Looking forward not back

Futures by Alan Levine

A friend recently said to me, “I prefer to look forward not back.” This was in the context of talking about attending high school and college reunions and the way in which some of our family and friends look at those years as “the best years of their life” and seem to be constantly trying to recapture the spirit of high school or college. That’s certainly not why I’ve returned to my reunions, and increasingly, they’ve become a way of maintaining relationships with people that I knew and admired at the time and, in some cases, discovering new friends whom I didn’t know well at the time, but with whom I now share many common interests.

But I take the point that dwelling in the past and constantly looking back is not always productive. Many people have written about the nostalgia people have for a time when “neighbors knew each other and took care of each other” or “people went bowling and joined clubs” or a more general “things were simpler.” First, they’re often inaccurate in some way, and second, if they are accurate, they’re only accurate for a certain subset of people: white, middle to upper class, male, etc.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of education where people say that education still looks pretty much the same as it did 100 years ago. Which is true and not true. Certainly aspects of how we teach are still the same. There are still desks (often in rows) and chalkboards (or maybe whiteboards or smartboards) and a teacher (often at the front) and students (grouped by age). But who we teach has changed and who is doing the teaching has changed and the importance placed on education has shifted.

Let’s take students first. I don’t mean our students have changed in a “kids these days” kind of way. That’s an argument for another post. But demographically, our students are different. They’re really always been different in their backgrounds, cultures, and learning. But we’re now much more aware of those differences and trying to make our classrooms spaces where those differences enhance and don’t hinder their learning.

Their futures look very different from their present.  Technology, politics, climate, economics are all going to impact dramatically the world they will be working in 5, 10, 15 years from now. We need to prepare everyone for that future, not just a few people. Everyone’s skills will be needed. And they’ll need to be able to work together, to appreciate multiple viewpoints, understand how technology can be leveraged to solve problems, come up with creative solutions, and think critically.  That’s not about spitting out facts. It’s about wrestling with them, using them to create something new. How we teach all these skills or foster them is complicated. But it’s not going to involve worksheets or exams.

Teachers, then, are being asked to change how they teach (they have been for a while, but there’s more pressure). They’re being asked to be interdisciplinary, project and inquiry-based. They’re being asked to have ways of incorporating group work and create moments for critical thinking all along the way. It’s a lot to ask. And they will need support in doing this.  Because the outcomes are really important.

Yes, we can learn from what’s worked or not worked in the past, but like our students, I think educators increasingly need to try to look forward and try to figure out what our students will need and how to get them there. To me, that’s what makes being in education interesting, challenging, and frankly, fun. But I know for some who found comfort in the relatively static nature of education, the pressure to change feels very different. We owe it to our students to get over that discomfort.

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