It’s no surprise to anyone that the world around us is changing faster than most people can keep up. Rapid technological innovation, increasing globalization of businesses and interconnectivity among people all over the world, and quickly evolving social and cultural norms are all helping to usher in a “brave new world” of sorts, with tangible ripple effects that affect how we live at all levels.
Education is no different. We’ve already witnessed a paradigm shift in the way children are being educated in recent decades, with a greater focus on a STEM-centered (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education beginning in K-12 and continuing through college, and technology making learning more inventive and interactive.
For example, in a recent article in Education Week, Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, said the following regarding the biggest impact that technology is having in education: “Right now, the value is in access to high-quality resources. We’ve moved from 100 percent of learning materials coming from an out-of-date textbook, to interactive materials, and students in remote locations having access to high-quality resources. Technology has enabled learners to explore and learn on their own in ways that were harder to do when the resources all had to come from the teacher. It’s very powerful.”
Current and emerging changes in an increasingly globalized world is leading many people—including education experts and educational technology insiders, as well as parents and students—to speculate on what could possibly replace our traditional K-12 and college learning models as we move forward. A perceptual shift regarding how educators are viewing their role in teaching students is taking place, with various ideas regarding a “traditional alternative approach” gaining attention.
A recent article in Psychology Today takes a closer look at “Education’s Future: What Will Replace K-12 and College?” If you’re curious about what learning traditional learning alternatives could potentially disrupt the current field of education as we know it, keep reading!
In his article, Peter Gray, Ph.D. and research professor at Boston College, as well as author of Free to Learn, highlights some of the deep problems with the current educational system: “Ever more people are becoming aware of the colossal waste of money, tragic waste of young people’s time, and cruel imposition of stress and anxiety produced by` our coercive educational system… Children come into the world biologically designed to educate themselves. Their curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness were all shaped by natural selection to serve the function of education. So what do we do? At great expense (roughly $15,000 per child per year for public K-12), we send them to schools that deliberately shut off their educative instincts—that is, suppress their curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness—and then, at great expense and trouble, very inefficiently and ineffectively try to educate them through systems of reward and punishment that play on hubris, shame, and fear.”
The problems in education that Gray is passionately warning us about are not relegated to the formative K-12 learning years. He sees serious issues in higher education as well: “…what about those years of schooling that we call “higher education,” especially the four years toward a college degree? Many young people, because of family and societal pressure, see that as essentially compulsory, too. For them, college is just a continuation of high school—grades 13, 14, 15, & 16. And those years of schooling are even much more expensive than the earlier ones, which expense must generally be paid by the parents or through loans that can saddle a person for decades."
Gray sees a more cost effective way forward in education, an approach that takes advantage of the natural way students learn and includes practical, real-world work exposure. He outlined the following three-phased approach to education as an effective way to approach K-12 and college education moving forward:
Phase I: Learning about your world, yourself, and how the two fit together.
According to Gray, the initial years of an individual’s life (the first 15 to 18 years, actually) are designed as a time of self-exploration, play, and discovery. We come to understand and make sense of our world and our place in it through these approaches. We also learn about who we are as unique individuals, what drives us and what we’re passionate about. Then, ideally we start formulating a plan for how we want to devote our time and energy in the future, as productive and functional adult members of society.
Gray believes that this approach typifies “Self-Directed Education,” also referred to as “unschooling,” and in his vision of the future, “publicly supported learning-and-recreation centers will enable everyone, regardless of family income, to educate themselves well in these ways.”
Phase II: Exploring a career path.
Gray contends that a big problem with our current educational system is that it is largely disconnected from clear pathways to the professional world: “One of the many problems with of our current educational system is that even after 17 years of schooling, including college, students have very little understanding of potential careers. The only adult vocation they have witnessed directly is that of classroom teacher. A student may have decided, for some reason (maybe because it sounds prestigious), to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, or a business executive, but the student knows little about what it means to be such a thing.”
This is a big problem, and can ultimately lead to stressed out and confused parents and teens who have no practical tools for determining what career path is right for them.
Gray has a more practical plan for combining real-world career experience and exposure with an education: “In the rational system of education that I have in mind, students would spend time working in real-world settings that give them an idea of what a career entails before they undertake specialized training for that career…In this way they would further their education and gain real world experience while drawing at least some income rather than accumulating debt.”
This approach to education isn’t exactly far off on the horizon. In fact, many companies are already recognizing the value of providing the next generation of employees with early exposure to potential career fields, and the rising number of apprenticeships across the country, according to available U.S. Labor Department data, is proof.
Phase III: Becoming credentialed for specialized work.
Gray believes that getting credentialed for ones’ chosen field of work should be an essential aspect of their education. This should include any required specialized learning and training, as well as preparation for any testing required prior to entering the field. According to Gray, “This is the only phase of the educational system where testing should be essential.”
Obviously, this level of individualization in education would require a complete departure from the one currently being used, which is why Gray feels strongly that ushering in a Self-Directed Education model as early as possible in a learner’s formative years is critical.
In sum, what does Gray see happening to the educational models and institutions we already have in place? “The graded K-12 schools will gradually disappear, replaced by age-mixed learning centers supporting Self-Directed Education. Universities will continue on, with public support as centers of research and scholarship. They will not enroll “students,” as we think of them today, but, like other institutions, will bring in assistants and apprentices, some of whom may move on, through experience and desire, to become full-fledged scientists and scholars. Community colleges, which already provide useful, often hands-on training for a variety of careers at relatively low cost, may expand and become part of a growing system of apprenticeships that involve some classroom training related to potential employment.”
Clearly, Gray has very specific ideas regarding what could possibly replace the current K-12 and college models—whether or not they are enacted on a wide scale, and the effect they will ultimately have, remains to be seen.