• Larry White


"Without freedom [we] cannot exist authentically." --- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2018, p. 48)


Education at a Crossroads

At the World Economic Forum in 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau observed that “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again” (Special Address by Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, 2018, 5:34) . Indeed, technology fosters innovation and perpetual change. It improves standards of living. It provides better access to products and services. Technology also revolutionizes aspects of our economic, social, and political beliefs that we often take for granted. Despite the potential for considerable growth opportunities, the advent of artificial intelligence along with other automation technologies and the rise of the gig economy, has revolutionized the world of work (Jahanian, 2020), fundamentally shifting our perspectives about the future in many instances from one of contentment and optimism to one of skepticism and uncertainty. In reality, however, young people are unaware of the opportunities, still making career choices that are “limited by their gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background” (Chambers, 2020).

At the same time, the need to produce an active, engaged citizenry could not be more urgent (Krishnan, 2020). The transformations required to address complex global issues such as climate change, migration, and security presuppose a robust system of education that effectively prepares learners to solve problems for which there is no historical perspective (Jónasson, 2016). Furthermore, the rise of systemic social issues of disparity such as racism, populism, and growing wealth inequality only serve to underscore the changes required in education today to effectively prepare people for the future. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we must broaden our understanding of literacy. “Literacy, in its traditional definition, isn’t just the ability to read or write – it’s actually about the capacity to reflect, analyse and create” (Srinivasan, 2020). The type of knowledge that leads to these abilities has been referred to as powerful knowledge (Quinn, 2019; Young, 2014). The ‘power’ in powerful knowledge exists in what learners do with that knowledge to improve the world around them (Quinn, 2019).

If young people are still making traditional career choices, this may indicate that they are also unaware of the skills required to thrive and succeed in the twenty-first century. In addition, educational creators, deliverers, and policy makers could be more overt about working with learners to ensure that they are better prepared to transition from a future based on training for a career to one requiring competence in various skills clusters. Education required for the future challenges at the heart of our belief systems. Knowledge, in and of itself, will no longer prepare an effective citizenry to address complex global problems like climate change (Field et al., 2020). What is required is the ability to critically evaluate worldviews and biases to facilitate “critical questioning of societal norms and cultural drivers, such as: the definition of progress; the idea of perpetual growth on a finite planet; the roles of science and technology; the viability of capitalism, consumerism, and the exploitation of nature; and values such as ‘freedom,’ ‘independence,’ ‘success,’ and ‘comfort’” (Field et al., 2020). This paper provides a critical evaluation regarding the nature of future knowledge requirements and the concomitant implications for curriculum.

Learning is Freedom

More than a century ago, John Dewey (2018) was already advocating for education to keep pace with rapidly changing times. With a focus on learner development and citing the unpredictability of the state of the world, he argued that education should enhance personal capacity by teaching how to learn effectively (Dewey, 2018; Williams, 2017). For Dewey, this included an awareness of our interdependence and an openness to learning from life experiences and allowing them to reshape our meanings and perspectives (Dewey, 2018). In his New York Times opinion piece “Learning as Freedom,” Roth restates Dewey’s position that “learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that's what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society” (Roth, 2012).

There is a long history in North America of curriculum adapting to meet the needs of corporations and lobby-intensive special interest groups (Hinchey, 2018). This materializes in several ways: keeping topics like climate change out of schools and curriculum because of the costs to corporations in adapting to increased regulation, and corporations actually creating and forcing schools to adopt curriculum intended to shape learner thinking in their favour on controversial topics like fracking in the gas industry. These inroads that inhibit the democratic freedom of education have resulted in dangerously polarized political perspectives, violent racist activism, citizens carrying firearms and viewing those around them as possible threats and increasing occurrence of mental illness.

