Future schools must suit our future society

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 11. dec 2008

Our future society

Globalisation implies that we in Denmark in the long run cannot subsist by producing tradi-tional industrial and agricultural products. In this area we are facing competition from all over the world, and the Chinese produce cheaper and sometimes even better products than we do. A few years ago the answer to this challenge was better education. We were able to supply highly trained people to the entire world. But in India they train 220,000 engineers annually; in Bangalore in Southern India alone they train 25,000 software engineers annually in a city that is roughly the size of Copenhagen. In comparison we educate 1,200 engineers annually in Denmark – in total. The Danish degree of education for higher education is sig-nificantly lower than in the US, Norway, Sweden and Finland. In addition, the populations in South Korea and Japan have even better educations.

So what are we going to do for a living when other parts of the world take over the produc-tion and can also compete in the area of highly educated people? The new mantra has be-come innovation. We must be more innovative than the rest of the world. We must be more creative and be able to develop the best ideas. This answer is actually true, but is often mis-understood. You are led to believe that we should all work as product developers, designers and storytellers. But that is completely wrong. It will only be a very small part of us that will be the real hardcore innovative employees. Why is that?

Let us use the wind turbine industry as an example. They need highly trained engineers who possess a number of skills. They also need a few designers, when new wings and turbines are developed, and there are a lot of people occupied in production, distribution, logistics, mounting and the subsequent servicing of the turbines. A lot of smiths and few designers as well as many people with a good business instinct compared to the creative people. So even though the innovative and creative people are material, their number is low.

The pharmaceutical industry obviously needs creative and innovate scientists. However, they only make out a handful of people in a large pharmaceutical company. The rest are labora-tory technicians, production people, lawyers, the management, sales staff, marketing staff, logistics staff, financial staff, etc. The innovative element is decisive, but without all the other people they would get nowhere. There are also far more water carriers in cycling than there are stars. Add to this all the bicycle fitters, service providers, doctors, massage therapists, etc.

In other words, we must still make a living from industry in the future in Denmark. This in-dustry must just be more innovative than the industry in the rest of the world. In addition, there are all the other things we must make a living of: Trade and service, the icon business within music, entertainment, movies, games, sports, retail trade, services, agriculture, fish-eries and the oil industry.

What should children be taught in our future schools?

First of all, the students should learn the basic skills. They must learn to read, write and cal-culate at a high level. There is no longer room to think that they may learn how to do it at a later stage, or that the spellchecker or calculators may do the job for them. The basic skills and the basic understanding must be present. The students must also learn languages – and most importantly English at as high a level as possible, both orally and in writing. Other lan-guages that are important are German, French, Chinese and other European languages. The basic skills also comprise other knowledge such as biology, history, geography, social stud-ies, etc. and from the natural sciences branch physics and chemistry. These areas cannot be downgraded, since there will in future be a great need to be able to see your own situation in relation to the areas of others. It may be hard to understand people in Madrid, in Florida or Hanstholm if you have no idea about their living conditions, the geography, the climate and trade conditions in such countries. The old argument that you can always find the necessary knowledge when you need it is no longer viable in a time where the quick sense of locality is the most important entranceway to solve many problems.

Secondly, students in elementary schools must learn how to manage their own time. That will be a requirement in the future labour market, and thus such skill should be acquired at an early stage. This implies that the elementary school must make the students work more independent. Instead of setting them homework for the next lesson, there could be made agreements with the students – as they mature – to acquire certain knowledge at one’s own responsibility. This may be hard for the weak students, but on the other hand these students are also the ones that will not be able to cope in the future labour market without those skills. The planning of longer learning processes for which the students take responsibility may train the ability to manage their own time. Cooperation with others and with agreed deadlines is also an important element. A lot more can be done in this area once our schools get used to working with the thought.

The students must also learn to seek, sort and throw away knowledge. This is an additional way to independence, whereby the focus is on teaching the students to trust their own judgement and whereby the must seek knowledge broadly and subsequently make extracts of this knowledge and make it useful for certain purposes. This is not necessarily easy, but it must be endeavoured – and not only in the upper classes.

