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Future-oriented views of knowledge and learning

While future-oriented educational thinking is underpinned by many key ideas, there are two that stand out. The first is a shift in how we view knowledge table 1, and the second is the need to redesign educational approaches based on what we now know about learning table 2. Building on these two key ideas, NZCER’s research suggests six emerging and interconnected themes to underpin a future- oriented learning system.

Future-oriented learning and new technology

People sometimes link future-oriented or “twenty-first century” learning with developments in information and communication technology (ICT). However, future-oriented learning involves more than digital technology. ICT has the potential to transform how we learn and how we teach, but it can also be used to support outmoded teaching and learning approaches. The increased availability of new technology needs to be paralleled by opportunities for teachers and learners to develop practices that align with the six future-oriented themes. You could review your own school’s use of ICT to consider how well it supports the development of practices in relation to these themes.

Children studying together.

Themes to underpin a future-oriented learning system

Personalising learning

Personalising learning means reversing the “logic” of an education system so that the system is built around the learner. This means that we need to take much more account of who learners are, where they are, and to what and to whom they are connected in order to build the experiences and networks that strengthen every learner’s capacity. We need to consider how to deploy the usual resources for learning (teachers, spaces, time) more flexibly to meet learners’ needs, as well as how to support learners’ access to new resources beyond those that are traditionally part of the schooling system (for example, resources in the wider community).

What needs to happen?

A key challenge is how to take personalisation beyond the obvious response (reorganising teaching and the curriculum) to providing more choices and pathways for learners. Future- oriented learning should develop and strengthen learners’ connections to the people and resources around them as part of building their overall capability to act in and on their world. “Deep” – that is, transformative – personalisation has the potential to engage communities as collaborative partners in the goal of supporting every learner to develop to their full potential.

One of the key platforms of our belief is to really “understand who our learners are” – we refer to this as “personalising the learning journey for our students” ... we are aiming to break the model of “one size fits all”, as we know it actually fits no one.

Area school principal

Rethinking learners’ and teachers’ roles

Twenty-first century learners need to be active participants in their own learning. This doesn’t mean that teachers should cede all power and responsibility to learners or that learners and teachers play the same role in the learning environment. Rather, it is about structuring roles and relationships between learners and teachers in ways that best support powerful learning.

I am no longer a teacher; I am a facilitator. I help students on their journey. I do not create their journey; I guide them on their path.

Secondary school languages teacher

What needs to happen?

The challenge is to consider learning as being more than just “student centred” or “teacher driven” and, instead, to think about how learners and teachers can work together in a “knowledge-building” learning environment. New Zealand research shows that teachers and students can experience significant learning benefits by changing their roles and working in more knowledge-building ways. However, long-term, system-wide change is extremely difficult. It requires a culture shift in which the majority of teachers think in new ways, develop new skills, and embrace new understandings of themselves as professionals.

A culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders

Future-oriented educational practices will be different from the ones that today’s teachers, school leaders, and educational policy leaders experienced during their schooling. Neither past experiences nor top-down directives alone can provide sufficient guidance for developing “next practice”. Instead, educational professionals need to see it as part of their role to collaboratively co-construct new approaches to meet changing needs. This requires an attitude of openness and intellectual curiosity and a willingness to see things in new ways.

What needs to happen?

All educational professionals need access to learning support that helps them to develop an “inquiry habit of mind”. This professional learning must include opportunities for networking and collaboration with other educational professionals. Future-oriented school and policy leaders also need support to develop a more complex skill set in order to become strategic systems thinkers, change facilitators, and learning leaders who can support and sustain a culture of continuous professional learning.

New views of equity and diversity

A future-oriented view suggests that achieving equity is not just about bringing everyone closer to today’s standards of educational success. It's also about future-oriented thinking that recognises diversity as a strength to be actively fostered. This means catering for learners’ diversity as well as preparing learners to work with diversity. The changing global environment requires learners to engage with people from many different backgrounds and world views. Learners also need to develop the ability to work with a diversity of ideas – to think outside existing knowledge paradigms in order to solve increasingly complex, real-world challenges.

What needs to happen?

Most schools are becoming attuned to working with the cultural diversity of their learners and communities, but the deeper implications of understanding diversity – in all its forms – as an engine for twenty-first century learning may be less familiar. Schools could begin by exploring these implications in parallel with the themes of personalising learning and of developing a curriculum that uses knowledge to foster learning capacity. For example, what unique and valuable learning opportunities can be developed because of the diversity of people and ideas in the community?

[We are] looking for solutions to issues within our school and local community – looking at our own internal strengths – what’s pumping in our blood.

Year 10 agriculture teacher

A curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity

Educationalists argue that we need to restructure school activities so that learning can happen through collaborative knowledge building. Disciplinary knowledge provides a context within which students’ learning capacity can be developed. This approach does not minimise the importance of knowledge but places greater emphasis on finding ways for learners to access and experience the “deep” features of knowledge systems and disciplinary thinking.

What needs to happen?

To put these ideas into practice, we need to understand the changes in the meaning of terms such as “knowledge” and “learning” and how these changes affect the way a school’s curriculum is implemented. Ideas from The New Zealand Curriculum, including key competencies, lifelong learning, education for enterprise, and education for sustainability have helped some schools to see through a new lens, thereby creating opportunities for coherent shifts in their learning, teaching, curriculum, school organisation, and school–community relationships.

We use an inquiry approach called thinking-based learning that explicitly teaches students how to think more skilfully ... to solve a real-world problem or as real a problem as the school’s resourcing allows ... Students are challenged in their thinking by a fertile question which is open, undermining, rich, connected, charged, and practical ... Our teachers use techniques to make the students’ thinking visible ... These “learning conversations” support collaborative knowledge building and allow the teachers to guide and challenge their students’ thinking.

Intermediate school principal

New kinds of partnerships and relationships

Twenty-first century learners need access to a wider range of resources and expertise than in the past. Educational professionals will need to collaborate with other people and groups who can provide access to specific kinds of expertise, knowledge, or learning opportunities. The community or wider public will also need to be on board with new thinking about education in order to support schools to become more future oriented.

What needs to happen?

Some schools are engaging with people and groups from the wider community to support innovative learning for students. If this work is to be scaled up, it needs systemic support and to be underpinned by research. Educational professionals and partners from the wider community need support to work in the spaces between their different areas of expertise and to talk and listen to each other – across professional and/or cultural boundaries.

The curriculum has allowed the students to focus their time on inquiry. With this comes a shift in focus towards them being curious about their world and understanding that they have the ability to go out and ask questions and find answers as a way of living their lives ... I believe that this view also breaks down students’ understanding of what a classroom looks like and is hopefully breaking down barriers between school and the community.

Intermediate school teacher

Download the full print version: Issue 26: October 2012 (PDF, 1 MB)