The Future of Education: Relevant

Part 1 of 3

Just over a week ago, from 16 to 18 Nov, I attended the Future Education Conference in Rome, which was the second of its kind and organised by Roma Tre University, World Academy of Arts and Sciences and World University Consortium. The three days were filled with some very prominent and inspiring speakers.

Rome

In three posts, I will touch upon some of the different themes and discussions that came out of the sessions, starting to put answers forward to the question, ‘what’s the future of education?’

In his talk, David Perkins, Professor at Harvard, identified six different trends in education going on right now, referring to them as the ‘six beyonds’. These included:

  1. Beyond content (e.g. 21st century skills)
  2. Beyond local (global perspective)
  3. Beyond topics (content as tools or lenses)
  4. Beyond traditional disciplines (renewed and extended visions of the disciplines)
  5. Beyond discrete disciplines (interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary)
  6. Beyond academic engagement (significance, commitment, passion)

Discussions during the conference were around many of these ‘beyond’ trends. The discussion was particularly rich around going ‘beyond content’, ‘beyond the local’ and ‘beyond discrete disciplines’. I will go into these three ‘beyonds’ in more detail, this first one addressing going beyond content: learning that is relevant.

Beyond Content: Learning that is Relevant

On the first day of the conference, David Perkins, professor at Harvard, was one of the keynote speakers, talking about ‘educating for the unknown’. One of the main messages in his speech was that education should focus on learning that matters or learning that has relevance. To make his point, he dedicated his speech to ‘the hand in the back of room’ that always questions ‘why do we have to learn this?’ While some teachers get offended by this question as they often put a lot of work in their sessions, Perkins argues that it is sometimes a very valid question. We should ask ourselves moving forward, what’s really worth learning? Of course, we want students to learn numeracy and literacy but what about beyond that? What matters in the lives students will go on to live? Perkins doesn’t claim to have the answer, instead acknowledges that there most likely is not one single answer, but we need to learn how to think well on this question.

“We should ask ourselves moving forward, what’s really worth learning? Of course, we want students to learn numeracy and literacy but what about beyond that? What matters in the lives students will go on to live?

One of his key concepts is the one of the ‘relevance gap’, which describes a disconnect between what is taught and what is actually relevant for students to learn.

For example, Perkins addresses the issue of information versus expertise. It is good to have information but its availability has changed. We live in an information-rich world with quick access to information, so the place of information has been demoted. Instead we should think about students’ expertise, looking at how it’s incorporated in the structure of of the curriculum and disciplines more widely.

Many educators have noticed this shift from the need of memorising information to developing new ‘21st century skills’. For example, Pearson recently worked with Nesta and the Oxford Martin School on a large study into what these skills could entail.

In order to find out what learning really stuck with people, Perkins talked to people about their ‘opportunity stories’. These are the stories of learning that stuck with people, themes that can move forward in someone’s life, so something that was really relevant to a person. He got a range of wide-ranging responses but each time he realised it was not necessarily the topic or content that stuck with the person but the themes around it and the way it was taught. For example, not many people remember exact details of what they have been taught about the French Revolution, but they might well remember the themes and generalities around conflict surrounding it, informing their future understanding of conflict. Stories that have little relevance in future lives, Perkins calls ‘problem stories’.

“He realised it was not necessarily the topic or content that stuck with the person but the themes around it and the way it was taught”

Giving educators a tool to think about the relevance of subjects or stories, he developed ‘mattermathics’ which asks:

+1 – what is one thing that usually isn’t taught that you think should be
x2 – what is something that is taught but you’d teach differently (moving from understanding of something to understanding with)
÷3 – what could you take out to make place for the above

While slightly simple and gimmicky, this did elicit some good discussion among participants of the session and I think that’s what it’s good for: kick-starting that discussion on the relevance of learning.

While there don’t seem to be any clear answers on what content (or perhaps more what skills or expertise) should or will be taught in the future, a change does seem to be happening.

What do you think is most relevant to teach? What will be most useful to students in the future? And if you had to apply ‘mattermathics’ to your context what would the result look like?

2 thoughts on “The Future of Education: Relevant

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