This paper is the second in the series of submissions received for the Futures Of Education (FoE), a UNESCO initiative in partnership with Kidskintha. 

Technology is shrinking the world but…

In 1997, I was in a lecture hall at my business school listening to Tom Curley, the president and publisher of USA Today which, at the time, was the biggest national newspaper in the US.  During the Question and Answer period, my classmate (an early internet entrepreneur) stood up in front the entire crowd and asked this:  “How does it feel to know that your publication will be completely irrelevant in five years?”  Curley was taken aback for a moment but then quickly noted, “Well, USA Today is kicking off $3 million dollars in free cash flow every day so I don’t think we’re going anywhere soon.”  

USA Today is indeed a shadow of its former self but the point is that it is still here as are many other print publications.  In spite of the incredible educational technology changes that are bound to occur over the next thirty years many human elements and legacy institutions in our educational delivery models will remain.

Importance of Direct Human Connection

There is a lot of talk about no more classrooms, no more physical schools, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, etc.  And there will be deeply embedded global connectivity and digital educational and communication networks that we can hardly envision today.  But we will always need human connection.  We are going to want to be in the same physical space.

Our graduating high school and college seniors are experiencing this right now in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic.  Our youth are the most sophisticated and facile users of technology tools in the history the world and yet they crave being with their friends.  They are grieving the loss of their rituals, their parties, their graduation ceremonies.  They want to be in the same room.  They want to be able to bump fists, give hugs and kisses.  They want to learn how to negotiate dating…all the things that help prepare them for the next stage in life.  All the things that are innately human.

In the April 13, 2020 New Yorker magazine, Professor Rick Moody wrote an essay about the value of actual human connection in his Literary Arts department at Brown University.  He writes:

“But humanism is exactly why, in my view, a classroom with human bodies in it, struggling over a short story, works.  Because the literary arts are not the same as the study of economics or astrophysics.  The literary arts are about emotions and human consciousness, and so the instruction can’t be converted into data points.  The literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and the other humans listening, and, ideally, feeling similarly…Our instruction is not only about dispensing information, it is also about bearing witness, grappling with the complexities of another.”

Frankly, I would argue that there is a great deal of humanity in economics and astrophysics that would be lost in a purely digital world.

Educators in the K-12 world are also lamenting the lack of physical connection with their students during the global pandemic lockdown.  Fewer than half of schools in the US have any type of organized digital learning platform.  Millions of the students in the lower socioeconomic stratus have lost all connection with their teachers. Even in the best of circumstances, with very well-trained teachers on solid online platforms teachers deeply feel the lack of personal connection and control of their teaching goals and objectives.

Addressing the Digital Divide

One main issue for creating meaningful human connection both online and off is the continuing challenge of addressing the Digital Divide.  Of course, UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 directly addresses this challenge. Dr. Qian Tang, Assistant Director-General for EducationForeward writes:

“Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. It emphasizes inclusion and equity as laying foundations for quality education and learning. SDG 4 also calls for building and upgrading education facilities that are child-, disability-, and gender-sensitive and for providing safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all. To achieve this ambitious goal, countries should ensure inclusion and equity in and through education systems and programs. This includes taking steps to prevent and address all forms of exclusion and marginalization, disparity, vulnerability and inequality in educational access, participation, and completion as well as in learning processes and outcomes. It also requires understanding learners’ diversities as opportunities in order to enhance and democratize learning for all students. UNESCO supports government education policy-makers, practitioners and key stakeholders in their efforts to develop and implement inclusive policies, programs and practices that meet the needs of all learners. We are confident that this Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education will serve as a resource for countries and will contribute to accelerating efforts worldwide towards inclusive education.”

SDG 4 is an audacious next step in crossing the chasm of exclusion and inequality.  Certainly by 2050 we will have redefined the world of education even further.

Strengths-Based versus Deficit-Based Educational Model

In addition to addressing the challenge of solving the Digital Divide, school systems in 2050 should, by then, shift from a deficit-based education model to a strengths-based model.

This shift will require fundamental changes in our thinking about education.

Rather than framing our understanding of what a student cannot do (deficit-based model) we need to start with a philosophical framework that begs the question “What can our student do well now?” This is a powerful shift in thinking that takes us from deficits to strengths.

This stance is particularly important in lower socioeconomic areas where educational resources are limited and students often internalize feelings of deficiency.  Rather than being viewed as “broken” or “needy” we start with what cultural richness and skills an educational community brings to the whole.

“Asset-based teaching seeks to unlock students’ potential by focusing on their talents. Also known as strengths-based teaching, this approach contrasts with the more common deficit-based style of teaching which highlights students’ inadequacies.”

As with SDG 4, this shift starts with visionary leadership.  While we may start with how we approach training in university programs we will need to reach far beyond that.  The philosophy and pedagogy of asset-based teaching will need to be deeply embedded in the fabric of our daily behavior.

Implementation science has clearly shown that substantial professional development opportunities that includes ongoing coaching and mentorship are necessary to drive actual behavioral change in the classroom.

In sum, recognizing the need for direct human connection in the midst of a continued educational technology revolution, conscious efforts to address the digital divide and a pedagogical shift to asset-based teaching can guide how, where and when we learn in the future.