I am a huge fan of science fiction. From my teenage years of reading Michael Moorcock and L. Ron Hubbard, I have long been enamored with these writers and their vision. Not long ago I got to sit and talk with David Brin (his book "Existence" is a must read). Their predictions of what life will look like for many decades and centuries are always intriguing even if admittedly inaccurate. So, when I was watching a recent episode from the Star Trek family of shows that depicted a classroom onboard a starship in the 24th century, I was bitterly disappointed.
Yes. There they were. Good little students seated in rows with personal devices in hand, being led through a lesson by a human-like android teacher. This scene was heartbreaking on many levels. The passivity of the room design, the nature of the role of the teacher, and the portrayal of the obedient students as they "absorbed" the information from their educator were more reminiscent of 19th century approaches than where we should be 500 years later. Or was it? The most concerning observation to me was given the culture of public and higher education, even those we look to for vision in the form of science fiction had capitulated to represent the assumptions of teaching and learning still prevalent today.
Given all we have learned about the human brain and learning in the past ten years (much less the century), those outside these fields of research still assume teaching and learning looks like it did during the time of Dewey. Assumptions are powerful things that we work diligently to change. Because these assumptions drive the formation of values and subsequent culture (look to Edward Schein for more on this). In the end, people are loyal to such assumptions of culture, not strategy. Much of my career across three decades as both a K-12 and Higher Education educator and leader devoted to shifting these assumptions. I was part of the movement in the 1990s toward the role of the educator of "facilitator" more than "disseminator." Today, I work with many leaders as educators evolve yet again, from a "facilitator" to a "curator." Let's look again at a 24th century "classroom."
In the coming decades, classrooms as we know them will not only shift dramatically, they will all but disappear. This does not mean that groups of learners will not attempt to learn similar outcomes at similar times. It does mean that we are on the road to what some call "hyper-personalization" and what I prefer to label "ultra-personalization." While we have common traits, we are discovering increasingly that each brain is like a snowflake-individual in how it perceives, constructs, and engages the world. Sure, we have physiological structures in common as well as psychological/cognitive/behavioral/neurological (pick your construct) similarities. Nonetheless, education systems that are dominated by those passive learners in straight rows yield performance rates that leave generations of potential learners behind.
As mentioned, I was part of a broader effort seen in many colleges and schools where classrooms change. The rows disappeared and were replaced by thematic learning stations grouping learners into cohorts. Innovative designs in furniture and technology began to proliferate in these classroom spaces. Educators spent less time in front of the classroom and more within those smaller groups or with individuals. The schedules of the sessions have only just begun to shift as "blended learning" and "hy-flex" models (expanded dramatically by the global pandemic response) engage these cohorts at varying times and locations (synchronous and asynchronous). Artificial intelligence and machine learning are driving learning at the object level, leveraging learning management systems, and learning object repositories to deliver the right object to the right learners at the right time. What emerges is quite a different assumption about education.
Hopefully, we will still see learning sessions led by a passionate teacher/professor who challenges and mesmerizes groups of students. Ideally, this will be far less frequent than a more engaging approach. The assumption of what constitutes an optimal learning environment (on a starship or otherwise) will embrace what will look more like a lab than a classroom. I prefer to think of these as "learning kiosks" that exist across a community, where "school" occurs across a linked set of spaces. Imagine starting a day (or week) where a group of students gathers to be introduced to a unit/topic, and then is further divided into smaller groups based on their "readiness" (cognitive, social, maturational, etc.) as well as their known learning preferences for those targeted outcomes. These sub-groups then relocate across the "thematic learning pavilions" of the "school," embedded across the ecosystem. This is what I refer to as "Fusion Teaching and Learning."
By now you are likely thinking about the challenges such approaches would present in transportation, logistics, cost, educator roles, and much more in our current education ecosystems. That's part of the point. We continue to let 19th century assumptions characterize our educational systems overall. Remarkable progress has been made in thousands of classrooms across many institutions. But open the door of the average classroom on the average day (unannounced) and tell me what you think you will see. I see so many dedicated, talented, and passionate educators and students largely trapped within the boundaries of these current systems. If our authors of widespread science fiction cannot depict the significant shifts that lie ahead, how can we influence funding and culture shifts that are designed to focus on the individuality of learners?
Like so many pervasive efforts to shift a culture, it starts with you. Whether you are a student, parent, teacher, professor, or stakeholder (employers and beyond), be bold in the vision of our collective future. Increase current graduation rates, technical school enrollment and internships, college certificate and degree attainment, efforts to address equity and diversity, and talent pipelines leading to living wages for our children and families. Actively explore what groundbreaking schools, colleges, universities, and the private sector are doing to shift assumptions in teaching and learning (particularly AI and "personalization"). These are all driven by education. Challege your institutions, boards, and unions to present the transparent data on success and failure (non-completion) rates, and the design of the systems that yield those rates. Remain bold and go where no one has gone before!
Let us remain faithful to the original creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, and his commitment to the infinite potential of humanity. Can we design and deliver an educational ecosystem where every learner succeeds (sometimes through failure) with every outcome every day? This brings to mind a quote from Captain Jean-Luc Picard (from the episode When the Bough Breaks, written by Hannah Louise Shearer);
"Things are only impossible, until they're not..."