not be equipping learners to succeed in the future world. This is the message of organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: Everything from how our children learn to what they need to learn impels us to reconsider education from the ground up. Our current educational system doesn’t just need a tune up, it needs a new engine. (Or a new form of transportation—perhaps the educational equivalent of jet packs or teleportation.)
When I share these thoughts with folks, as we discuss the “future of education” report, the most frequent question I get is “if the future needs to be so very different from present, how do we get there?” Even if we want to create a “vibrant learning grid” what is the first step along the path to that future? That’s exactly what I am trying to map out, for the Alliance and for museums, and as I do so here are some of issues I wrestle with:
Timeframe. How long will it take to create the next educational era? Future studies teaches us that elements of whatever will become the new mainstream exist now, even if we don’t know which innovations and experiments will become the next dominant paradigm. But how long before that new paradigm becomes the norm, the mainstream? I’m sure five years is too short a time period to affect this transition. And despite the fact that KnowledgeWorks frames its forecasts 10 years out, I personally think ten years is too short a time frame, too. (Your call as to whether that makes me a pessimist or a realist.) My instinct is that we will experience a 25 to 50 year incubation period for the new learning landscape, a forecast which, if correct, poses its own challenges. How do you inspire people to work for transformation that won’t flower in their lifetime, or at least not in time to benefit their children? How do you help organizations plot the first few steps in such a long journey, with confidence that those steps will take them down the right path?
Method of migration. When it comes to educational transformation, I see two potential paths which (per my training as a biologist) I think of gradualism v. saltatory evolution. The gradualist path would build through selection and amplification of successful mutations in the current system. Charter schools might slowly increase proportional to traditional public schools. Longer school days and school years might become the norm. As these changes ripple through the system, they reach all students sooner than others, but everyone is progressing towards the new evolutionary state. But (in line with what I note above) gradualism is in fact likely to result in incremental (and therefore insufficient) change. I think it far more likely that the kind of transformative change we need in education (resulting in a system in which groups of learners are united by skill level or learning style, characterized by passion- and inquiry-based learning, drawing on learning resources throughout the community, encouraging kids to engage in real and meaningful work) will occur via the rapid evolution, in small populations, of new, more useful and desirable learning systems. (Being a fan of Stephen J. Gould, I might as well call this the punctuated equilibrium model of educational reform.) As well-off, well-educated, or simply savvy and tenacious parents migrate their offspring to these new, better options, the failure of the old system accelerates as it struggles to serve the students that were, on average, disadvantaged to begin with. The old system fades away, and the best of the new systems expand to fill the gaps. (Think of the last of the dinosaurs lumbering about, while proto-mammals speciate at their feet.)
Combine these forecasts of a long time frame with saltatory change and you have a grim scenario in which many children fall through the gaps, growing up in a system that does not serve their needs, disadvantaged for life both socially and economically and not only suffer these results personally, but drag down the economy as a whole as well. As attractive educational alternatives like the Incubator School (see video, below) remove the barriers that hold back talented, driven kids (and fosters teenage entrepreneurs) the gap between the educationally and economically advantaged and disadvantaged will become even wider.

Do we face a near-term future in which some teens found their own companies, or make Bitcoin fortunes (or both), while others fail to graduate high school, or nominally graduate high school or even college with minimal literacy and no employable skills?

I think the best path we as a country can take to navigate between the extremes (rapid change, many students left behind; gradual change with the majority of students insufficiently-served for the foreseeable future) is to shorten the time frame of change by providing as many high quality educational alternatives as possible and creating policies that encourage people to make full use of these alternatives, while doing what we can to improve the experience of the children who, for now, remain in the traditional schools. So, for example, museums can:

  • Provide more and better support to homeschooled and unschooled learners;
  • Develop robust, high-quality after school and summer programs;
  • Create their own schools structured around experiential, immersive, project-based learning;
  • Designate staff “learning agents” to help K-12 learners, and their parents, create personalized learning plans around museum resources.
  • Identify and partner with innovative schools founded on the same principles of self-directed, passion-based learning that informs our design. (For example, the new Math Academy opening in San Francisco this Fall.)

As I translate these thoughts into actions the Alliance can take, both on the part of our staff and together with our members, here are some steps I envision. We can:
  • Document what museums do now, both to identify educational innovations on which to build, and to establish a baseline measure of museums’ current educational impact. (This might include, for example, case studies as well as quantitative research to determine how many hours of teacher training museums provide, how many home-schooled learners use us as primary resources, how many students are educated in museum-based schools.)
  • Create inspiring, ambitious but achievable goals for the educational reach of museums, as individual organizations and as a field.
  • Advocate for policy and funding that enable museums to participate as fully as possible in the educational mainstream, and support innovation and experimentation
  • Encourage funders to support the building the infrastructure (of all sorts: digital, transportation-related, physical facilities) that museums will need if we are to play a significant role in education

Of course, when I say I am thinking how to use our resources, I mean your resources—the Alliance’s charge is to make wise use of the support given to us by our members and by the field. I hope, by sharing my thoughts early in the process, to start a conversation with you about what the Alliance can do to advance the role of museums in US education. So weigh in—below in comments, where your colleagues can build on your thoughts, or via email.
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