An education re-imagined. Great! But...how?

By Tom Beresford, Trends and Research

The education debate is increasingly awash with grand ideas. 'Let's rethink education, reimagine school, redefine learning - the 'new world' demands it of us!' No doubt, this rising rhetoric is an illustration of the fundamental and ‘wicked’ challenges that the future holds for education systems the world over, and how ill-equipped our traditional model of schooling feels in responding to them.

Although the debate is far from won, it is still nonetheless important to acknowledge that these grand ideas for change are all too often devoid of a vehicle. To put it differently, how do we rethink education? How do we re-imagine school? How can we redefine learning?  

The Problem Solvers

With typical ‘Charles Leadbeater’ wordsmithery, ‘The Problem Solvers: The teachers, the students and the radically disruptive nuns who are leading a global learning movement’ offers a fantastic conceptualisation of the why - outlining our understanding of what the future might hold and how this is providing a clear and present burning platform for education systems globally.

“...in a more volatile, uncertain world, characterised by innovation and entrepreneurship, we now need to equip young people to solve problems of all shapes and sizes. Problems that will not come with instructions.”

“It is about how well education prepares young people to flourish in a society awash with intelligent technology, facing an uncertain future, with endless opportunities for collaboration but also deep-seated and urgent challenges which need addressing.”

Importantly, The Problem Solvers also offers an understanding of the what - highlighting how the burning platform is pushing schools to pursue grand ideas of change, even if they are only “harbingers, early and sometimes faint signals of what education systems worldwide will need to become”. The report shares crucial learning from their efforts to buck the trends of their systems and inspire us with new ways of making learning a dynamic, engaging and exciting experience.

Leadbeater succinctly frames this in a simple organising framework: dynamic learningHe argues that

“within education, an underlying consensus is building: young people should be equipped with a combination of knowledge, personal strengths, social skills and a capacity for agency. Or to put it more succinctly, they should go to school to acquire knowledge to grow, collaborate and act.”

These foundational elements are hard to argue with, and for that reason offer a strong set of principles to act as cornerstones of new approaches. And that’s the key! If you look at the leading exemplars exhibited in the paper, there is no single discrete model for the 21st century education, no silver bullet pedagogy, curriculum or teaching ‘toolkit’. Each model is embedded in a local vision, a local context, with local needs - driven by professionals, students, parents and communities.

At Innovation Unit’s School Design Lab, we are champions to many of the elements at the heart of Leadbeater’s framework. We too believe that giving students a strong sense of agency out there in the real-world with purpose is crucial. We also see the generation of new assessment as a strategic priority. We share these ‘design principles’ - see our resident guru David Jackson’s latest blog - with the schools we work with, but importantly help them to inform a design process that fits with their local school’s individual circumstance.  

The ‘how’, the vehicle, the help - what design thinking has to offer

But of course, the world of schooling and learning is more complex than just a set of design principles, or an organising framework. How do we get there? Where schools embody their vision in their structures, cultures and ways of working; where whole systems are budding with these exciting exemplars and we’re confident of a critical mass of schools fit for the future.

Leadbeater outlines what policy-makers, teachers, students and entrepreneurs can do to get there, offering the below levers for change:

  • Making dynamic learning central to the curriculum that the majority of schools follow.

  • Equipping systems to make a reality of such a curriculum in practice.

  • Creating reliable assessments for the acquisition of non-cognitive skills.

  • Building the public case with politicians, parents and employers to enable system-wide change.

While these foci may well be crucial, for us at Innovation Unit’s School Design Lab, a necessary supplement and driver to them is the need to building an ambitious new education movement committed to designs of what we call extraordinary learning. We want to do this through the power of design thinking. In the US, the likes of IDEO, d.standford school and the Education Design Lab have had success in marrying education reform with design. Now it's time to make similar waves on this side of the pond.

We’ve had the pleasure of working in collaboration with one of the main harbingers of future-focused education in this country - School 21, represented in this report. But we want more. We want to work with more visionary educators, new and existing schools, who are determined to enact these grand ideas of change. We want to help (re)design curriculum, assessment, how schools use technology as an enabler of learning, how physical space, resources and capacity  supports the dynamic, extraordinary learning we increasingly desire and need.

We too believe that the future is unlikely to be what most educational processes, policies and practices currently assume it will be - and that is the point. It's neither enough to say we have no idea what will happen nor that we are confident we know what will. But what we are resolutely determined about is supporting schools, in partnership with their students, to respond to the trends that will profoundly influence the lives of young people, and helping them to design extraordinary learning that inspires and prepares a generation.