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Staying in Wonderland: The possible futures of education

By Colleen Broderick
Staying in Wonderland: The possible futures of education

Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward. Our difficulties are not only the result of limited resources and means. Our challenges also stem from why and how we educate and the ways we organize learning today. We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future. We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.

- Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education
(The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO)

You might recall the moment in the Matrix that launches Neo’s awakening. Morpheus presents a choice, “You take the blue pill… the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” For sixteen seconds Neo sits in indecisiveness, then takes the red pill, choosing the “truth of reality,” one much harsher and more difficult. UNESCO’s report offers us the same life-defining moment.

I put the following together for our leadership team as a means to generate dialogue for what is possible for our community. I share here in the hopes that one more person might pick up this conversation with their own teams to challenge the current paradigm of school.

Dear Leadership Team,

I know we would all agree that multiple alternative futures are possible and that no trend is destiny. It’s also difficult to establish a timeline, as a school can potentially change more quickly than an education system. To support our conversation, I’ve curated a few resources. I invite you to share others that can help stretch our imaginations beyond the status quo. To the extent that is possible, I’ve summarized and synthesized and then included the originals as a reference. For that reason, I don’t do a great job of citation. It’s a bit of a mash-up. 

I also focused on education, rather than the future of learning, specifically.  There is no doubt that how we learn must be determined by why and what we learn. Shifts in education will undoubtedly lead to shifts in pedagogy. Much like the UNESCO report highlighted, I lean towards the research that suggests future pedagogies “require participatory, collaborative, problem-posing, and interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and intercultural learning” (50). Although this has implications for how we organize, I tried to leave out commentary on learning for this stage of our conversations. (You can only imagine how challenging that is for me.)

It’s hard to begin without some reflection on the WHY of education. Systems shift when the purpose of the system shifts. The purpose provides the point around which people, activities, and resources are organized. I recently read UNESCO’s report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education, “A New Social Contract for Education.” The whole read is worthy of your time.  As this is a provocation, I’ll lead with their call to action and one that personally resonates:   

Our humanity and planet Earth are under threat. The pandemic has only served to prove our fragility and our interconnectedness. Now urgent action, taken together, is needed to change course and reimagine our futures.  We need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future.  … given the grave risks we face, we must urgently reinvent education to help us address common challenges…

Constructing a new social contract means exploring how established ways of thinking about education, knowledge, and learning inhibit us from opening new paths and moving towards the futures we desire...Merely expanding the current educational development model is not a viable route forward… We face an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.”

- A New Social Contract for Education

[WHAT] PESTLE Trends That Will Likely Drive Change

Although we completed a local analysis of factors that may impact change, here are additional global trends that may inform our conversation. You will see in the reference the various sources I used to build the list. Although our context is unique, we are part of an interconnected, interdependent global system. These factors could add up to many different scenarios, and at the very least, impact curriculum, assessment, and learning facilitation, which highlights a need for different skills and experiences of educators in the future.

[HOW] Possible Scenarios

Education will respond to the drivers in some way. Since COVID, which highlighted both the possibility and fragility of our schools, opinions about the future of schools and education are running rampant. I find it more helpful to consider a scope of scenarios. Scenarios are designed to capture the continuum of possibility based on priorities and uncertainties. The use of scenarios is not intended to set a path but to see the paths that are possible. To start, I found Neil Selwyn’s matrix highlighted in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) “Back to the Future of Schooling” a helpful grounding. (In this case, schooling is more akin to education – the organization of teaching/learning.)

Below, I pulled some descriptors directly from the report to give a bit more context to each of the models:

  • Massive schooling: This implies the continuity of both schools and schooling as we know them. Although modernized by technology, learners, and teachers continue to operate within rather uniform structures and standardized processes.
  • Virtual schooling: Here “virtual” is not restricted to digital learning only. Schooling continues, but learners do their learning and teachers do their teaching outside the confines of conventional physical schools, within a context of flexible relationships and greater choice.
  • Re-schooling: Schools continue, but schooling changes. The attainment of shared core academic knowledge and skills may endure, but these are not necessarily pursued through common processes. Traditional roles and relationships in schools change, including those of and between teachers and students.
  • De-schooling: The structures and processes of both schooling and schools are disrupted. This future has completely transformed teaching and learning as we know it and traditional notions of physical infrastructure, curriculum and qualifications are all overridden.

This set of additional narratives from the OECD’s 2020 update may be helpful in understanding in greater detail how Selwyn’s model plays out based on the specific drivers of change. OECD projects 15-20 years for these possibilities. I pulled details that suggest the role schools may play in these possible futures. The scenarios are more robust than what is represented below.

Scenario 1: School Extended: Participation in formal education continues to expand. International collaboration and technological advances support more individualized learning, yet the structures and processes of schooling remain.

The organization of instruction and student-teacher relations remains generally impervious to change, although there is room for innovation. Schools continue to operate under a classroom/individual adult model, but schedules are more flexible with the adoption of blended instructional methods and rigid boundaries between traditional academic subjects have softened. More marked division of tasks and greater diversification of professional profiles in schools has emerged. A reduced but distinct, well-trained teaching corps remains in charge of designing learning content and activities, which may be then implemented and monitored by educational robots along with other staff employed under diverse working arrangements (voluntary/paid, part-time/full-time, face-to-face, or online), or directly by educational software. New roles, such as learning data analysts, grow strongly, employed in school networks or “learning industries” elsewhere.

Scenario 2: Education Outsourced: Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatized, and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.

