To Infinity and Beyond: Accessing New Ways of Knowing and Being for the Future of Humanity
Alex Battison is a Senior Deputy Head at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire, England. Outside of school leadership, Alex is Chair of Educational Futures at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Programme, a Global Ambassador for HundrED, a Salzburg Global Fellow, and a member of the Association of Professional Futurists. He also consults for organisations such as The Premier League and Reluctantly Brave as a leader of high performing learning environments, transformative cultures and eco-systemic leadership. He is an international speaker and writer on leadership, futures and education; his dream is to co-create the future of education.
The article is a part of the New Education Story Global Insight Series on Transforming Education.
The recently published UNESCO report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education is a call to arms to transform education. The report represents a growing view over the past decade that there is a strong need to rethink education and socially innovate a system that must become relevant and responsive to the complex realities youth experience in today’s world (Facer, 2011; Jenkins et al, 2016; Chung-shin et al. 2018).
When considering these complex realities and the reasons why educational change is required, examples of contemporary challenges include: widespread and radical social and economic inequalities; the widespread proliferation of fake news; the manipulation of data and micro-targeting of messages to create social influence; differing rights to educational access; increasing social isolation, mental health challenges and a crisis of identity and purpose; the exponential growth in computational processing capacity (Moore’s Law); energy, mineral resource and climate change remaining as significant issues across the world; the continued rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning; an ageing global population; the rise of globalisation and migration; the break-up of family and social ties; multiculturalism and weakening civic engagement (Naval and Jover, 2006; Facer 2011; Kyllonen, 2021; UNESCO, 2021).
In the face of such challenge and possibility (UNESCO, 2021: 59) argue that ‘when seen from a perspective of possibility, it is clear that precious few secondary educational models are sufficiently releasing the incredible potential of young people’. One of the reasons for this is that education in Britain today can still be seen to be historically located in a system ‘designed for the needs of an industrial era, a time of mass production and specific professions’ (Kyllonen, 2021: 314); in essence, our institutions are built on frameworks of belief and design that are now not fit-for-purpose within such local and global context and prioritise memorising facts, working individually, and doing so in subject silos. This may have been suitable for a time when society lived with predictable jobs and more linear future trajectories, but is much less so now.
Furthermore, since their inception across the 19th and 20th centuries, and most recently spurred on by globalisation and the development of New Public Management in the 1980s (White, 1994), national education systems have been developed as tools for global competitiveness, seeking to increase human capital by creating ‘lifelong learners’ and ‘knowledge-based’ economies (Dale and Robertson, 2002). This has resulted in a global rhetoric of ‘world class’ (Alexander, 2011) and a best practice, which have become common within educational policy and encouraged the development of such national drives as ‘Race to the Top’ in America in 2010.
As part of this quest for higher standards within a neo-liberal, competitive environment, more content has been placed in the national examinations and more control sought by the state over what is taught, how it is taught and how much time there is to teach it (Apple, 2000; Hill, 2010; Ball, 2017). In 2010, the UK Government stated that ‘what really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors. That is what will define our economic growth and our country’s future. The truth is, at the moment we are still standing still while others race past’.
This rhetoric suggests a more content-driven and rigorously assessed curriculum will increase standards and benefit the economy. However, under this assumption, the system can now be thought of to focus too narrowly on academic outcomes, and in doing so, neglects the wider attitudes, knowledge and skills that help young people to thrive (ACER 2020). It also prioritises performance in high-stakes exams over genuine learning and development, despite the many limitations of grades as the only measure of success (Coe 2010; Sherwood 2019).
Such a history of operation has resulted in an environment where test scores may have improved, but where young people in the UK are amongst the least happy and healthy in the world (UNICEF 2020). Indeed, within the last decade, policymakers have pursued a series of reforms according to this agenda, but with a limited positive impact on outcomes for young people, especially those who are most disadvantaged (Big Change, 2022); such an unjust system has led to slow progress on closing socio-economic achievement gaps (EPI 2017) and may have been wiped out entirely by school closures (EEF 2020) caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much collaborative societal effort is required to affect the eco-systemic status quo and transform, not reform, for global change. Whether it is the development of more compassionate capitalism, greater appreciation for the outdated nature of our current perceptions of what ‘intelligence’ is, or allowing collaboration for social good to disrupt the competitive economic societal norm, we must embrace new versions of knowledge to combat the challenges we face and become better placed to advance humanity.
