Embracing Uncertainty: A Brave New World For Schools

We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty…. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn. – David Price

Someone asked me recently if the work we are currently doing on a new schedule with an increased focus on personalized learning, the arts, creative expression, design and technology might not be a huge mistake. “What if you are moving in the wrong direction? How can you be so certain that kids don’t need more of the rigor of traditional education?” Sometimes educators have to put their heads down and weather the storm of uncertainty in order to do what is best for students. This requires us to take risks. It would seem to be a simple, universal truth that if society is going through rapid change, schools should be responding appropriately. But we know that change is not always easy.

Among the many potential obstacles to school change is the fact that we are all products of schools ourselves. Educated in the twentieth century, many of us are unwittingly wary of entering unfamiliar territory. Because we take our responsibilities seriously, we feel compelled to ask ourselves whether we can serve the needs of our learners in an unknown context. It can sometimes feel safer to avoid change. Paralysed by uncertainty, many schools remain static. As long as parents recognise the old certainties, the “rigor” of the familiar, the status quo is seldom challenged.

Even the old certainties, however, are no longer certain. Change happens whether we like it or not. Schools were founded upon two fundamental certainties: (1) knowledge has unique value and is known best by experts and, (2) the way we communicate with each other is limited by time and, very often, location. We have seen very significant shifts in these certainties in recent years, shifts that should have significant implications for schools.

What use is knowledge in the age of the smartphone? Most students carry the sum total of human information in their pockets each day (providing, of course, we allow them to use them). If a taxi driver takes you to your destination from memory or GPS, do you care? If the GPS version is cheaper, do you begin to care? Do we allow the same freedom to students with basic questions that Google can answer for them or do we judge them critically for using technology that they use naturally on a daily basis in every circumstance except school? If Siri knows basic arithmetic and the capitals of the world, do we still need to spend time on these things?

Whatever happened to the telegram? To send a telegram in 2016 will cost you about $30 and take 4-8 business days for delivery. In effect, a communication technology that was pervasive in the 20th century – and decried as damaging interpersonal communication when first introduced – is essentially no longer possible. Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. To send an urgent communication today takes seconds, is delivered instantaneously, and is usually free. How are schools harnessing the potential of this free, global network for learners?

Failure to change is no longer an option for schools. Our students are not asking us for tradition. Neither are our teachers. The devil needs no advocates. The challenge that confronts us is clear. School change is the norm of effective learning organizations. As Linda MacRae Campbell succinctly states:

“The world, and the mass of information at our disposal, are being transformed rapidly, and schools must create processes to keep abreast of and implement new approaches to education, teaching, technology and human development.”

Given this context, given what we know about the rapidly changing landscape, what are the questions we should be asking to ensure we are heading in the right direction for our students? Dewey told us many years ago to prepare children not for our past but their future. How are we to make choices for this future with confidence? Personalized learning seems to be the way forward. I’ll return to this theme in my next entry. While the road ahead may be uncertain and carry some risk, we can be certain only that standing still is the greatest risk of all.