• The COVID-19 pandemic shows us we cannot take the future of education for granted.
  • By imagining alternative futures for education we can better think through the outcomes, develop agile and responsive systems and plan for future shocks.
  • What do the four OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling show us about how to transform and future-proof our education systems?

As we begin a new year, it is traditional to take stock of the past in order to look forward, to imagine and plan for a better future.

But the truth is that the future likes to surprise us. Schools open for business, teachers using digital technologies to augment, not replace, traditional face-to face-teaching and, indeed, even students hanging out casually in groups – all things we took for granted this time last year; all things that flew out the window in the first months of 2020.

To achieve our vision and prepare our education systems for the future, we have to consider not just the changes that appear most probable but also the ones that we are not expecting.

Scenarios for the future of schooling

Imagining alternative futures for education pushes us to think through plausible outcomes and helps agile and responsive systems to develop. The OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling depict some possible alternatives:

Future proof? Four scenarios for the future of schooling
Future proof? Four scenarios for the future of schooling
Image: OECD

Rethinking, rewiring, re-envisioning

The underlying question is: to what extent are our current spaces, people, time and technology in schooling helping or hindering our vision? Will modernizing and fine-tuning the current system, the conceptual equivalent of reconfiguring the windows and doors of a house, allow us to achieve our goals? Is an entirely different approach to the organization of people, spaces, time and technology in education needed?

Modernizing and extending current schooling would be more or less what we see now: content and spaces that are largely standardized across the system, primarily school-based (including digital delivery and homework) and focused on individual learning experiences. Digital technology is increasingly present, but, as is currently the case, is primarily used as a delivery method to recreate existing content and pedagogies rather than to revolutionize teaching and learning.

What would transformation look like? It would involve re-envisioning the spaces where learning takes place; not simply by moving chairs and tables, but by using multiple physical and virtual spaces both in and outside of schools. There would be full individual personalization of content and pedagogy enabled by cutting-edge technology, using body information, facial expressions or neural signals.

We’d see flexible individual and group work on academic topics as well as on social and community needs. Reading, writing and calculating would happen as much as debating and reflecting in joint conversations. Students would learn with books and lectures as well as through hands-on work and creative expression. What if schools became learning hubs and used the strength of communities to deliver collaborative learning, building the role of non-formal and informal learning, and shifting time and relationships?

Alternatively, schools could disappear altogether. Built on rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and the Internet of Things, in this future it is possible to assess and certify knowledge, skills and attitudes instantaneously. As the distinction between formal and informal learning disappears, individual learning advances by taking advantage of collective intelligence to solve real-life problems. While this scenario might seem far-fetched, we have already integrated much of our life into our smartphones, watches and digital personal assistants in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

All of these scenarios have important implications for the goals and governance of education, as well as the teaching workforce. Schooling systems in many countries have already opened up to new stakeholders, decentralizing from the national to the local and, increasingly, to the international. Power has become more distributed, processes more inclusive. Consultation is giving way to co-creation.

We can construct an endless range of such scenarios. The future could be any combination of them and is likely to look very different in different places around the world. Despite this, such thinking gives us the tools to explore the consequences for the goals and functions of education, for the organization and structures, the education workforce and for public policies. Ultimately, it makes us think harder about the future we want for education. It often means resolving tensions and dilemmas:

  • What is the right balance between modernizing and disruption?
  • How do we reconcile new goals with old structures?
  • How do we support globally minded and locally rooted students and teachers?
  • How do we foster innovation while recognising the socially highly conservative nature of education?
  • How do we leverage new potential with existing capacity?
  • How do we reconfigure the spaces, the people, the time and the technologies to create powerful learning environments?
  • In the case of disagreement, whose voice counts?
  • Who is responsible for the most vulnerable members of our society?
  • If global digital corporations are the main providers, what kind of regulatory regime is required to solve the already thorny questions of data ownership, democracy and citizen empowerment?

Thinking about the future requires imagination and also rigour. We must guard against the temptation to choose a favourite future and prepare for it alone. In a world where shocks like pandemics and extreme weather events owing to climate change, social unrest and political polarization are expected to be more frequent, we cannot afford to be caught off guard again.

This is not a cry of despair – rather, it is a call to action. Education must be ready. We know the power of humanity and the importance of learning and growing throughout our life. We insist on the importance of education as a public good, regardless of the scenario for the future.