"The kind of citizens that schools educate will shape the kind of society the country becomes tomorrow. If what we want are concerned citizens who believe they have a responsibility to contribute to their communities, who understand the dangers of shutting certain segments of society out of democracy’s promise of fair opportunities for life, liberty and happiness, then teachers need to think deeply about what they do in their classrooms and why, about whether memorizing formulas is more important than learning to question the claims of politicians, ads or journalists" (Hinchey, 2018, xviii).

In his paper presented to Fifth International Roundtable on Discourse Analysis, Selwyn (2013) notes that, despite the ubiquity of digital technology and social media some four decades after stand-alone computers started appearing in schools, they remain a source of conflict – from resource allocation to generating profits to the quality of and access to education. From their initial promise to “disrupt old-fashioned practices” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 3), the purported benefits of a digital education have run the gamut from rethinking learning to gamification to open badges. A significant source of conflict has been the discourse related to the concept of digital de-schooling in which technology appropriates traditional education. From the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ program to ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ and ‘School-in-the-Clouds’ initiatives and ‘Massively Open Online Courses,’ the de-schooling argument promotes individualized learning, anytime, anywhere. The depth of discourse regarding digital and social media technologies has been so pervasive that it is generally agreed that they fit “neatly with a number of values and interests relating to the nature and organization of learning” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 10). The discourse suggests that fundamental change in education practices remains a desired yet distant goal.

One of the recent benefits of digital education emerging in the discourse, the concept of twenty-first century skills, has become so universally accepted as to become known as a “blueprint for education [reform] in a digital age” (Selwyn, 2013, p. 5). Post COVID-19 predictions about the future of higher education are emerging. According to Murgatroyd (2020, u.p.), one idea surfacing theorizes that the work of colleges and universities will shift from supply-driven to demand-driven models. With governments as the primary source of funding, they will be able to more effectively ensure that higher education aligns with the skills demanded in the future.

Required skills have been categorized into foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. Foundational literacies refer to how skills are applied on the job and include several that have been universal goals of education, namely literacy and numeracy. In addition, scientific, digital, financial, and cultural literacies are required. Competencies refer to how complex problems and challenges are approached on the job. These include critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Finally, character qualities refer to how a changing work environment is approached. These are curiosity, adaptability, persistence, initiative, leadership, and social and cultural awareness (Marope et al., 2019; World Economic Forum, 2015).

Implications for Curriculum

New skills are required for new jobs emerging in global economies based on innovation, collaboration and creativity but the emerging skills demand has identified a skills shortage (World Economic Forum, 2015). Key challenges in meeting future skills needs, particularly in meeting competencies and character qualities, arise in disagreements surrounding definitions and success indicators (Marope et al., 2019; World Economic Forum, 2015).

Technology is generally accepted as a potential solution to help address the skills gap but, for it to be most effective and produce results, it must be part of an integrated solution known as a closed loop. At the educator/learner interface, the closed loop includes the development and delivery of learning outcomes, curricula, and pedagogies associated with delivery. It also includes interventions based on learner need and the tracking of academic success by embedding meaningful and authentic assessments. All of these efforts must be integrated with each other and aligned with developing required skills (World Economic Forum, 2015). Many desired skills can be achieved by personalizing and adapting curricula; incorporating open educational resources, simulations, and games; and using communication and collaboration tools. They can also be achieved by employing enterprise initiatives such as learning management and student information systems and offering digital professional development opportunities to staff and faculty. By weaving these together into a closed loop, technology has the potential to identify and enable solutions previously unavailable (World Economic Forum, 2015). “We will not be able to simply ride our way into the future,” warns Marx (2014). “We’ll have to invent our way into the future.”

The best curricula integrate multiple skills simultaneously (Marope et al., 2019). Technology may assist with this integration, allowing educators to teach combinations of foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities more effectively. If technology developers can deliver learning tailored specifically to individual learner needs and this is integrated into a blended or hybrid delivery system, educators may find themselves with more time available to focus on teaching competencies and character qualities. Technology may also be able to assess learning and track academic progress (World Economic Forum, 2015). At present, however, most efforts to personalise and adapt content and curricula focus on foundational literacies and function best when learning can be broken into progressive chunks.