At the risk of over-simplifying things, I’ve tried to group the new knowledge we could access into three different categories:
Moving from an industrial to an eco-systemic mindset
We should no longer be envisioning a future that supports our current silo approach to education where subjects are taught in isolation. The world is an ecosystem of complex and interconnected systems (cultural, historical, social, natural, economic, political, technological, local, regional, global etc) and our education system must access the knowledge required to thrive within such connectedness. It is a different paradigm, and therefore requires different approaches to our currently assumed ways of operating and knowing.
Societies need to move to a way of knowing that envisions humans, the natural world, and the technological one, as embedded nested cycles of interaction and connection. So too can we embrace and deepen our understanding of socio-cultural theories and learn how we are products of society on one hand and sustain that status quo on the other through our actions and the culture that generates: we can learn more about the deep acupuncture points required across a society to enable a shift in the ways of being of an ecosystem. Leading change through this lens becomes a process of personal transformation that can lead to creating a distributed movement for change that a system accepts rather than rejects. We need to acknowledge that our actions in the world in one area will impact another – that we are part of the same dynamic system – and that ways of knowing through this lens are different to a perspective that doesn’t appreciate that.
Collaborative and inter-generational knowledge production
Our ability to construct meaning with others is going to be crucial to the collaborative endeavours required in the years ahead, and generating such knowledge is very different to the ability to construct meaning on your own. Creating meaning with others has interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions to learning and to ways of knowing. Learning how to learn with others encourages students to collaborate, listen, respond (or not respond), negotiate, compromise, and remain open to different perspectives. This can influence a student’s own perspective and opinion, enabling an individual’s views to be adjusted or changed.
Intergenerational knowledge production is the area, I think, where we have the furthest to go. I’m aware from my own doctoral research that authentic co-design, co-production and shared ownership are incredibly difficult for many adults and young people to achieve within the highly structured and hierarchal school systems and societies we so often live in. It involves personal transformation, re-adjusting perspectives, and holding space rather than power with youth (or each other). It creates the opportunity to learn to work together differently and includes a change of relationship that typically involves a feeling of being uncomfortable on an individual level due to being out of a comfort zone and having to overcome perceived and known ways of operating. Intergenerational work broadens horizons, shares responsibility, builds wisdom, communities and diverse forms of intelligence as well as generating more fulsome solutions for issues being faced.
Futures thinking and imagination
Futures thinking is something I have been following closely over the years and is certainly something that is a growth area for education. It involves knowledge that can be created by imagination, playfulness, systems and design thinking, and scenario-based exercises. It also takes into account anticipatory theory, trends and forecasting as preparation for likely future occurrences.
Schools and systems around the world mainly engage with the preparation narrative; for example, ‘preparing your child for the future’ is a commonly used statement the world over. I believe that paying attention to anticipation and likely future scenarios is certainly of interest, and so a ‘preparation’ element has its place. However, this current status quo is indicative of our current environment, one where adults assume futures and take control, telling youth about the future that they foresee for them, and to batten down the hatches because you’ve got to be prepared for what is to come. P.S. don’t argue with me please [child X], as I’m in charge here.
I believe that much more equilibrium is needed. Youth need to be emancipated from the dominance of the adult preparation narrative and involved in designing education that empowers them as purposeful influencers and creators in a world that has not yet come into being. Schools should be the midwife for such innovation and be co-creating their future work with youth, embracing a preparation and creation element with, in my opinion, slightly more emphasis on the latter. The message is that we can act now and create the future; we don’t have to sit and wait for something assumed to happen to us.
Such thinking values different types of knowledge: particularly the ontological belief in a world of complex, inter-connected, nested cycles which interact with each other and can call into question the usefulness of the westernised vision of time as a linear trajectory. It involves paying close attention to emotions, such as the worry and hopelessness that can so often be felt by those trying to make a difference (particularly when just starting out on that journey) in areas such as climate change or social justice; it also requires us to pay particular attention to healing and inter-cultural and historical knowledge. In the case of the latter, we must continue to find ways of bringing the diversity of our human race together in different spaces to reflect on the past, acknowledge the hurt (caused, for example, by discrimination) and to imagine different ways of being that heal, foster community, challenge the far-right political agenda and competitive ridden economic narrative, and evolve more collaborative, compassionate and humble ways of being together.
On the way to transformation
The following are all examples of schools that are disrupting the status quo and trying to access these new ways of knowing, engendering new possible directions for the future of humanity.
- The BE Institute (BE standing for Biophilic – human flourishing in an interconnected world) is an organisation currently being developed to empower a new model of schooling in the world. The curriculum will be interdisciplinary, project-based learning, new methods of assessment that take into account the diversity of a human being are being developed, and relationships built across communities that places the child at the centre of things. Larger schools will operate, a new generation of teachers can be supported, a new compassionate capitalism can be built with global corporates through collaborative community building, and smaller community hubs can be generated – something that could involve co-working spaces and bring communities together across generations.
