Category Archives: Future of Schooling

Can we predict the future of education?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra.

Clearly, change is in the air these days in education, whether we’re Waiting for Superman, racing to the top, dotting our three i’s, or wondering how tea party politics may change the face of Washington.

In light of all these changes and uncertainties, the question on many minds is likely, where is it all leading?

The most truthful answer anyone can give to that question is this one: nobody knows for sure.

It’s simply not possible to predict how all of these various trends will come together to shape a new future. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t prepare ourselves for it. The trick is to consider multiple, alternative futures and begin to envision how we—or our districts, schools, or students—might flourish in each.

In a new book from McREL to be released this month by Solution Tree Press, we analyze current and emerging trends in a wide array of areas, including politics, the economy, technology, and society. After analyzing these trends, we offer, not a prediction of the future, but four, very different scenarios for what the future may hold.

The scenarios in the book, titled The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, are designed to provoke readers to ponder many “what if,” questions, including:

  • What if the current, multibillion-dollar federal investment in education succeeds in identifying and scaling up numerous innovations that transform schooling as we know it?
  • What if, on the other hand, investing billions of new dollars fails to create dramatic improvements in education? Will the public continue to support public schools as we know them?
  • What if online learning becomes as commonplace in the schools of tomorrow as chalkboards were in the schools of yesterday?
  • What if technology allows students to proceed at their own pace along individualized pathways, measuring their progress in real time at each step of the way?
  • What if the world’s best teachers are able to broadcast their lessons to thousands of students each day?

The reality is that the world of education is changing rapidly. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world standing still and education in 10 years looking exactly the same as it does today.

The good news is that when confronted with this uncertainty, we don’t have to throw up our hands in hopeless desperation (or stick our heads in the sand). Rather, we can begin preparing today for what tomorrow may bring.

Learn more or purchase a copy of the book on the McREL website here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

Catch a glimpse of real 21st century skills

Last week, I caught a glimpse of the future and realized that, like my own parents, I’ll probably have no idea what my kids actually do at work when they grow up.

This glimpse came courtesy of a Minnesota Public Radio story, which covered McREL’s NSF-supported “nanoteach” initiative to bring instruction in nanotechnology to high school classrooms nationwide.

In case you’re not familiar with nanotechnology (I’ve only recently learned about it myself), it’s the science of creating structures and manipulating matter at the molecular level. It promises breakthrough innovations for “everything from improved cancer treatments to more effective sunscreen,” reports MPR’s Dan Gunderson.

If that sounds farfetched or like something out of Star Trek, consider this other tidbit from Gunderson’s story: “the government predicts nanotech will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the next five years.”

The challenge, then, is getting today’s student students prepared for these jobs of the not-so-distant future. Moreover, nanotechnology will likely change our world. That means that students, even those who have no interest in pursuing nanotech careers, should understand both the promise and peril of this rapidly emerging technology.

Read the MPR story.

Visit the Nanoteach Website.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

The skills teachers need

It’s inevitable: in the very near future, most educators will be teaching online or at least will be facilitating hybrid classes that include face-to-face and online components. (See Christiansen, or this NY Times article that outlines a recent study on the effectiveness of online learning from the U.S. Department of Education.) We can assume the Internet isn’t going away. We can assume that today’s interactive whiteboards will continue to morph and evolve into interactive walls, tables, and desktops. We can assume that humans will continue to find new and innovative ways to organize and communicate. And, yes, we can also assume that there will be those who will find innovative ways to use the Internet for harm or for personal gain.

So what skills do teachers (and students) need now so that they can seamlessly make this transition to a more connected, more technology-rich world? Here’s my list of knowledge and skill statements, which I’m sure will continue to grow and morph.

  • Knows how to create and organize an aesthetic online environment that is user-friendly to the people who will be learning in this area and anticipates possible user mistakes or misuses.
  • Not only knows how to quickly set up a presentation in order to bring in multimedia (see “learning styles”), but also knows how to use an interactive whiteboard to create virtual manipulatives for students. In addition, can teach students how to create their own virtual manipulatives.
  • Can teach students how to navigate the vast world of the Internet to find accurate information, to recognize bias, and to make sound decisions on which sources he/she will use.
  • Teaches safe and responsible use of Internet tools so that students use the best of social networking without endangering their safety, money, friends/family, or online identity.
  • Accesses multiple methods of teaching a concept. Teaches students to do the same.
  • Is able to troubleshoot when something isn’t working quite right. Teaches students to do the same.
  • Chooses the best tools for any given assignment. (Don’t set up an entire wiki when sharing a simple Google doc will do.)
  • Knows and teaches basic skills such as file management, creating presentations, managing email.
  • And finally, knows when it’s time to turn off the technology and engage students in face-to-face discussions, going outside, conducting an experiment, brainstorming, acting, drawing, painting, building.

