What we as adults experienced in school, as educators and students, will bear little resemblance to what lies ahead. Here's a look at current trends, their implications, and changes to watch for.
The Three Key Trends
1. Digital delivery
No longer shackled to books as their only source of content, educators and students are going online to find reliable, valuable, and up-to-the-minute information. Sites like Shmoop’s fun-focused content on everything from SAT prep to the Civil War; Google’s Education apps and sources that teachers can use as teaching tools, such as the SketchUp design software and Google Earth are just a few of the free, easily accessible sources available online.
Add to that sites like the Khan Academy, a collection of thousands of YouTube videos that teach everything from calculus to the French Revolution, TeacherTube's collection of content, books that have been turned into YouTube videos, as well as sites from museums and art institutions, sites like NASA and the Smithsonian, TED Talks and the thousands of other educational resources available, and you can start to see how online content will be used as a primary resource.
The open-source movement has further pushed online content to include learners and educators in the actual content-creating process. Wikipedia was one of the first open-source sites, and though many still question the accuracy of Wikipedia entries (note the 2005 study showed that the popular website is as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica), there's a movement afoot to make it a more trusted source. Revered institutions like Harvard and Georgetown are creating coursework for students out of editing Wikipedia entries.
Following in the steps of Wikipedia – and the collaborative world of Web 2.0 -- a growing proliferation of open-source sites aimed at education have sprouted up over the past few years. For both K-12 schools and higher education, sites like MIT Open SourceWare that publishes almost all the university’s content for students, Open Educational Resources, Curriki, Merlot, Connexions, CK12, Scitable, and Hippocampus offer their own expert-written, vetted content. But more importantly, they allow educators and students to add, edit, and change the order of all the information on those sites according to their own needs.
Entire school districts are starting to go open-source, too, such as the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which is using a Wiki-style format for its curriculum. CK12 is part of California's Free Digital Textbook Initiative, and school districts in Pennsylvania are also considering using its materials once the curricula has met state standards.
Watch for: 1) Google's role in providing content, and how states and districts work with the institution. 2) Open-source sites and content publishers working collaboratively in the same content space.
Though students typically have to wait until their third year of college to choose what they learn, the idea of K-12 education being tailored to students' own interests is becoming more commonplace. Whether it's through Japanese manga art, Lady Gaga, or the sport of curling, the idea is to grab students where their interests lie and build the curriculum around it.
The idea of learner-centered education might not be new -- research from the 1990s shows that students' interests is directly correlated to their achievement. But a growing movement is being propelled by the explosive growth in individualized learning technology that could feed it and we're starting to see the outlines of how it could seep into the world of formal education.
Take, for example, Forest Lake Elementary School in South Carolina, where the entire school is built around personalized learning. Or schools in Portland, Maine, that are entirely project based. Beyond even bribing them with shiny gadgets, educators are sparking their students' love of learning by figuring out what they're interested in.
"The better way is to motivate each student to learn through his or her passion. Passion drives people to learn (and perform) far beyond their, and our expectations. And whatever is learned through the motivation of passion is rarely if ever forgotten," writes Marc Prensky in his book Teaching Digital Natives.
Watch for: The growing importance of the student's role as content-creator and decision-maker in devising his own curriculum.
3. Skills 2.0
Eleven years into the 21st century, the buzz words "21st century skills" are being thrown around in describing what needs to be taught in schools: real-world readiness. Things like collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, and communication are thought to be just as important as U.S. history and calculus because they're practical skills that can be used in the world outside the confines of school.
"One thing is certain," writes Will Richardson in the comprehensive tome 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn: although schools may continue to fundamentally look and act as they have for more than one hundred years, the way individuals learn has already been forever changed. Instead of learning from others who have the credentials to 'teach' in this new networked world, we learn with others whom we seek (and who seek us) on our own and with whom we often share nothing more than a passion for knowing."
The ability to leverage the collective wisdom that thrives online is an important part of building those muscles. But more than just practical skills, it's crucial for students to be able to navigate the digital world around them without fear. To make sense of the deluge of information online, to learn what to trust, what to dismiss, to be able to find the gold that exists in the infinite number of Google searches. To know how and what to contribute to the online global community, and how to be responsible digital citizens.
These intangibles have found their way into the fiber of the curriculum in schools like Napa New Tech and its network of schools growing schools. And tech companies are looking for ways to provide value to the movement.
Entire schools are dedicated to teaching skills like learning how to create video games, whether it's to boost brain power and multitasking skills, or to learn applied physics as they do at the New York school Quest to Learn. The idea is that the process of learning that skill can be put to use in the real world.
Watch for: State and nationwide assessments taking into account skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration.
What these trends mean
Given the growing momentum of these trends, what does it mean for students, teachers, schools, and the education community at large?
- Collaborating and customizing. Educators are learning to work together, with their students, and with other experts in creating content, and are able to tailor it to exactly what they need.
- Critical thinking. Students are learning how to effectively find content and to discern reliable sources.
- Democratizing education. With Internet access becoming more ubiquitous, the children of the poorest people are able to get access to the same quality education as the wealthiest.
- Changing the textbook industry. Textbook publishers are finding ways to make themselves relevant to their digital audience.
- Emphasizing skills over facts. Curriculum incorporates skill-building.