Back to the future – we’ve lived up to some of our imagination (but nowhere near all.)

So where’s my hoverboard? Personally, that has to be the biggest sadness I’ve felt with the passing of such an auspicious and expectation-laden date as October 21st 2015. The date when Marty McFly raced a flying car into a future filled with self-lacing shoes (that exist) and Jaws 13 (which doesn’t – though we do have Sharknado).

We’ve lived up to some of our own imaginations put forward by Hollywood and we’ve even exceeded some. The speed of innovation seems to be both sluggish and blinding at times, depending on which area of life you cast your eye.

What struck me about this was at the recent Macquarie University Alumni Trendsetter panel. The panel consisted of Dr Brian Croke, Executive Director, Catholic Education Commission NSW, Ms Leanne Gibbs @leannegibbs4C, CEO Community Childcare Co-operative of NSW, and Ms Jane Simmons @JaneSimmons19, Executive Director, Learning and Leadership, NSW Department of Education. The theme focused on trust and leadership in education and was ably facilitated by Dr Norm McCulla.

Each panellist reflected on the varied and varying nature of trust that exists in education and beyond. There were many key insights brought to bear, including the following:

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Dr Brian Croke observed that in the 1970s, pre-service teachers were preparing for an education revolution so that by the end of the 1980s:

  • the HSC (exam) would be no more
  • curriculum would be decentralised
  • learning would be personalised
  • television would mean that students wouldn’t need to go to school

and so on.

This was all met with a sad chuckle from some in the audience. To me, this said two things:

  1. We lament that these things did not occur at the time; and
  2. That perhaps some of this is coming true, just much later than we hoped

I’d argue that there are several reasons to be positive about the changes that have come about with the onset of two dramatic shifts: the democratisation and decentralisation of INFORMATION and the massively increased personal access to TECHNOLOGY.

If we just take Brian’s points above, the HSC exam is actually being rejected or ignored by more and more of our students as a measure of their worth. Universities are offering placements well before the exams to students based on a range of evidence (including co-curricular involvement), the International Baccalaureate is quite popular in many schools across the systems. In addition, the reality that as many as 25% of Australian students are not finishing high school adds to the number of students not engaging with that supposedly all-important milestone.

The final single exam experience is actually not that important to many of our students, despite our obsession with it (and our tendency to design the entire K-12 experience around the HSC exam as it’s natural end point).

Curriculum may be centralised but teachers will always show dexterity in its application in their context. Even the authorities recognise – and in many cases actively promote – the idea that syllabus documents and other curriculum is the raw material from which great teaching and learning happens. Knowledge transmission is not the core purpose of school, especially when we walk around with all the world’s knowledge in our pockets.

This leads us to Dr Croke’s final two points, where I think technology has finally caught up and is now leaning against a wall, taking in lungfuls of breath and working out what to do next.

Whether it is through a laptop or tablet, or a smartphone or even a watch, information isn’t just accessible by anyone with a basic 3G network but it is also able to be created by the people with those devices. In the 1970s, broadcasters had control over the information we viewed and the technology with which we could view it, if we wanted that shift to ‘personalised’ learning. Today, the information is democratised and the technology is personal.

So are we ready now that we have the toolkit for the revolution? Who is ‘we’ anyway? Because I see students already riding the wave of change whilst many of us watch it go past. At what point do we seriously need to act to change curriculum and other structures (physical, mental, philosophical) to reach our students.

They may not have hoverboards or lightsabers, but they do have smartphones, which might just be more powerful.

We are ready for the future.

MQU Trendsetter Panel