The ability to learn, for both individuals and institutions, is critical to survival. While it has always been so, adaptation in the past could comfortably take place over a long period of time. Now, that is no longer possible.
One of the biggest challenges to schools is that the timeframe for “adaptation” is speeding up. If you don’t believe that you need only look at the current U.S. election cycle and how, at least on the Republican side, the traditional playbook has not only been tossed out but may have been totally erased from the political hard drive. Or look at the early but quickening effects of climate change on our societies. Businesses, medicine, science…everyone seems to be in “perpetual beta” when it comes to figuring out what to do next.
So when we talk about “modern learning,” we’re not just talking about the learner; we’re talking about the institution as well. And while the learner (Read: kid with a smartphone) is doing an ok job of “adapting” to this new environment, schools and “education” seem to be struggling. Adapting doesn’t mean overlaying technology on top of traditional practice when learning with technology defies those practices . It doesn’t mean hewing to traditional power relationships at a moment when modern organizational hierarchies are flattening. And it also doesn’t mean installing a maker space or a “Genius Hour” or a coding class and calling it a day.
Right now, schools that learn understand that their central function is changing, that “an education” is no longer the delivery of a set curriculum but, instead, is about building the capacity for individuals and groups to learn deeply and powerfully in the world. That moving forward, an “education” will be determined by the learner as they play out their lives, not by an institution attempting to predict what may or may not be relevant or useful in the future. That’s a significant rethinking of practice and architecture required to make that happen.
The fact is, few schools reflect the ability to learn. Few have cultures where the emphasis is on questioning and wondering and iterating new practices for the new contexts that now surround us. Instead, schools are focused on doing the old stuff better. Better policies. Better assessments. Better practices, not new.
The question then is not whether schools who don’t learn will survive. In the short term, most will; there is an important child care function that’s not to be overlooked. The more pressing question is will the students in those schools survive and truly flourish in their lives as adults who are constantly being asked to adapt, and not given much time to do it.
Image credit: Maico Amorim