Did I miss anything? I’m sure I did. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions.


What is cheating?

I recently found myself re-reading this article from eSchoolNews about how students don’t see using technology to answer questions as cheating. When the article came out on June 18, 2009, many bloggers, including Teach42, ConcreteClassroom, and an excellent article on The Future of Education is Here, further examined the issue with their own posts. Almost all, including those who commented, questioned: if a student can look something up, is it worth memorizing? If the question can be answered with a quick Google search, how deep of a test question could it really be?

ReadWriteWeb made a similar point in their post about Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that came out early this summer, including various points of view from an earlier article on ReadWriteWeb asserted:

“…it’s clear that Wolfram|Alpha and similar computational software will force the education system to adapt and change. Students now have a new (and certainly easier to use, as it’s on the Web) platform on which to compute things. There’s no point in the education system pretending it doesn’t exist.”

In reading these many posts and responses, I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s three crucial questions for the success of any business:

  1. Can a computer do it faster?
  2. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?
  3. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

Many of the facts we ask students to memorize and skills that we assess would be a resounding “YES” to #1 and #3 and a firm “NO” to #2.

As adults, we often intuitively know what we actually need to remember and have available at a moment’s notice versus what we can release from memory and look up if needed. It is what we actually DO with the data, however, that is the most critical to assess and the hardest at which to cheat.

Take a look at these questions. Which ones can you quickly answer? Which ones have you not bothered to commit to memory due to lack of importance or ease of looking up? Which ones pique your interest more? Which ones actually sound like problems you’ve had to solve?

  1. What is your state bird? Bonus: what does it look like? Extra Bonus: what is the official Latin name for the bird?
  2. What is the driest year on record in your area?
  3. What is the driest year on record in your area that happened in your lifetime and that you can recall? Write a brief blog post about your memories and how the drought impacted your day-to-day life.
  4. You order a $13 appetizer and an $8 glass of wine. If sales tax in your area is 4% you leave a 20% tip, what is your total?
  5. You and 3 friends go out to eat. You and one friend each order an $8 glass of wine, but the other two only drink water. Your entrees are about the same, at $13 per person, plus a 4% sales tax. What’s the easiest and fairest way to split the tab and leave a 20% tip?

Likely, you had to look up at least parts of Questions #1 and #2. (If you bothered…but the importance of asking engaging questions is another post for another time.) You may have used a calculator for #4 and answered that in its entirety. For questions #3 and #5, however, even if you did use a couple of tools to get basic facts, you would still have to draw upon your own brainstorming or background knowledge in order to completely answer the question. Finding the answers to these questions likely required more creative thinking…thinking in which it is harder to “cheat.” (And likely, these were questions that much more closely mirror actual problems in your day-to-day life that you have to solve.)

For my own answers to #3 and #5, respectively:

The driest year on record since I moved to Denver in 1998, according to, was 2002, the summer my husband and I were married. I vividly recall the many wildfires that summer. When I took my family and out-of-town guests out to eat the week of our wedding, we would sometimes try to sit outside on patios. Very often, however, we had to relocate indoors due to the ash that would fall into our food.

Though not an exact answer, I would add $5 to my pre-tax total of $21 and have my other buddy with the glass of wine do the same. For the two who had water, I would ask if they would leave $3 for their $13 pre-tax total. This would leave a total of $84. (If my formal calculations that I did later are correct, the bill would come to $70.72, making a $14 tip acceptable.)

Addressing High School Dropout: Taking a look inward

The AT&T Foundation’s  new report, “On the Front Lines of Schools,” sheds light on what educators, students, and parents believe has the greatest impact on high school dropout. The report shows a lot of finger pointing—and only one group actually accepting responsibility for the crisis.

When asked about reasons why students are disengaged in school and drop out, district-level personnel point out the failures of principals, principals cite the failures of teachers, and teachers rattle off a laundry list of what parents do wrong.

When questioned about the reasons why students chose to discontinue their educations before receiving a diploma, it is rare that the teacher responds “my lessons were boring and disengaging.”  Instead, teachers are much more likely to blame parents and the home environment. Specifically, the report mentions that 74 percent of teachers and 69 percent of principals felt parents bore all or most of the responsibility for their children dropping out.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard an assistant principal, head principal, dean, or headmaster say “students at my school dropped out because I was not involved in monitoring my staff as it implemented the curriculum.” Frequently, our school-level leaders point their fingers toward low teacher efficacy and poor classroom management.

