Preparing for the Future

This essay appeared in the Daily Times-Call in April of this year. It highlights the types of issues the school board – and our community – must grapple with sooner rather than later.

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I want to say thanks to everyone who organized last month’s education summit, "Learn Today, Change Your World Tomorrow." I applaud our city’s efforts to keep lifelong learning front and center on the community agenda.

I also want to a spotlight comments made by Glen Hiemstra, the summit’s keynote speaker and futurist who studies trends in science, economics and education. Hiemstra was asked what school systems of the future might look like. He suggests future schools will be "hybrids" combining self-paced internet learning, intimate small group work and hands-on experiences beyond classroom walls. "These future schools will be places where learners go for highly-customized experiences based on competencies not grade-levels," Hiemstra said.

The Big Picture, a network of schools with the slogan "one student at a time," offers a glimpse of this future. Big Picture schools want the walls between work, home, community and school to disappear. They integrate classroom learning with experiences in the community and with business. These schools aspire to do away with class-periods. Rather than assign 45 minutes to all subjects, they ask, how much time makes sense. All of this is done based on students’ individual interests, talents and needs.

I have not reviewed accountability reports for these schools. I imagine some Big Picture schools are great. Perhaps some really stink. I don’t know.

I do know the Big Picture model is closer to the future of education than the traditional school experience. And, I have read enough to conclude there is a growing consensus among education experts that personalized learning is the way of the future.

As a community, we must pay attention to this vision. It is consistent with changes we are experiencing in all aspects of our lives. Everything from finance to health care to you name it is moving toward hyper-customization. It only makes sense education will, too.

We must prepare for this future. For instance, we must answer some tough questions.

How much innovation will we tolerate? A shift toward personalized learning will require new approaches to school management. Yet, there is considerable pressure on public institutions to play it safe – especially when educating children.

Federal and state legislators continue to impose laws on public schools, in essence micro-managing what schools can do. School districts must comply – or else.

Playing it safe and compliance are the antithesis to innovation. By definition, innovation requires experiments, failure and hard lessons so we can do better in the future. But education leaders cannot innovate without community support.

What do we want in the St. Vrain Valley? Do we want other communities to figure out the future while our schools play it safe? Or, will we support experiments, even if some fail?

As we gear schools to satisfy individual needs and interests, we must redefine what is fair. Currently, we judge equity by time and dollars. We conclude that all children receive a fair education if they attend school the same number of days at roughly the same per pupil funding. Does this make sense? It strikes me that if children’s needs, interests and talents are different then they may need different amounts of time and financial support to succeed.

And, in the future, who will we hold accountable for public funds? Today, responsibility rests entirely with schools and school districts. If we move toward individually tailored learning, who should be accountable? Can we constructively and efficiently hold individuals accountable?

I am excited about the future of education. It is increasingly possible, with the help of wise educators and emerging technology, to serve the needs and interests of every child. This is something no previous generation could really aspire to do.

But, we have some tricky questions to sort through before we can create the future we really want. I say, let’s get busy.

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