12 Apr 2023

How Future Schools Can Help Us Create a Better, Thriving World 

Valerie Hannon. Source: Innovation Unit

Valerie Hannon is a global thought leader, inspiring systems to re-think what ‘success’ will mean in the twenty-first century and the implications for education. Valerie is a radical voice for change, whilst grounded in a deep understanding of how education systems currently work. A former Director of Education, and adviser to the Department of Education, she is a consultant to the OECD on its major future-focused education initiatives. She co-founded Innovation Unit (UK and AUS/NZ) and the Global Leaders Education Partnership. She has worked on every continent, advising governments, systems, agencies and schools about innovation and change in education; always focusing on transformative change for the common good.

This article is a part of the New Education Story Insight Series, aiming to showcase examples of what education transformation looks like in different contexts. Valerie elaborates how future-focused schools adopt ideas and practices that can facilitate system transformation and contribute to a thriving world.

The role of purpose in redesigning the institution 

 In 2020, as covid-19 hit the world, it interrupted ‘normality’ for everyone on earth. The pandemic significantly affected the education sector, leaving an ambiguous impact on schools that is yet to be defined in the years to come. And while some people were desperate to return to their old lives, patterns and structures, others saw an opportunity to rethink – to step back and ask fundamental questions.

We should take this chance to think about plans and actions that can transform the education system and prepare it for the future. But how do we do it? One of the fundamental questions we should ask is the fit of the dominant model of the school for the future.

Although one of the outcomes of covid-19 has been the view that the ‘school’ as an institution has had its day, I don’t believe the face-to-face institution of school can be made redundant. The social aspect of school is a vital component in thriving communities and in fostering the well-being of young people – if the institution is redesigned. And that redesign is even more imperative if we want our schools to drive towards equity and create a better world to enable us all to thrive in life.

To create systemic change, we must take a step back and consider the overarching question – what is education for? What is the school’s purpose? What job do we want schools to do, and what kind of new school do we need for the future?

I join the cannon of voices in Big Change’s global research “A New Education Story” who highlight purpose as a key driver for transforming education systems. The question of a school’s purpose needs to be reimagined and reset in the context of the challenges and opportunities we face in the world. Without a refreshed purpose, we won’t be able to create the shifts needed at a system level.

Design principles of future-ready schools

To explore the nature of the future school, I conducted my research focused on what “A New Education Story” labels as driver practice. I began by reviewing the global organisations that systematically engage in future thinking. I looked at future-focused schools in diverse settings from California to Delhi, from New Zealand to Spain that teach us about what a new ‘normal’ might look like. My research has shown that out of the work of such organisations you can identify the design principles that produce remarkably encouraging outcomes: 

  • Values that future schools should manifest,
  • The operational philosophy that demonstrate those values in practice,
  • The learners’ experience of all that.
Clusters of design principles. Source: The Future School is here.

The researched organisations identified the following principles focused on values:

  • Purpose driven: Future schools should focus on the purpose of both individual and collective thriving, and on helping their learners to acquire personal purpose: building their ‘why?’
  • Equity-focused: such schools should work to address inequities and social justice, and help young people to do so
  • Promoting identity: each learner’s social and cultural identity must be nurtured, cultivating a sense of belonging and value
  • Strength-based: the school must build from each (and every) individual’s existing assets
  • Relevant: learning should be relevant to the local and global community; ‘work that matters’ should be an important feature

But values mean nothing if their force is not felt in translation to practice. So the following set of principles focuses on operational philosophy:

  • Learning focused: understanding how learning happens, drawing from the very best in learning sciences and research should be at the heart of choices around pedagogy.
  • Flexible/dynamic: the school should design and iterate different modes of teaching and learning to meet the evolving needs of learners and the wider world. In an age of rapid change and disruption this is an imperative.
  • Technology enhanced: future schools should use technology extensively and responsibly to liberate learning, amplify effective and diverse modalities, and to enable both personalisation and collaboration.
  • Ecosystemic: schools should be seriously porous, with many active partners in organising learning. It should be deeply connected to its local community (and to the global community through technology) to provide richer learning experiences and diverse pathways for learners.