The use of open educational resources (OERs) increases both the availability and accessibility of content (subject-specific knowledge) and curricula (lesson plans and pedagogical approaches) for both learners and educators. Some publishers are now incorporating these resources into their proprietary materials to the benefit of educators who may wish to customize curricula. The array of OERs available online highlights the need for some form of quality control to assist educators in selecting the best resources to promote learning (World Economic Forum, 2015).

A growing number of digital tools are assisting learners with skills related to collaboration and communicating by facilitating group work. By combining these with project-based and experiential pedagogical approaches, learners will be able to work in real time to creatively solve complex problems. Learners can work in collaboration on assignments, share interpretations from readings, and keep abreast of news and announcements (World Economic Forum, 2015).

Simulations and gamification facilitate an opportunity for learners to engage in deeper learning by focusing on multiple skills simultaneously. While attending to various foundational literacies, learners also develop creativity, curiosity, and persistence skills. Some of these tools engage learners with higher order cognitive skill and reasoning. SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge!, for example, helps learners develop skills such as systems thinking, critical thinking, and cause and effect relationships (World Economic Forum, 2015).

At the institutional level, there are two key areas for consideration that are likely to improve the quality of both teaching and learning. These are programs to professionally develop educators, particularly in areas such as digital literacy and the effective use of technology in teaching and learning, and investments in enterprise systems that improve data management and flow. These allow for “greater productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of the closed loop” (World Economic Forum, 2015, p. 12).

The need to address the skills gap offers a significant challenge to educators and learners alike. They are, however, an overlay on an existing infrastructure in which several trends have already emerged that cannot be set aside (Marx, 2014). Lifelong learning already demands that learning be available anytime, anywhere, any pace and any way. As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, new parental expectations will emerge. Leadership will become more horizontal, rather than hierarchical, and will focus on sense making and unification of direction. In developing nations, populations are expected to increase by as much as 60% by 2050 while, in developed nations, the expected increase is about 4.3%. By the same time, the proliferation of languages is expected to be topped by Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Arabic (Marx, 2014). Each of these trends has an impact on educational practices, particularly the development of curricula and pedagogies.

The current siloization of education into discreet subjects is another problematic issue for the future of education. Reviewing and mapping curriculum across subjects provides an opportunity to identify gaps and, more importantly, overlaps in content. Integrating and optimizing learning across disciplines offers an opportunity, similar to economies of scale, to create “a more integrated approach [which] can afford more time for deeper, spiraled learning experiences” (Saldutti, 2014). It will also approximate the authentic, cross-disciplinary reality learners will face when on the job (Jahanian, 2020; Marope et al., 2019). According to Srinivasan (2020), most education systems fail to treat disciplines such as science and engineering as the social constructs they are; rather treating them as merely technical. As systems implement cross-disciplinary approaches to teaching and learning, society is likely to experience workers who understand both the technical operation of the systems they create as well as the ramifications and benefits of those systems on society.

It might be assumed that a system that is in many ways geared to prepare people to participate in a constantly changing world would also change the material it uses at a similar pace” (Jónasson, 2016, p. 2), but a metric to assess the amount and rate of curriculum change does not yet exist. In Canada, the only jurisdiction considering possible futures – for example, as result of climate change – is the Alberta Teacher’s Association. With a pragmatic approach, the association considers the emphasis that must be placed on aspects of learning, the new content and pedagogy that must be presented, and those that must be discontinued, as well as depth and breadth of knowledge, ways of knowing, responsive curriculum, and personalisation (Parsons & Beauchamp, 2012).

