What is the Future of Education?

September 7th 2011

Creating relevant, engaging and differentiated learning experiences in an uncertain future.   Dominic Thurbon, Chief Creative Officer, ChangeLabs

It is an oft-cited cliché that ‘the world is changing faster than ever’. I would argue that it is a cliché because it is true! Education, in particular, is undergoing a rapid revolution, and I say this from first hand experience. Over the years, at ChangeLabs we’ve worked with over 350,000 students and over 100,000 amazing educators and administrators in primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational education around the world. This revolution is not the ‘education revolution’ of Rudd/Gillard administrations, but a revolution driven by a confluence of interrelated trends: legislative shifts in everything from funding to curriculum, generational change, a changing world of work for which we are preparing students, rapidly emerging technologies and a dire teacher shortage, just to name a few.

And yet, despite these forces of change, education remains the single most important undertaking of the nation.

So how do we as educators not just remain relevant through these changes, but ensure we create mind-blowing experiences that go beyond imparting information, and drive genuine behavioural outcomes that set lives off on the right path? Doing this requires everyone in education, regardless of role or sector, to have a few things front of mind.

Firstly, we need to think ‘engagement first’, even before we think content. That is, we need to think ‘how should we teach?’, before we think ‘what should we teach?’.

The 2009 High School Engagement Survey found that one third of students are bored every day, and one quarter are bored in every class. Everything from the latest neuroscience to gut instinct tells us bored learners are not effective learners. This must change if we want to do justice to our students.

Not only that, for people in sectors where funding is now tied to enrolments (like much of the VocEd sector), this is also a key part of competitive advantage. If you can become famous as the most exciting engaging place to study, students will line up and beat down your door, and certainly have higher rates of completion.

Secondly, we need to ask, ‘What is my real value here’? As the environment changes, so we must change what we do and offer to remain relevant.

Here I would like to really provoke your thinking about the future.

What value does subject matter expertise have these days? Really, in a world where the answer to every question is never more than a Google away, what is the value of all that stuff in your head? I don’t care if it took a lifetime to assemble - if it’s not valueless, it is certainly less valuable than it used to be, simply because it’s a commodity now.

Therefore, I don’t think our primary role as educators is to have all (or even most of) the answers, because answers are easier to come by than ever before. That is, our value is not in what we know.

Our value comes in what we can do – our ability to create compelling experiences that drive people towards the right information, and that create a thirst and a desire to find out more and engage with depth, analysis and synthesis. That is the value of the educator of the future.

It also requires the ultimate humility: to make the learning experience less about us as ‘teachers of information’, and more about being ‘facilitators of conversation and experience’.

A difficult shift, but an important one nonetheless.

So how do we start down the path?

Firstly, in creating organisational outcomes, nothing is more important than alignment. That means every person across the organisation being in pursuit of the same organisational goals. Consider NASA, where a journalist once asked a janitor, “What’s your job?”, and the janitor responded “I help put people on the moon!” In education, regardless of role, everyone needs to be aligned around the purpose of ‘creating mind-blowing student experiences’.

Secondly, we need to embrace innovation. This means being willing to put our traditional modes of teaching under the spotlight to see if it’s really best practice. There is so much going on in the fields of neuroscience, behavioural change, pedagogy and education theory right now; we need to approach this with an open mind and be willing to change what we’re doing. We ourselves just completed a White Paper called Game On: How Video Games are Changing the Way We Work and Learn. Here is one new piece of technology that has the potential to transform the way we engage with students, and there are so many more tools out there that could help us re-engage.

Thirdly, we need to break the attitude of ‘terminal uniqueness’ that pervades so many sectors, education included. So many of the challenges being faced by educators are being faced by other sectors also. We must get across the boundaries that separate different industries and sectors, to see how other people approach similar problems. This is developing what the brilliant Canadian philosopher John Ralston-Saul called common sense, in the most literal use of the term: an appreciation for how others are doing things. This means looking outside education for answers.

Whether the current forces of change in education are ‘challenges’ or ‘opportunities’ is a matter of our approach. If we face these changes with an energy and enthusiasm for creating a better future, then we will doubtless build mind-blowing experiences for the next generation of learners.

Dominic Thurbon is co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of ChangeLabs, a 50-person behaviour change consultancy with staff in Australia, New Zealand and America. He has clients around the world, including educational organisations in primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational sectors, and works with corporations such as IBM, Apple, Lexus and Macquarie Bank. He is co-author of the White Paper Talent Magnets: Attracting Young Staff to Education, and Game On: How Video Games are Changing the Way we Work and Learn. He was also head of research on the internationally published best-seller Flip: How Counterintuitive Thinking is Changing Everything, now published in the US, UK, Australia and throughout Asia.

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