In this scenario, diverse forms of private and community-based initiatives emerge as an alternative to schooling. Highly flexible working arrangements have allowed greater parental involvement in children’s education, and public systems struggle with families’ pressure towards privatization. The abandonment of rigid structures of traditional schooling (i.e., year groupings, educational stages) provides learners with greater flexibility to move at their own pace and potentially combine formal learning with other activities. In this sense, greater choice in learning programs (length, scope, cost, etc.) translates into learning solutions that are more adaptive to individual needs and, potentially, more aligned to the goal of lifelong learning.

Parents of younger children, rely on public care services or participate in self-organized community networks or market-based services brokered by digital platforms for their care. As learners grow older and more autonomous, and their learning involves more sophisticated tasks, specialized learning platforms and advice services (digital and face-to-face, public, and private) play a larger role. Employers become more involved in the business of education, including large corporations but also small and medium-sized enterprises.

Scenario 3: Schools as Learning Hubs: Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favoring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement, and social innovation.

In this scenario, strong schools retain most of their functions. They continue to look after children and hold activities that structure young people’s time, contributing to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. At the same time, more sophisticated and diverse forms of competence recognition in the labor market liberate education and thus schools from excessive pressures of credentialism.  International awareness and exchange is strong, but power shifts to the decentralized elements in the system. Local actors come up with their own initiatives to achieve the values they consider important. Schools are defined as strong where intense connections with the community and other local services are developed. School activities are planned and designed in the context of broader education planning beyond their own walls, resulting in flexible structures (physical infrastructure, schedules) to accommodate blended learning activities supported by digital information systems. Schools are in this sense the centerpiece of wider, dynamically evolving local education ecosystems, mapping learning opportunities across an interconnected network of educational spaces. This way, diverse individual and institutional players offer a variety of skills and expertise that can be brought in to support student learning. Schools are open to the participation of non-teaching professionals in teaching. A prominent role for professionals other than teachers, community actors, parents, and others is expected, and indeed, welcomed.

Scenario 4: Learn as you go:
Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.

This scenario builds on the rapid advancements of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and the Internet of Things. Learning opportunities are widely available for “free,” marking the decline of established curriculum structures and dismantling of the school system. Digitalization has made it possible to assess and certify knowledge, skills, and attitudes in a deep and practically instantaneous manner, and the intermediary role of trusted third parties (e.g., educational institutions, private learning providers) in certification is no longer necessary.

As the distinction between formal and informal learning disappears, massive public resources previously devoted to large-scale schooling infrastructure become liberated to serve other purposes or education through other means. Similar to Scenario 2, alternative “childcare” arrangements may be necessary with the demise of physical schools. In this scenario, digitalization and “smart” infrastructure favor the creation of safe and learning-rich public and private spaces. Building on surveillance systems, digitally connected, interactive infrastructure, such as intelligent playgrounds, can now look after children while proposing them with learning activities and fostering behaviors towards the satisfaction of certain goals (e.g., healthy lifestyles).

The end of schools?

Like you, I find some futures more inspiring and exciting than others. As I continued to dig into scenarios (not all of which are included), many highlighted the decreasing need for a school building. This is an interesting tension. UNESCO’s report provides another perspective. A chapter focused on Safeguarding and Transforming Schools opens with: 

“if the school did not exist, we would need to invent it Essential educational work takes place in many times and spaces, but the public time and space of school are unique. Education and learning simulate human interactions, dialogue, and exchange, and schools should be purpose-built to nurture this… Schools are one of the few institutions intended to protect and provide opportunities for the poorest and most vulnerable. As centres of community life, schools can offer powerful support for self-reliance and for cultivating sustainable relationships within local communities and with the natural world. Intentional pedagogical encounters make schools irreplaceable. To bring about profound change, however, the future school’s organizing principles should centre on inclusion and collaboration… Schools should model the futures we aspire to by ensuring human rights and becoming exemplars of sustainability and carbon neutrality. Students should be trusted and tasked with leading the way in greening the education sector.”

- Reimagining Our Futures Together (UNESCO)

Schools need to become places where everyone is able to form and realize their aspirations for transformation, change, and well-being. 

It is not the first-time education sits at a crossroads. It is clear we have a conscious choice to make. Will we take the blue pill remaining in a state of ignorance and denial or will we choose the red pill and do the hard work of elevating a different purpose for education, radically shifting course?


2021 Educause Horizons Report:  Teaching and Learning Edition (link)

Envisioning Pathways to 2030: Megatrends Shaping the Future of Higher Education (link)

Education in 2030: Five Scenarios for the Future of Learning and Talent (link)

Future Forecast 5.0:  Navigating the Future of Learning, KnowledgeWorks (link)

UNESCO’s A New Social Contract for Education (link

OECD’s Four Scenarios for the Future of Education (link)

Originally published: A Satisfying Narrative

From Silicon Valley to Switzerland, Boulder to Brazil, Colleen Broderick has spent her career investigating how we can ensure all learners, regardless of age, have access to opportunities that enable them to thrive. As an experienced educational leader committed to transforming learning conditions, Colleen has directly impacted thousands of students and teachers across a diversity of organizations. Her work spans from leadership roles in educational technology to US national school reform organizations and includes work with schools in the US and abroad, including Malaysia, Kazakhstan, and Nepal. She currently serves as the Deputy Director at the International School of Zug and Luzern and likes nothing better than discovering and designing experiences that create space for our biggest possibilities to emerge.



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