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Issue 12 May 2008   Tuesday, May 6, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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Futurelab research discussion day
'The future of education'
by Bob Banks

This article reports on Futurelab’s recent research discussion day 'The future of education'. Futurelab’s remit is to explore and support new ways of learning, tapping into the potential of digital technologies. As with much of Futurelab’s work, the majority of the event's focus was on practices and cultures of teaching and learning, rather than on technology. Discussion centred around four evolving Futurelab projects/themes: Enquiring Minds, Learning Spaces, Digital Inclusion, and Beyond Current Horizons. Of course, not all aspects of the future of education were covered, but there was very rich discussion of a lot of crucial questions. Although specific examples tended to be from the schools sector, most of the discussion was applicable across all sectors of education. 
 
Enquiring Minds - www.enquiringminds.org.uk
This is a programme to explore and develop enquiry-based approaches to learning, encouraging learners to take ownership of their own learning. The programme is managed by Futurelab and supported by Microsoft. 

“Enquiring Minds sets out to explore what a fully personalised curriculum would look like - one in which young learners are able to develop autonomy and independence, have the ability to work effectively with others, are resilient when faced with challenges, are able to celebrate success and deal with disappointment, and have a clear sense that what they do in school is meaningful and useful to them.” (Enquiring Minds, 2006)

Enquiring Minds has run for two years in two Bristol schools on a pilot basis.  It seems to have been successful in so far as the schools are expanding the pilot to whole of the year-groups in which it was trialled. Also, over 100 other schools have been in conversation about it, and a fair number of these are already planning to adopt it. While the initiative has so far focussed on 11-13 year-old learners, it seems that the principles have broad relevance.  
 
Current government policy rhetoric seems to be in tune with the Enquiring Minds approach, with words like 'transformation', 'personalisation' and 'learner voice' in vogue.  However, there are dangers that a superficial reading of the concepts will lead to surface change that does little to improve the reality of learning.  Professor Michael Fielding gave a penetrating critique of this situation.  He analysed the spectrum of possible approaches to change, from the superficial to the truly radical, highlighting the approaches which might lead to really positive transformation.  Much of this thinking underpins the emerging Centre for Radical State Education at the Institute of Education, London.
 
Digital Inclusion - www.futurelab.org.uk/themes/digital_inclusion
This is one of the three new 'themes' around which Futurelab is now structuring its work, the other two being 'learning spaces' and 'teachers and innovations'.  Their starting point is that the digital divide is as much a social issue as it is a technical or economic one. Digital inclusion is about the development of skills, informed choice, content and community, as well as access to equipment. Futurelab's publication 'Beyond the digital divide' gives a good overview of the key issues.

Themes emerging from the discussion included:

  • Myths and monsters. There can be a dangerous tendency to over-simplify and polarise.  To give just one example, the notion of young people as 'digital natives' can be an unhelpful over-simplification if used too generally.
  • Deficits or Assets? Often, the starting point for interventions is the deficits.  This can be negative and disempowering however; it can be much better to take their assets and positive potentials as the starting point. Two widely used approaches are Appreciative Inquiry (www.iisd.org/ai/default.htm, appreciativeinquiry.case.edu) and Asset-Based Community development(www.sesp.northwestern.edu/abcd).
  • Ownership of development, and processes and participation: on whose terms? Is it the community/learner who is in charge, or is the focus on agencies and professionals doing things for them?
  • Taking people seriously. The digital divide is about people, not processes.
  • Measuring, assessing, and valuing real quality. What should one measure to pick up on the real complexity of inclusion, and to value what really matters, without getting overly complicated or impressionistic?

Learning Spaces - www.futurelab.org.uk/themes/learning_spaces
The government is currently investing heavily in rebuilding physical learning spaces, for example with Building Schools of the Future and the Primary Capital Programme.  Despite early high hopes, there are real concerns that a lot of these rebuilds may turn out to be 'rebuilding schools of the past'. 
 
This session looked at better ways to bring together visions of the future, more powerful learning communities, physical spaces, digital technology and learning 'beyond the classroom', in designing our educational institutions of the future. An important aspect of this is the engagement of learners in designing their own learning spaces, or parts of them.  Futurelab’s 'Fountaineers' project is one exploration of this on a small scale.
 
Beyond Current Horizons - www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk
This is a DCSF/Futurelab project, looking to 2025 and beyond, to explore a variety of scenarios around socio-technological change. Keri Facer of Futurelab explained that the purpose of the project is not to try to predict the future. Rather, it is to question our assumptions about how the future will play out, and to explore alternative scenarios and different directions. The hope is that this will make us less blinkered in our planning for the future, and surface some of the really big questions about the future of learning. Information (including a “Futures Review” - a sort of “guide to futurology”) and opportunities to engage with this project are at: www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk/futures-review  and www.futurelab.org.uk/projects/beyond_current_horizons 

Further information on the day, and presentations, are at: www.futurelab.org.uk/events/listing/research_discussion_day
 
Bob Banks,
Tribal Group,
bob.banks@tribalgroup.co.uk


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