By Pasi Sahlberg & Saku Tuominen
Many education systems aim to educate young people in how to flourish in an increasingly unpredictable world. Until early 2020 this goal remained an abstract idea without concrete examples in the real life. At best, students practiced creative thinking in imaginary exercises outside the school where the normal rules didn´t work anymore and new ideas were required to move on. At worst students were lectured in classrooms about uncertainty and what to do with it.
Then came the coronavirus and put all these things that we have taught and learned at school about 21st century skills to the ultimate test. 2020 has seen the biggest ever social experiment in education, a real-life masterclass on uncertainty. And we have a lot to learn about it.
How have we done so far in this experiment? Some have done better than others. Many have suffered, some flourished. We believe that the best is still to come.
We shouldn’t let a big crisis like ours go to waste. There are various ways to look at uncertainty, but we suggest that the decisions taken on the following three issues will shape the future of education:
Nobody knows exactly how long this abnormal situation will continue. Some see that this is just a temporary disruption that will go away when the vaccine is available. Others think that we are moving towards a new normal where education systems will experience similar global shocks more frequently. Should we invest in being better prepared the next time, or treat this as a one-off crisis?
Nobody knows how effective the selected solutions to this disruption in schools actually will be in longer run. There seems to be a common belief that, for example, blended learning models will in one way or the other become common practices in most schools. But then there are those who predict that teaching and learning should be built on face-to-face social interaction and that should be the only mode of schooling.
Nobody knows how the world outside schools will change and how these unpredictable changes will affect schools. In many places national curriculum is a fixed set of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn at school regardless of changing situations in the world. Some other education systems are moving towards more flexible curricula that allow schools to adjust to the changing conditions.
School is a complex social system and one of the key features of complex systems is uncertainty. Whether we like it or not, nothing is certain (except death and taxes as they say). Education is also risky business. We know from research as well as from our own experience that the link between teaching and learning is often uncertain.
Yet, in an uncertain world we often look for a bullet-proof solution that would fix the problem. By now we should have learned that this is often the wrong way. The better way – in improving education and beyond – is to accept uncertainty as an ingredient of life and try to use it for positive renewal of current situations.
At best this ongoing social experiment can help us to shift our current mindsets and learn to see new opportunities in our complex world of uncertainty. We should accept the following three things:
- Education is a complex ecosystem and learning as an organic process is part of it. In practice: We should move from ‘one-size-fit-all’ teaching towards individualised learning.
- Making mistakes is an integral part of successful learning. In practice: We should move from assigning tasks or question that have one right answer towards working on genuine open-ended problems that require divergent thinking.
- Nobody knows exactly how best to cope with uncertainty, but everybody has something to contribute to the solution. In practice: We should move from an individual ‘winner-takes-it-all’ mentality towards collaborative efforts towards new ideas.
If we want to succeed in this ongoing social experiment, we all need to acknowledge that even if life may be challenging and hard at times, it often comes with a silver lining. Let’s see this painful crisis as an unique learning opportunity.
This year 2020 has been like no other year we remember. How are you doing? Are you frustrated or grateful? Do you wish we would soon go back to ‘old normal’, or are you excited about the emerging new era?
We hope that you are still passionate and flourishing in the uncertainty. If you are, you can help your students to feel the same.