During a school holiday not too long ago, I visited a museum that featured a meticulous recreation of a Victorian classroom. Chalk and caning aside, I was struck by the similarities with classrooms today, well over one hundred years later: a dais, a board, desks and exercise books all seemed reassuringly familiar.
Sure, educational philosophies have pendulated between traditionalism and progressivism various times, and pedagogy has matured to take into account what science and research have ascertained about how best to teach and learn since those desks were last occupied by school children who weren’t dressing up.
This got me thinking about the future. But not in the way that you might imagine: my thinking was not an abstraction about the ways in which society will be transformed by technologies that haven’t been invented yet or about preparing children for jobs that we haven’t yet imagined. You see, I prefer to think about the future as something that you build, not something that you simply enter without agency. And the best way to build the future is to lay strong foundations in the present.
For all their ills, the past few months have given us an opportunity to evaluate what a different kind of teaching and learning might look like. And the conclusion is perhaps not what one might expect. Technology has undeniably helped to keep the heart of the school beating. Lessons have continued without interruption, schoolwork has continued to flow and we have continued to work together, separated only by distance.
While accentuating our distinctively human ability to overcome difficulty through the judicious application of technology and innovation, as time went on a connection exclusively reliant on ethernet cables and wireless access points also proved to be very much second best to being in the physical company of other folk. Offshoring the school system to the internet turns out to be possible, it’s just not preferable.
There remains of course a place for the sort of informal online learning that works well for the self-directed, the inquisitive and the knowledge-thirsty. We have all resorted to YouTube to find out how to change the oven clock or to Wikipedia to discover with surprise that we were never taught about the English Armada. On the other hand, formal online learning of the sort sometimes offered by universities and other specialist outfits has remained on the fringes of the educational landscape because, quite bluntly, given the choice, people prefer people.
Strangely this description of the present may offer the clearest glimpse of the future yet. Despite enjoying the use of technology that was firmly in the realm of science fiction in the living memory of many, classrooms remain identifiable through generations. Whatever new technologies arise, they will do what technology does best: they will become invisible for us to rely on inadvertently, assisting people in the indispensable endeavour of learning from those who came before us, so that those living in the present can become the agents of their own future.
If I were foolish enough to predict the future, I’d probably advance that artificial intelligence will help pupils routinely to navigate through personalised curricula in support of old-fashioned timetabled lessons, while assisting still very human teachers in curating and selecting resources, as well as in marking and assessing. But I wager that in another 30 years, by the mid 2050s, we’ll still find classrooms reassuringly familiar. This is the future I would like to build. But I don’t really know. And neither do you. All we really know for sure is that making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.
This article was first published in The Gryphon, Embley’s termly chapbook.