- The Learnlife school and Brave Generation Academy. In these examples, the school is not at the centre of education; the community is, and embedded learning hubs pop up in different locations to support a diversity of learning experiences.
- Cities of Learning (RSA UK London). A programme that is being piloted in Plymouth and Brighton, creating digital badges for young people, whereby different actors within the local community took on responsibility for stretching and challenging the young person and exposing them to different sites of knowledge, ways of learning, ways of being so local businesses, other organisations, charities.
Some more examples:
- School of Humanity is an online school looking to create the future of interdisciplinary learning and human flourishing through collaborative real-world projects.
- Think Global School is an innovative travelling high school where students live and learn in four countries each year, making connections between their studies and the world around them.r.
- The Green School in Bali, Mexico, and New Zealand also aims to disrupt and transform the status quo.
- School 21 has developed a series of pedagogies and approaches that give students the chance to find their voice, develop deep knowledge and understanding, and create beautiful work that has real value beyond the classroom.
- XP school in Doncaster is creating a sustainable ecosystem approach. XP is teaching a classic British curriculum GCSEs through project-based real-world learning.
- Riverside School in India has designed, implemented and shared a unique user-centred curriculum that is providing schools with an alternative model which focuses on quality of learning and student well-being.
It is encouraging to see so much innovation and new models of schooling, exploration of assessment to support it, as well as novel ways of societal being, becoming co-constructed and brought into life. The future of humanity needs new ways to flourish and grow together; one nested industry or cycle can’t do it alone. This is about transforming ways of sustainable living and supporting the collaborative generation of shared futures and societal healing.
It is also, therefore, excellent to see other actors in our regional and global eco-systems supporting the change, whether the excellent work continuing to be done by HundrED across the world; the conversations and disruptive work enabled by Salzburg Global Seminar (and partners such as Diplomatic Courier); or the inspirational work of Big Change, The Lego Foundation, Brookings Institute and UNESCO.
We must keep this conversation alive; agree, disagree and re-calibrate. Here’s to a new, brave future for us all to build together.
Alexander, R., 2011. Evidence, rhetoric and collateral damage: the problematic pursuit of ‘world class’ standards. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(3), pp.265-286.
Apple, M.W., 2001. Comparing neo-liberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative education, 37(4), pp.409-423.
Ball, S.J., 2017. Laboring to relate: Neoliberalism, embodied policy, and network dynamics. Peabody Journal of Education, 92(1), pp.29-41.
Big Change, 2022. Published Online: A New Education Story (big-change.org)
Chung-Shin, Y., Renaux, J., Chikermane, V. and Rajani, J.J., 2018. Co-designing a social innovation model for changemakers.
Coe, R., 2010. Understanding comparability of examination standards. Research Papers in Education, 25(3), pp.271-284.
Coe, R., Weidmann, B., Coleman, R. and Kay, J., 2020. Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: rapid evidence assessment. June 2020.
Dale, R. and Robertson, S.L., 2002. The varying effects of regional organizations as subjects of globalization of education. Comparative education review, 46(1), pp.10-36.
Facer, K., 2011. Learning futures: Education, technology and social change. Routledge.
García, E. and Weiss, E., 2017. Reducing and Averting Achievement Gaps: Key Findings from the Report Education Inequalities at the School Starting Gate And Comprehensive Strategies to Mitigate Early Skills Gaps. Economic Policy Institute.
Hill, D., 2010. Class, capital, and education in this neoliberal and neoconservative period. In Revolutionizing pedagogy (pp. 119-143). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N. and Zimmerman, A., 2016. By any media necessary. In By Any Media Necessary. New York University Press.
Kyllonen, P.C., 2021. Taxonomy of cognitive abilities and measures for assessing artificial intelligence and robotics capabilities.
Naval, C. and Jover, G., 2006. The Research on Moral and Civic Education in the Spanish Educational Theory–Evolution and current trends.
Ramalingam, D., Anderson, P., Duckworth, D., Scoular, C. and Heard, J., 2020. Creative thinking: Skill development framework.
UNICEF. Hallam, I., Mental Health, Wellbeing, Resilience and Character: Helping Children to Flourish and Thrive. In Challenges in Early Years and Primary Education (pp. 141-155). Routledge.
UNESCO, 2022. Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. UN.
White, D., 1994. The practice of teaching in the era of globalisation. Critical Studies in Education, 35(1), pp.29-38.