Students must also learn to enter into ever changing social relationships and work together. Today, students are almost only taught to work together with other students their own age and often at their own knowledge level. Project work is carried out in the individual classes. But in the labour market hardly anybody works together with people at their own education level and age. We have many changing relations and cultural clashes in the labour market, but in the schools we raise the students to work in a monoculture. That must also change in order for the students to get used to working with both older and younger students. If for in-stance 3rd grade students were to “teach” 1st grade students in reading, you obtain both changing relations and the 1st graders have the attention of a teacher in the form of an older student. The 3rd graders will at the same time improve their skills. You must understand a subject in order to teach it – understanding also comes during the process. This is possible at all levels of elementary school and would have a large impact on the understanding of other people and on the learning process.

Finally, students should develop their creativity in school. It is important to understand that the students’ creative skills are spread over many different areas. In Denmark the most common conception is that creativity are skills which some people are born with and others are only in possession of to a very small extent. But that is not true. You can learn and plan to be creative. Creativity is combinatory. It is the ability to combine knowledge and ideas into something that have not been combined before.

Thus, it is necessary to extend the understanding of the creative subjects and let parts of the creative subjects flow into other parts of the learning process. Today, we are on a global level relatively well off in the creativity department, but this must not be a pretext for inac-tion as has been the case in many other areas. Because we do have many creative people today, we may not necessarily have that in the future.

The school structure

The school structure simply has not changed enough. It is a hopelessly outdated concept that students should be treated as a flock that must be controlled, and that learning is some-thing, which takes place in 45 minute intervals. Instead of making another series of tests, of which the first took place approx. 25-30 years ago, something must be done now.

For instance, why can schools not close when the students go home – when they have fin-ished learning? What is the good thing about standard modules of 24 children, a teacher and 45 minutes – except for that fact that it fits well into a computer program for time sched-ules? In order to rectify the sad state thing are in, we should start by letting the older classes manage their day in school. They need to learn how to create structure before they move on in their lives.

The school of the future

The school of the future will not be based on the list of kings, the literature canon or newly introduced discipline. That would be using the past as an answer to future challenges, which today makes leading politicians in all seriousness suggest a school system that steps back one or two development stages. Of course, there must be order and quiet in order for the learning process to work, but that is not the solution for the globalisation challenge. It is merely a small necessary interstate in some schools.

It is necessary to focus on school development that puts the individual child’s development in the spotlight. The process part of school work and education through work with others must be developed further. It is the soft – human – qualifications that are already today the most important factors in the labour market. At the same time we must try to understand that the answer to bad education is not more bad education, but changing the institutions and struc-tures that form the education in our children’s’ schools.

It is not decisive that the schools are tested, but it is decisive what is measured. To test the skills of all children each year is to take one step further back into history. Tests only make sense if you know why you are measuring what you measuring. Until now only the academic skills have been sought tested. Instead we could test the creative abilities of the students, their innovative forces and intellectual progress from year to year. It would give schools a new direction and would be beneficial for ensuring a favourable position in our future global-ised world.

A day at school could be completely different with changing classes, a broad range of aca-demic activities and a genuine focus on letting the students manage their own development by planning their own learning process. This applies foremost to the upper classes, but should start in the low classes. There are actually schools that are working with that concept today. But it is drowning in canon discussions and other attempts to preserve Danish culture.

The virtual world

The use of technology is taken for granted for the children of today. For children and young people aged 10 and up is has developed not only into a matter of course, but as a necessity of life. The most important possession of a 15-year old teenage girl is her mobile phone. For the first time in many years a technological product is more widely used by girls than boys. It is an important means of communication both for telephone conversations and for sending text messages. The interesting part about text messages is that they can be used for con-firming contacts. Typically, many text messages are sent to the friends that you are seeing. According to the phone companies, young people send text messages primarily when they are alone and many young people also state that there is not really any interesting content in most of the text messages. The function of text messages is to receive confirmation of a mutual affiliation on a current basis and often works in groups.

