3 Truths for the Future of Education, The Urgent Need to Build a Modern-Day System of Learning

3 truths

Here we are in spring 2022. COVID-19 is shifting from pandemic to endemic. Putin invaded a sovereign nation and revived the threat of global nuclear war. Inflation is the highest it has been in four decades. And if you have been working in schools, you are the closest to burnout you have ever been – or well past it.

School administrators and teachers have been heroic in their efforts to prop up the creaking bureaucracy of our inherited system of schooling. A system that was designed during a time when teachers and textbooks were the predominant sources of knowledge and the path after secondary school was highly predictable.

But teachers and school leaders today should not be required to keep this system running ‘as-is’ amidst the single most disruptive event of our collective lifetimes. Pre-pandemic, these jobs were unsustainable. Mid-pandemic, the inadequacies of the system were laid bare. Let’s call this for what it is: a system that was built to serve a fundamentally different era, a now antiquated system.

Will we continue to blame the people in the system, or will we take a step back and call out the real villain in this tragedy: the system itself? An education system that is in decay, a system that no longer serves the children within it, a system that simply has not adapted to our fast-paced, ever-changing world.

In the third decade of the 21st Century, it is reasonable to expect that all children should have free access to a modern education system. A system that is grounded in the latest research on how human beings learn, grow and thrive. A system that mirrors, honors, and nurtures all children. A system that prepares children with the practical skills, knowledge, and mindset to navigate and thrive amidst an unknowable future.

What is it going to take to truly build a modern system of learning? To build for the future? We need to face, embrace, and leverage the three truths that lie before us.

Truth #1: School should prepare children to thrive in an unknowable future.

What are the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that will enable our children to not just survive, but thrive amidst an ever-changing world? Pre-Covid, there was a growing consensus that skills such as complex problem solving, systems thinking, creativity and collaboration should be front and center in a modern-day curriculum (Wilson 2018). But not enough schools have made the shift from a focus on performance on standardized tests to deep durable knowledge and practical skills. There is now an urgent need to rebuild the curricular core at scale across the entire system.

The term VUCA was first used by the US Army College after the Cold War. It describes how we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – and yet our system of education still seeks to prepare children for a predictable, certain world. The system, for them most part, continues to advocate the importance of passing a series of standardized tests that will lead to college, which will lead to a series of middle-class jobs and a relatively stable life.

We know this is no longer true. Even if a child does follow the rules of the system and excels within it, there is no guarantee of a job or even that college is the best path in the first place.

Learned helplessness and a reliance on outdated institutions is not the stated outcome of education, but too often it is the result. We need a significant departure from the consumption and test-based recall of static knowledge and require that our system of education align its pedagogy, structures, processes, and budgets in support of much more meaningful aims.

Truth #2: School should continually evolve to ground its work in the science of learning and human development.

How are new skills, knowledge, and habits of mind best learned? Not by six or seven hours of lectures, and a schedule crammed with Advanced Placement courses. A growing body of research and advancing practices in neuroscience provide incontrovertible proof regarding how human beings learn, develop, grow and thrive. And yet much of it is not reflected in our system of education.

Here are just a few examples of what we know to be true about how we learn:

The role of emotions: Academic learning is inextricably linked to our emotions, yet we continue to treat emotion and cognition as two separate buckets, with cognition repeatedly prioritized over emotions or mental well-being. We expect students who feel unsafe in the classroom to be able to learn and then identify them as “deficient” academically if they don’t. "We don’t allow a student to miss algebra class for a counseling session because algebra is “more important,” even if the student is in distress. We acknowledge the emotional toll of the pandemic on staff, yet we don’t make any substantive changes in practice" (Lee 2021).

The role of rest and renewal: Quality sleep plays a fundamental role in learning, yet most children today are chronically tired. "When school systems fail to understand how memory works and the role that REM sleep plays in the consolidation process, they create schedules that start too early in the morning, extend sports events too late in the evening, and miss opportunities to educate parents and caregivers (and students themselves!) about the importance of uninterrupted sleep for academic success" (Lee 2021).

The role of application: Learning requires multiple and varied applications in order to learn deeply. We have to move beyond superficial coverage of content and into deep meaning making that is transferable and durable. We need to stop organizing curriculum by topic and instead focus on the deeper concepts of each discipline. Learning that is disconnected is easily 3 forgotten. Many curricular resources need to be revised to ensure that students are attending to the deeper structural patterns of each area of study (Stern, et. al, 2021).

