Changing Education in Postnormal times

Maya Van Leemput


'Education is a future-facing activity. Assumptions about and aspirations for the future underpin all levels of educational activity: from learners deciding what to study in the light of their aspirations for their future lives, to national debates over the curriculum and teaching methods that will best equip societies for future social, economic and cultural worlds. From discussions of national strategy, to day-to-day interactions between educators and learners, ideas about possible futures are instrumental in rationalising and generating educational change.' [1]

Authors Keri Facer and Richard Sandford are not mistaken. Whatever the times -and despite its reproduction of knowledge from the past- education always has been a forward-looking activity. It is no surprise that even long before we started to call present day reality postnormal, education featured strongly on futures agendas and we can recognise futures concerns on some educational agendas too.

Facer and Sandford formulated their ideas ten years ago in the framework of the Beyond Current Horizons programme of the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families. The 280 page report is still available online. It is also still relevant, as evidenced by its closing section entitled ‘Dealing with uncertainty: towards a sustainable educational ecology for surviving the 21st century’. It takes an unequivocally positive stance to uncertainty, claiming: ‘The uncertainties of the future, then, should not be seen as problems to be overcome by gathering ever more detailed information, but as liberating and potentially empowering for educators…’ (p 242)

This attention for uncertainty and the report’s call for sharing work towards educational change between multiple stakeholders and actors, give it a distinctly postnormal flavor. More concretely, Beyond Current Horizons takes account of surface uncertainty, pointing out the current direction of change in education, while emphasizing that the amplitude of this change cannot be known and as a matter of fact, this change is not sure to occur.  The report also recognizes shallow uncertainty, with attention for drivers of change that may produce an entirely new context for education. Significant energy disruptions, the emergence of new health concerns or major privacy and security failures are highlighted as well as changing social and economic landscapes and climate change.

Despite the researchers’ best efforts, deep uncertainty remains largely invisible and unthought futures remain unthought in this report. Nevertheless, Beyond Current Horizons does suggest ways to move thinking on education forward in Postnormal Times with a sharp opening quote from an educational reformer of the previous century: 'The first need is to become aware of the world in which we live; to survey its forces; to see the opposition in forces that are contending for mastery; to make up one’s mind which of these forces come from a past that the world in its potential powers has outlived and which are indicative of a better and happier future.' (Dewey, 1958)

At the CPPFS London workshop this week, we will certainly be keeping in mind this piece of advice from Dewey for conceiving change in education:  

‘The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.’ [2]

[1] FACER, K & SANDFORD, R. The next 25 years: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. In: Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Vol 26, 1, February 2010, pp 74-93.

[2] Dewey, John (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

by Maya Van Leemput

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