How education imagines the future

My notes on Facer, K., & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years?: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of computer assisted learning, 26(1), 74-93.

“Education is a future-facing activity” as Facer and Sandford put it on pg 74. Its future orientation ranges from young people making choices on what to study, through to strategic planning in schools and national debates about curriculum reform and educational priorities that look towards equipping the population for a changing world. The future is mobilised as a resource to legitimate and incentivise reform, raising the question of what this future is imagined to be. From pg 75:

In many policy fields, for example, the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and con- tinued progress towards a universal, technologically- rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric (Friedman 2005). It is towards this imminent world that governments and edu- cators are exhorted to propel students and citizens; and it is this imminent flat world that is used to mobilize support for funding allocations, to justify investment in new technologies or to rationalize curriculum decisions.

The focus is on ensuring that “specific individuals or countries are enabled to keep up” (pg 75) and alternative futures are ignored or foreclosed. Technology is widely presented as a crucial tool to facilitate this keeping up, essential for policy makers trying to modernise an education system and upgrade their population. It implicates an idea of the future as a singular, inevitable trajectory in the face of which educators and citizens have no agency” (pg 75).

Foresights activities have become increasingly prominent within education at many levels. The paper reports on the Beyond Current Horizons project, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families, which brought together 100 academics from a wide range of disciplines to understand what society might look like in 2025 and the education pressures flowing from this. It was based on four pricinples:

  • Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions. Futures work explores the relationship between possible, probable, and preferable futures rather than making definitive predictions about what will happen.
  • Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies. Technological determinism pervades a lot of applied futures work but the insights of contemporary social theory illustrate how untenable this position is.
  • Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics. Visions of the future operate as rhetorical devices and political tools. Therefore accounts of the future need to up front about their commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future. This work has to begin with a clear statement of what the purpose of education is seen to be.

The project involved a mix of foresight work (map projections of developments into the future and examine their implications) and scenarios work (developing a set of future scenarios used to examine current strategies and their assumptions). These principles mean that the project will avoid  articulating “a trajectory of future technical developments and read off a set of deterministic social outcomes” and instead “explore how social and cultural contexts might shape the production of new technologies, and reciprocally, how the clusters of capabilities (Williams 2006) offered by scientific and techno- logical development might be amplified, resisted or modified by a range of social and cultural developments” (pg 77). It began with a statement of what the purpose of education was seen to be. From pg 79:

  1. “qualifying learners to take on certain roles (requiring the development of knowledge and competencies);”
  2. “socializing learners to participate in wider community, family and social contexts;”
  3. “equipping learners to develop their own sense of selves, identity and agency”

It involved the commissioning 84 literature reviews across 5 broad areas of inquiry, with a focus on current trends in the field, long-term projections and areas of uncertainty. These were summarised in reports which aimed to provide an overview of probable futures within each of the areas. These were the foundation for specialist stakeholder interviews and workshops, with a view to identifying possible futures which weren’t contained within them. Then a broader online and face-to-face consultation with parents, learners and educators was elucidate preferred futures.

There’s a detailed description of scenario planning here which I won’t summarise but want to come back to properly at a later date, as I’m always been interested in more detail about how this works. It analysed the reviews and stakeholder events to identify (a) common features of all futures (b) possible developments which could divert things towards radically different futures. These are the developments which they concluded would have a long term impact on educational policy. These are all direct quotes from pg 83-85:

  1. The information landscape gets denser, deeper and more diverse
  2. Creating the personal cloud
  3. Working and living alongside machines becomes increasingly normal and our understanding of what we mean by ‘machines’ may change
  4. Distance matters less, but geography still counts
  5. Digital Natives grow up and need to keep learning
  6. Weakening of institutional boundaries
  7. The decline of the knowledge economy as a utopian future
  8. ‘Silver bullets’ are not expected for complex educational problems

They concluded there were three significant challenges to the future of educational systems:

  1. Challenge 1: should education continue to be organized around the unit of the individual learner?
  2. Challenge 2: should ‘the school’ retain its dominant position in assumptions about educational futures?
  3. Challenge 3: should preparation for competition within a knowledge economy remain a primary goal for education?

They offer a number of recommendations in response to these challenges. I found the account of ‘networked learning’ particularly interesting on on pg 86:

Such a curriculum would enable individuals to learn to work effectively within social networks for educational, social and civic purposes, and to develop strategies to establish and mobilize social networks for their own purposes. Such a curriculum might comprise: for example, opportunities for learners to learn and work within meaningful socio-technical networks not wholly within single educational institutions; to be assessed in interac- tion with tools, resources and collaborators; to develop capacities to manage information and intellectual property, build reputation and trust, develop experience of working remotely and in mediated environments; to create new learning networks; to reflect upon how learning is connected with other areas of personal, social, and working lives and manage and negotiate these relationships; to explore the human–machine relationships involved in socio-technical networks.

They end with a discussion of how research communities can show practical and intellectual leadership in relation to these changes. This necessitates moving beyond traditional institutional barriers, recognising learning outside of traditional arenas and ensuring collaboration between those who study it in different areas. It also requires a move from pedagogy to curriculum: “the question of curriculum – of which educational goals should pertain in the context of socio- technical change” (pg 88) What does it mean to “become human and achieve agency” in a rapidly transformed socio-technical context? This necessitates resisting educational technologies entanglement in ‘educational modernisation’.

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