Show me the parent who states that his daughter did not receive her diploma because “I did not create space, time, and the expectation she complete her homework.” All too often, parents claim that they did not even know that their children were not on track to graduate.

And please, show me the superintendent or district-level leader who cites her failure to adequately coach, monitor, and evaluate principals as the reason why students do not graduate from high school.  I recently heard district level personnel list 10 things principals don’t do often enough as the reasons why students do not graduate ready for work and college.

Here’s what’s interesting, though—according to the “Silent Epidemic” report, most students (70%) do actually blame themselves, saying they could graduate if they had tried harder.  Further, the report informs us that “while most dropouts blame themselves for failing to graduate, there are things they say schools can do to help them finish.”

Thus, it appears that everyone else seems to be blaming someone else, except the kids who drop out. What should that tell us?

Our dropout crisis will persist until each of us takes a look at those fingers pointing back at us, and identify our own culpability in our nation’s dropout crisis.

Change will require us to be introspective and acknowledge our own shortcomings. Once we do that, then we might be able to collaborate to present viable solutions to address high school dropout.

Me as we

In 2004, McREL embarked on a new project by creating its first scenarios; that is, possible futures in which we consider what our organization’s role would play given certain political, economic, technological, and social parameters. Those scenarios became The Future of Schooling: Educating American in 2014. Since then, McREL has worked with other districts and organizations as a thinking partner as they explore their own possible scenarios. McREL’s work with the Ohio 8 Coalition, an alliance of superintendents and teacher union presidents from Ohio’s eight largest metropolitan school districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) resulted in the creation of a thirty-three minute video describing four possible futures for Ohio’s urban areas.

In the scenario planning process, members of an organization identify two critical uncertainties that they feel will most impact their work. One of the Ohio 8’s critical uncertainties centered on whether urban areas would thrive and populate in 2020 or whether they would be areas in decline as more people moved to the suburbs. The other critical uncertainty focused on whether the policy environment was prescriptive to students or whether it allowed flexibility in education. When two critical uncertainties are crossed, a Cartesian plane is created with four possible scenarios.


All four of these scenarios are fascinating, but I was most energized by the “Me as We” Scenario, in which urban centers are thriving, 21st century communities that have self-organized in order to help students discover and focus their education on their primary strengths and interests. In this scenario, federally-funded universal wifi access and the replacement of NCLB by individual, digital, community-involved learning plans have completely revamped education. Teachers are now seen as learning agents and innovators. High school diplomas have been replaced by a skills-based credentialing system, assessed in part by active and interested community members.

Take a look at the either the whole video or just the 5-minute “Me as We” scenario. Could your organization survive in this scenario? How would we need to rethink education? Professional development? Pre-service teacher education?

Will the newest generation be like the Millennials?

Most of the students we teach today are in the Millennial Generation (born from 1982-2001). According to demographers, these students (who are between the ages of about 7 and 26), are comparatively optimistic, confident, achieving, pressured, and cooperative team players. Millennials have become a generation of positive trends in educational achievement. Millennial’s aptitude scores have risen within every racial and ethnic group.

One Millennial in five has at least one immigrant parent. Thanks to immigration surges, Millennials have become, by far, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. Yet, they tend to ostracize outsiders and compel conformity. Millennials feel more of an urge to homogenize, to celebrate ties that bind rather than differences that splinter. Millennials are less inclined than GenXers were at a similar age to take big career risks. They have a fear of failure, aversion to risk, and desire to fit in to the mainstream.

For Millennials, “collaborative learning” has become as popular as independent study was for Boomers or open classrooms for Gen Xers. Surveys confirm that Millennials don’t mind a more structured curriculum, more order, more stress on basics. They grew up in the standards era. It’s how the standards are taught, not so much what they are, that seems to matter most to Millennials.

Recently, the news reported that 2007 broke a record for the number of births in the United States and that 40% of them were by out-of-wedlock parents. This new “baby boom,” combined with uncertainty the nation faced after 9-11 and the current economic recession will shape the newest generation born 2002-present. These students are our 6 and 7 year olds in school now. So what types of instructional strategies will resonate most with this new generation? Will they still love collaborative learning as much as Millennials or will they go a different way? What will distinguish them from students in previous generations? For those of you teaching this new generation in kindergarten, first and second-grade classrooms, have you noticed any differences among them and their older peers?

Written by Matt Kuhn.