I was going to write a post about a theoretical future in which education was completely decentralized and students worked at their own pace towards a common goal. They would have a series of externally assessed checkpoints but could choose the order in which they completed the checkpoints and the medium through which they demonstrated their knowledge. In this fanciful version of education, students would be like characters questing through the educational manifestation of a role-playing game like Diablo.
But grand prognoses such as that miss the larger truth that no one learns in exactly the same way. Some people thrive in a collaborative environment; others excel individually. Some students love to talk with others; others prefer to receive knowledge and make meaning of it through an internal dialogue. That’s why there’s always going to be a place for stale, direct instruction – but that’s also why there’s always going to be room for disruptive forces.
The future is choice.
The future, then, is CHOICE. That’s it. That’s what we’re seeing today – not the wholesale replacement of the old order, but an adjustment of the equilibrium. We used to have a choice between parochial and public schools. Secular private schools sprung up, and now we’ve got magnet and charter schools competing as well. Some parents decided to keep their kids close by and homeschool them. Montessori came up with his method of early education, and now parents have another alternative. Community colleges offer advanced classes to high school students. Universities offer summer programs for credit. At the tertiary level, Massively Open Online Courses are now giving students a third option beyond the traditional 2 year and 4 year degrees. And so maybe in the future we’ll have schools that function more as student incubators, giving them a playground to experiment and learn at their own pace, interacting with virtual peers sharing the same interests. Education will be distributed in the sense that if one educational setting doesn’t work for a student, he/she can easily switch to another.
The future still needs structure.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Children will still be children. They’re not going to grow up any faster. The pace of maturity is slowing down – as society becomes more affluent, kids don’t NEED to enter the working world as early as they did 200 years ago. There’s also been a commensurate increase in the barriers to entry in the working world; a BA/BS is the new high school diploma, and in many careers (teaching, anyone?) a Master’s is preferred. As creative as you may be, a diploma is often proof that you have the perseverance and work ethic needed to get the job done.
So however decentralized and distributed education may become, teachers will still be needed to provide structure, feedback, and most importantly, holistic support. In a MOOC setting, students may have an online persona, but their virtual peers won’t be privy to the day-to-day vicissitudes that comprise the experience of growing up. The most valuable role that we teachers play is not in teaching method Y of essay writing. It is in providing counsel to the students whose parents insist that he must go on a mission after graduating instead of going to college; it is in encouraging a talented yet unmotivated swimmer to overcome her fear of failure; it is in comforting and counseling a child who has been the target of bullying.
We teachers have always done that. Education has always been about developing students as people, not just as skilled workers. And I think it will always be so.