This group affiliation also implies that i.e. the retail trade must acknowledge that a single customer in the store may be the representative of an entire community. In reality there are more people present in the store than meets the eye. The customer may be in the process of describing her purchases or the lack of service to 10-30 other young people of the same age, while she is in the store. Translated to school, leisure and other parts of social life the text messages imply that there are often more people present in a room than the ones who are actually present. The other people are part-time participants in what is going on in the room. The people that are present are not completely present either. They are in contact with other people from the group and are thus absent in the physical room and at the same time pre-sent.

About a year ago, a priest told me a story about young people: He was carrying through a after communion course for a group of 16-year old girls, whereby the main quality of the ac-tivity was that the young girls were able to concentrate more on the actual message at this age. During a meeting to plan an activity with 4 of the young girls, they discussed the con-tents of this group excursion. During this meeting, the girls also worked with their hands un-der the table – i.e. they were sending text messages – and after half an hour one of the girls informed the meeting that 20 girls would participate in the excursion. She had sent text messages to all the girls in the group and they had replied. In other words, the entire group was virtually present at the meeting!

Text messages are only the beginning. The virtual room will be extended in the years to come. During rock concerts, young people take pictures with their mobile phones and send them to friends during the concert. You may call it instant review. But in Japan it is no longer just pictures that are being sent. There they transmit directly from the concerts with video and sound – almost the same as being there. In the future we will se young people sending videos from parties and concerts, but also from classrooms in schools, high schools and uni-versities.

Schools and virtual reality in the future

In the schools of the future learning will not stop until students log out of the virtual learning room. The virtual room must contain everything the students need. Al information must in principle be available, but the virtual room should not only contain information. There must be learning resources in the form of learning modules, self learning and learning activities. Already today, many children and young people spend hours in front of computers, play sta-tions etc. with games and entertainment. The virtual school library must face this challenge and be the place where you can choose to play learning and stimulating games, receive lan-guage training via language labs, math-grinding prior to exams, and be a supplement for students’ own learning process and for the teachers. Each student must be able to plan his/her own learning process through the virtual library – and must be able to test his/her own knowledge and skills.

The virtual library will also make the learning process physically independent of the school, so in the future we may see a school without walls, in which students’ learning process may take place in the home, a company or somewhere outside in nature, where information is collected directly and forwarded right away.

When students leave school the username should not be deleted. The virtual library should be the opportunity to remain in contact with the school and the early learning environment throughout your life. So five years later when you need to learn French or math and you do not have that knowledge present, you should be able to refresh such knowledge via the li-brary. This means that in 20 years there will be some old learning programs and instruments on the servers, which are not used in the ordinary learning process, but will contain a very useful history and possibility of relearning for generations of former students. School for life will become a virtual reality.

Understand – do not prohibit

If a 9th grade teacher wants to be sure that his hand-in assignments are being read and solved, he should send a text message. The educational system finds that hard to under-stand. Instead we see school principals prohibiting mobile phones in school, because some boys took nude pictures of another boy and sent it to others. But it is the act – taking nude pictures and publishing them – that is reprehensible, not the mobile phones. But then, ball-point pens have also been prohibited. The school principal uses the matter as an instrument against his own disassociation from mobile phones.

If we as a society react with lack of understanding for the young people’s use of technology, we react as custodians, who wish to preserve society as a museum. We must not do that. But our fear is understandable. In the beginning, a man with a red flag had to walk in front of the cars in order to warn people against this modern abomination. In the Danish TV series “Krøniken” it was the TV-set that was the new unintelligible technology, and some years ago it was the computer that was said to be corruptive. The computer would through violent games destroy the male youth. Research showed that computer games are a form of game in groups and is not isolating or harmful. Now it is the mobile phones of both boys and girls that are being criticised. In a few years, research will show that the mobile terminals, as the name is about to change to, will be the means of communication, which made the young people capable of being group oriented in an entirely other way than we had seen before.

Published here, 2008

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