We used to think that academic learning was a separate entity from emotions, physical health, relationships, cultural context, views of oneself in the world, and the learning environment. We now know these are completely intertwined and inseparable.

Truth #3: We are all part of the solution to deconstruct systemic inequity and build schools that foster dignity and belonging for all children and adults.

There isn’t a community, city, state, country or region in the world that isn't struggling with systemic inequity and its impact on how schools are designed and managed. Systemic inequities persist across not only curricular and pedagogical domains such as what we choose to teach and how it is taught, but also how we assess learning, admission practices, school funding, sports, how we integrate schools into communities, even how buildings are designed. The depth and pervasiveness of systemic inequities can seem overwhelming. Meeting ourselves and each other where we are, while still pushing forward is the challenge of our time. How do we begin to address the gulf of where we are now compared to where we need to be?

For too long, the education system writ large has upheld a narrow, socially constructed model of “excellence”. This model of education was accepted and rarely questioned. Previous diversity efforts too often tinkered on the periphery, but did little to address the systemic inequity, and often made things worse, not better.

The work of addressing systemic inequity goes much deeper than providing access to training programs. It requires painful and necessary conversations with everyone in the school community, it requires each of us to not only understand our role in being part of the solution, but to take action.

At the core of this work lies relationships. With ourselves and our identity, and with each other. We have to ask ourselves the tough questions and to be OK with discomfort. Solutions require deep reflection, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and changing our practices, habits, processes and structures. We must face the uncomfortable truths while understanding deeply that, as human beings, we all crave belonging and worthiness. Everyone is worthy of dignity.

We must intentionally build school structures and cultures that foster dignity and belonging for all children and adults alike, structures and cultures that honor diversity of knowing and being, that enable us all to see and leverage difference as the asset that it is. It is beyond time to make systemic, conscious decisions in light of this truth.

How to Move Forward

How might these truths enable us to lead meaningful, sustainable change and build a modern-day system of education? These truths provide the lens or filter through which the most important decisions should be made. Moreover, the intersection of all three truths is where truly powerful decisions lie.

Figure I: The Three Truths Framework

Let’s take for instance the seemingly mundane, but highly contentious topic of daily schedules. How much time should be allocated to what? New research shows that doubling recess can have a positive impact on both behavior and academic achievement1 What should a leader do with this new study? It feels overwhelming to change everything we do based on every study published.

We can step back from the “as-is” two-hundred-year-old system and ground our conversation about these changes using the Three Truths Framework. We can ask how new research into the science of learning and human development intersects with the reality of our changing world and promotes deep, systemic equity. Increased recess, for instance, promotes creativity and socialization, which are important skills that today’s young people need to navigate our changing world2 . And increasing the time for recess frees teachers to do more complex planning and collaboration, which are crucial inputs for promoting systemic equity. This decision point is just one example that lies at the intersection of the Three Truths Framework.

The Three Truths Framework provides a succinct and clear way to think through the enormous challenges that school leaders and teachers face today and Figure II provides a snapshot of how each of the Three Truths can be applied as a diagnostic and planning tool.

1 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02568543.2019.1646844?journalCode=ujrc20

2 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/

Figure II: The Three Truths Applied to Key Areas of Schooling

A Call to Action – We Need You

How might each of us take this forward? How might you lead meaningful change either inside or outside the system? The reality is we need hundreds of thousands of people working to change the system. There is no singular intervention that will change the system from a century plus old stagnant bureaucracy to a flexible, responsive system that unleashes human potential. There is no single policy, new school model, app, charismatic leader, test, or piece of research that will precipitate the level of change that we need. It will take many, many people working at all levels inside and outside the system if we are to see real and sustainable change within this decade.

By presenting these three truths, we hope to provide changemakers with a framework or a lens to actively design and build a modern-day system of education. If this resonates with you, we need you to lead the change that is in your heart to lead.

We have created possible action steps below; the prompts in Figure III can be used as a starting point to reflect with your leadership team and your teachers on ways to embrace and leverage the three truths. Please note this is just a starting point, your leaders and teachers will have much more nuanced ideas, moreover a collaborative inquiry-based approach is critical as you lead change.

Figure III: Action Steps for Applying the Three Truths Framework