Schools of tomorrow: teaching our future digital leaders

The demands placed on students today are changing just as quickly as the world of work. With that in mind, what must the education system now offer our children so that they have bright career prospects for the future?

Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication: the schools of tomorrow.
Image: © Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock
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Schools of today: can they make the leap into the new age?

Working behind a screen has become a reality for more and more people, mainly as a result of the unabated technologization of both everyday life and the world of work. However, digital (team)work demands certain skills that go beyond a purely cognitive level, as most of us working from home have experienced first-hand.

In the future, digital education will be imperative. That also encompasses the 4 C’s of 21st century skills:

  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

A process-focused approach is becoming increasingly more important than a results-focused one, which means that more emphasis needs to be placed on the “how” of collaboration in light of the all-pervasive use of technologies.

When you look at the current curricula, there is very little room for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. In fact, the main focus is still on learning the material by heart. But how is that supposed to bring us forward in the future when we can find the information on the Internet anyway, but aren’t able to effectively use it?

Schools of tomorrow: a bottom-up approach offering future viability?

A project conducted between 2017 and 2019 by Berlin’s cultural center, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), explored the question of what the school of the future should look like. Strictly speaking though, we should be talking about the “school of today”. After all, the workforce of tomorrow is being taught right now in schools. However, we’re all aware that the current situation is still far from ideal. For that reason, we’ll stick with the term “school of the future” – or “schools of tomorrow”.

The latter was the name of HKW’s project, which brought together students, educators, and artists from different countries. Under the curatorial direction of Silvia Fehrmann, together they developed future visions and action recommendations for teachers and cultural mediators as part of 21 school projects and an ideas competition. These revealed further aspects in addition to the 4 C’s already mentioned, which are key to preparing youngsters for the world of work:

  • Attitudes of “learning-teaching” stakeholders: Like in business, young learners should also learn how to deal with failure, for example.
  • The establishment of a learning community: As with teamwork in a company, everyone’s knowledge counts. This is where the aspect of student-centered learning and teaching comes in.
  • Participation and responsibility: The young learners practice implementing their own ideas during projects, thus gaining more confidence.
  • Sustainability and innovation: These two points relate to individually determined study times, learning with students from other classes, and learning outside in the fresh air, among other things.
  • Needs-oriented interior design: Whether acoustics, lighting, on and off zones for the volume – comfortable and pleasant environments are essential for learning.
  • Everyday life and rhythm: Like in an office setting, healthy nutrition, biological and social rhythms, and places to rest and retreat are also important factors in the “school of tomorrow”.
  • Freedom, emancipation, and structure: One of the ideas discussed in this respect was flextime for students, where the first or last school period of the day could be used as free study time.
  • Digitality and real life: Virtual reality, social media, free Wi-Fi, and the use of cell phones in class – in the world of work, these are already business as usual for many.
  • The school surroundings: School should be viewed more as belonging to the public realm. It’s therefore no surprise that students want to play a part in urban design, for example.
  • Resources: Similar to companies, using open source, converting existing spaces, and obtaining funding are some of the recommendations.

By putting these recommendations into practice, today’s young people should be much better prepared for the challenges that await them in the workplace. However, there first needs to be an about-face in the education system – maybe the pandemic has paved the way for it?

Key factors for school in the future: here’s what it comes down to

What are the thoughts of someone who engages in the digital transformation of education on a daily basis outside of a school setting? We asked Jakob Huber, Education Marketing Lead at Microsoft Germany and a veritable education expert, what the educational landscape of tomorrow should look like:

Jakob Huber, what skills must absolutely be taught in the school of tomorrow?

Jakob Huber: We need to think about what we as a society actually want to achieve through and in school. When we look at our world – whether with regard to work, global challenges such as the climate crisis, the rapid development of technologies or our democratic society – it quickly becomes clear: We – and our children – won’t get far with merely memorized knowledge. Instead, we all need to channel our energy into enabling our children to cope with ambiguity, information overload, and complexity. The skills principle of the 4 C’s – collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication – provides us with a strong framework for that. I for one think that the 4 C’s are a good place to start. There is perhaps a slight lack of aspects such as empathy, curiosity, and openness.

Jakob Huber, Education Marketing Lead, Microsoft Germany.
Jakob Huber, Education Marketing Lead, Microsoft Germany.

In any case, it’s worth remembering that knowledge ages, whereas skills don’t. When the world completely changes every few years, we need to make sure we are not persistently overwhelmed by that and instead are able to continually develop and implement new solutions.

What are the key factors for good teaching now and in the future in order to prepare young people for the job market of tomorrow?

Jakob Huber: That’s a question we really should be asking the experts in the field, in other words our teachers. “Good teaching” is multifaceted and can take various forms. Generally, my idea of good teaching, no matter how it takes place, is when we give students the responsibility for their own learning process (or more accurately give it back to them). That’s what we refer to as “student agency” or “student-centered learning”. To a very scaled back extent, that ultimately means nothing other than students having control over and the responsibility for their own learning. I believe that all teaching that follows this principle can be nothing else but “good”.

How will the roles of teachers and students evolve over the coming years?

Jakob Huber: It’s always difficult to make a prediction, especially when you consider the very different education systems around the world.

However, I hope that teachers will (have to) see themselves less as someone who conducts a lesson and controls teaching and more as experts, advisers, and facilitators of learning. If they do that, students will regard themselves as active “learners”: they would no longer be “schooled”, but instead give themselves new experiences and challenges with the personal ambition of furthering themselves.

Of course, that is ultimately dependent on how we structure our education system as a society. And unfortunately, we currently take an approach that is strongly characterized by control, selection, and pressure – these conditions make it extremely difficult for teachers and students to evolve or grow in their roles.

The school of tomorrow: more complex and better than ever before?

To make learning student-centered and freer, a far-reaching shift is required. Technologization alone will not be enough to turn the tide, but it can, for example, provide helpful tools to improve collaboration and communication with and between students. The advanced possibilities brought about by laptop pens, screens, and other input methods are also a step in the right direction, namely toward greater creativity.

Critical examination of the presentation of knowledge will certainly also have an important role to play. In Finland, children learn how to critically scrutinize and fact-check information as early as elementary school – Finnish children rank first worldwide in this skill.

One thing’s for sure: it will be very interesting and exciting to see what schools will look like in the future, and it’s only a matter of time until the extremely agile students of today overtake us as digital leaders.

You can read the full interview with Jakob Huber in our “Digital education” e-book. Find out what skills Jakob Huber deems essential in the future world of work and which learning setting optimally unleashes learners’ potential. Download your “Digital education” e-book here now.

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