"Institutions change slowly. The educational edifice is an institution at more than one level. It is an intricate system, which has developed to become stable. Perhaps, no social institution equals the system of education in terms of its strong and rich legacy, reinforced by laws, regulations, culture and traditions; a system that also rests on a number of principles, most notably those of equality of access and basic education for all" (Jónasson, 2016, p. 4). Today’s learners are more connected and tech-savvy than any previous generation (Siegel, 2014). Consequently, educators and policy-makers must move away from the early twentieth century factory assembly line approach to learning popularized and problematized by Sir Ken Robinson (2006) in his TedTalk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ Instead, they must adopt practices rooted in the very skills needed for the future to offer a proficiency-based and personalised approach to learning. This shifts the constant in education from time to learning (Wilson, 2018).

In the United States and to a somewhat lesser extent in Canada, “there is growing consensus… that the primary goal of the K–12 education system is to prepare all students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers” (Martinez, 2014). This extends to an understanding that all learners require the same core skills, particularly in mathematics and language arts. Research is beginning to show a correlation between developing cognitive skills and an academic mindset and academic success. Deeper learning incorporates these with required future skills. An academic mindset and propensity for lifelong learning have strong correlations with learner self‑efficacy, another skill that would be of benefit to citizens in the future (Martinez, 2014).

Notwithstanding all of the above, in Canada, as in a number of other countries, there is a decided need and desire to right historical wrongs and injustices, particularly those directed at First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples by successive non-indigenous governments and non-indigenous settlers. The effort required to both decolonize and indigenize curricula across the country, to restore the true histories of our peoples, is intense (Bartlett et al., 2012; Ng-A-Fook, 2014; Quinn, 2019). It presupposes that non‑indigenous educators are willing to allow their worldviews to change or broaden by engaging in practices associated with two-eyed seeing, a broadening of personal perspectives in which one learns to “see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all” (Bartlett et al., 2012, p. 335). Educators should be willing – willing to expand their own minds, values, beliefs and worldviews much the same as they are trying to expand those of their learners (Ng-A-Fook, 2014). The challenge, however, is that most teacher candidates at universities in Canadian cities are white, middle-aged women, many of whom have traditionally arrived without any conceptions regarding white privilege or the need to reconcile the past (Nardozi, 2016). Hopefully, with discussions related to recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and more recent global conversations in the media regarding racism and white privilege, this will change.

Colonized learning challenges the concept of powerful knowledge because it prevents some learners from seeing themselves and their culture in the curriculum (Quinn, 2019; Ragoonaden & Mueller, 2017). Only when knowledges and ways of knowing are woven together in a more comprehensive manner through a process of decolonization, a daunting challenge for any curriculum specialist, can the curriculum address “the coloniality of power, of knowledge and of being” (Quinn, 2019, p. 12). Kirby (2020) argues that climate change also challenges the concept of powerful knowledge because of the high value placed on science and the fact that science education is not available to everyone. Young (2014) and Hordern (2018) also points to the formal and informal rules established by subject experts about what constitutes valid knowledge and what is required for learners to progress academically.

Values, ideologies, and beliefs provide the foundation for curriculum, much the same as they do for education overall. For educators to make significant progress in redesigning curriculum for the future, they require a broad understanding about the various purposes of education along with theories of knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy as well as a solid grounding in the implications of decolonization and indigenization (Quinn, 2019). Deng (2020) and Kulasegaram et al (2018) argue that there is more to deciding what should be taught than theories of knowledge. In addition, consideration should be given to the needs of both society and learners.

Concluding Thoughts

Of course, revolutionizing education (Robinson, 2006) to personalize learning for a new future requires a fundamental understanding about the diversity of skills, talents, aptitudes, cultural requirements, and socio-economic factors that collectively and uniquely shape learners (Quinn, 2019). “In a world of diverse talents and aspirations, we will increasingly discover and accept that one size does not fit all” (Marx, 2014). It is no longer sufficient to assign success based on what learners know; what is important is how that knowledge is applied (Marope et al., 2019). If education is intended to generate productive, participatory citizens, it will be critical to educate holistically so that everyone has the ability to function effectively across disciplines, to creatively see things from different perspectives, and to find solutions for paradox, complexity and controversy.


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