The third cluster focuses on learners’ experience of the other two clusters of principles. These are a relatively new preoccupation for schools:

  • Personalised: the learner’s experience should relate to her personal needs, passions, development, and purposes. These are at the centre: not the institution, the teacher, or external bodies of knowledge.
  • Integrated: the learner should experience meaning through learning that transcends siloes, building connections within and between disciplines. This is about utilising many forms: disciplinary; intra-disciplinary; cross-disciplinary.
  • Inclusive: the culture should be experienced as respectful and welcoming.
  • Relational: individuals should be known, good relationships are the basis for deep learning. Collaboration is the norm.
  • Empowering: future schools should build and leverage learner agency (or self-direction), providing opportunities for learners to take increasing responsibility and ownership over their learning.

While many of the identified design principles sound familiar, they are rarely used as the basis for decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Conscious adoption of design principles that speak to the future conditions helps schools come to different kinds of solutions. 

Six archetypes and specific examples of schools

These principles aren’t a recipe, they are the ingredients. Different schools across the world are combining them differently, according to their own context and to the overall mission. Many of these schools are also addressing some of the key challenges and opportunities of our time. In fact, we found six areas (archetypes) where schools had determined to make a difference to the world and were employing selections of the design principles mentioned above to help them do it.

1. Schools devoted to growing ethical leadership

The Liger Leadership Academy in Cambodia believes that the future demands new kinds of leadership: ethical, democratized; leadership that is based not on class or wealth or entitlement but by competence and values. The school is shaped to create the leaders of the future. It highlights the centrality of the design principles of ‘purpose’, ‘empowering’, and ‘ecosystemic’, which help the school derive their curriculum and pedagogy.

2. Schools focused on building our technological future

The Kosen Schools in Japan, Chung Nam Samsung Academy in Korea, and Wooranna Park in Australia believe we need to create young people who are not just consumers, victims or objects of technology; but rather combine technological confidence and competence with the value frame that serves humanity. The Kosen Schools prepare students not just for the digitally automated workplace, but also to develop the entrepreneurial and problem solving competencies to shape the technologies of the future. As the school’s ambition is to be learner-centred, the role of teacher has evolved into coaches, mentors, facilitators and evaluators. For this school, design principles of ‘technology enhanced’ and ‘learning focused are pre-eminent.

The evolution of this type of school may be a fundamental part of our overall quest to thrive.

3. Schools emphasising our environmental thriving

The Green School in Indonesia, Mexico and New Zealand represent the idea that we have no future unless every child becomes environmentally literate, passionate and active. The school educates for sustainability, through community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning. Derived from its key principles of relevance, purpose, relational and integrated, the curriculum integrates subjects and skills to more accurately reflect how things work in the real world.

4. Schools committed to enabling their learners to navigate the fast-changing world of work and employment

Schools like Tri-County Early College in the US focus on the idea that the future labour market will be disrupted and volatile, so learners need to become career navigators. To facilitate the mindset essential to navigate success in the world of work, the school changed its approach to assessment, which is one of the actions identified in the New Education Story for the driver practice. The school uses a competency-based model to allow each student to master the knowledge and skills they need when they are ready. The school also offers internships, which are an important dimension of a learner’s experience and a central part of introducing learners to multiple models of working life. Internship as a practice helps realise a number of the design principles. 

5. Schools that grow entrepreneurs and changemakers

The Riverside School (Gujarat), the Nuvu Studio (US), and LearnLife (Barcelona) address the challenge of growing the world’s capacity to create and manage change and innovation. LearnLife splits learners into groups – explorers (11 to 14-year-olds); creators (14 to 16); and changemakers (16+), which allows them to use the time and structure the working week accordingly. Such schools are drawing upon design principles for learning that develop entrepreneurial competencies and the value frame that drives motivation to make change for the common good.

6. Schools that give particular emphasis to nurturing a sense of identity

Increasing numbers of schools are focusing on the development of identity. The Nga Tapuwae school (New Zealand) is a Maori immersion school. It believes that in order to create successful futures, their young people need to discover who they are, together with a sense of belonging. The school combines design principles to achieve this outcome. This effort is vital for humanity’s future in light of the legacies of racial injustice and oppression; migrations; mixed-race heritage; and in some cultures, the dangerous loss of coherent narrative about identity for the white working class, especially males. 


Creating schools fit for the future is essential if we are to build a better, thriving world. Schools that systematically engage in future thinking ask fundamental questions, helping them unlock innovation with transformative potential. The practices and approaches they use to draw on sets of design principles that equip them to face up to the challenges of the new epoch. I believe that transformed schools are key to building a better future where we can all thrive at the global, societal, interpersonal, and intrapersonal levels.

The latest book of Valerie Hannon with Julie Temperley “FutureSchool: How Schools Around the World are Applying Learning Design Principles For a New Era” is available on Routledge and Amazon.

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