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Students' Own Interests Will Drive the School Day of the Future

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The U.S. Department of Education has a clear vision of what the future school day should be. That's apparent from my interviews with Karen Cator, the director of education technology.

It's also clearly outlined by the department's deputy director Steve Midgley. I asked Midgley to spell out his thoughts about the topic.

I think if many of the innovators I see working in the sector today are successful, we'll see a school experience that looks significantly different in 2020 than it does today. Technology will play a role, but the key changes will have been in educational approach not technology.


Interest-driven learning, with a focus on projects that are relevant to individual students, will be key. I think we'll see more and more students even in elementary school doing "real" science. Similarly, I think student journalism reporting on real events outside the school will grow, and students will acquire skills they need such as language arts, critical thinking, research, problem solving and team work through these sorts of activities. Student programmers are already making significant contributions to the technology sector, though their numbers are small. I suspect we'll see their numbers and contributions increase greatly in the next 10 years.

I grew up in a Montessori school that my parents founded, and a lot of the techniques employed in that school focused on independent learning. The teachers there support students to move as quickly or slowly as they want, while ensuring that every student can develop a range of skills. This kind of individual support for students will be even more relevant and wide-spread in 2020. In my experience when you provide flexible opportunities for students to learn, every single one takes the opportunity, and sometimes in ways that you don't expect. Of course, the teachers, parents and support staff still have to provide plenty of guidance, support and motivation!

I've heard some folks refer to the future as one of "mass customization" of learning, which sounds about right to me. There are clearly skills and concepts that every student needs to master to be successful, but how they acquire those skill and ideas will be highly diverse and flexible in the learning environment of 2020. Whether you become highly skilled in language use through debate, literature or journalism will likely be much more open than it is today. These new learning "pathways" will be enabled by improvements to the way students are assessed in their learning. If you can measure deeper "skills" rather than superficial facts, you can expand the variety of ways in which students acquire those skills.

Improvements in education will also come as well as new technology provides teachers with new ways to provide a diversity of learning approaches that their students can undertake. There will be some significant technology advances to support this, such as more "intelligent" digital tutors that employ anthropological strategies for engaging learners. Many video game designers are already employing these techniques to make entertainment more engaging and I think education will see the benefits of these approaches by 2020. And as always with technology, the most significant improvements will come from innovations that we have not conceived of yet, which is a big reason I enjoy working in the technology industry.

I think we'll see a dramatic increase in professional communities of practice among educators in 2020, where we see teachers getting support beyond the traditional training and development models within their home organizations. I also think many organizations will be providing "official" credits to their educators for skills they acquire in many new ways, just as online learning is already providing academic credits to students who learn outside a traditional classroom. I also think the academic credits system itself will evolve by 2020 to support students who acquire skills through a variety of institutions, whether simply students taking more courses through online learning, or acquiring skills in non-traditional activities such as internships, scientific projects or hobbies-as-learning.

And online learning will be totally ubiquitous in education by 2020. There will continue to be traditional classrooms, teaching unified subject matter, but the vast majority of students will also participate in new kinds of classes where they are physically co-located with other students in a room, but the courses they are taking will be highly diverse from each other. Students will work in online and physically proximate collaborative learning groups, where students team up both with partners in the same location and with students located in other locations to work on meaningful learning projects together. Students will also partner with adult professionals in the sciences, commerce, academics and government to work on interesting and productive learning projects. I think we will see students making substantial, novel contributions to the public and commercial spheres through these activities, in the form of art, science, literature, journalism, software and beyond.

Overall I am very optimistic for the future of education in the US and the world. The barriers to access of learning and knowledge are diminishing every year. However, many traditional educational models are going to experience significant pressure to change as a result of these new opportunities and technologies. That pressure and the resulting changes can be uncomfortable for some and I think this is the area we will see the most difficulties in managing the transition from our current system to the future. However, there are many existing excellent practices that fit perfectly well with a future of highly individualized, interest-based learning practices and many educators, corporations and other organizations are already impatient for the opportunities that the future will hold.

Read more about the School Day of the Future series.

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