The Future of Learning

This year, as may know, is King’s Academy’s 10th birthday. I am very proud of what the students, faculty and parents – building on His Majesty’s remarkable vision and hopes for this school – have been able to create over the last 10 years.
But it is not the past I want to speak to you about this morning: it’s the future, and the future of learning.
I think a great a deal about the future – the future of this school, the future of our students, and of course, like you, the future of my own children.
I have reserved space on my library shelf for books on this subject: The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World in the Next 20 Years; The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning; The Second Machine Age: Work Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies; The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, among others. Each of these books imagines a radically different future than the present we are living in today, and each argues, in different ways, that today’s schools are no match for the challenges our children will face in a future characterized by what scholars are now referring to as VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.   
Whatever we call our present age the fourth industrial revolution or the New Machine Age, I hope we can agree that we are living through a period of technological transformation unlike anything that has come before, and that this pace of change is likely to increase.     
It is indisputable that we are at the very beginning of an era where thinking machines, sophisticated forms of automation, and new kinds of artificial intelligence will perform many of the tasks once considered uniquely human.  Already machines are doing the work of doctors, lawyers, journalists and others: driving cars, fighting wars, diagnosing cancer and reading x-rays (more accurately, by the way, than humans), analyzing legal documents, and even writing news stories – with the result that traditional career paths and professions are disappearing and entirely new fields, requiring different kinds of skills, are emerging.
We can add to these technological changes any number of other challenges that are fast overtaking us: this region in particular, is living through a period of unprecedented civil, ethnic and religious conflict, economic uncertainly and unemployment. Populations continue to grow even as finite, scarce resources dwindle, and a changing climate brings new environmental crises and humanitarian catastrophes.  Some have argued that we have already entered a period of resource war – where nations will wage war over scarce resources like water, energy and arable land. All of this will put pressure on our political institutions, our economy, and, most importantly and crucially, our values.
This is not science fiction, and it requires that we think differently about school -- about what we teach and how we teach it. The real question we should asking ourselves – as teachers, educators and parents – is not whether or not our children will be well-prepared for college and university, as important as that is, but whether or not our children will be prepared for a future of uncertainty, contingency, change and transformation.   
The founding of this school was a bold act of imagination on the part of His Majesty – an attempt to reinvent in the Middle East the idea of the boarding school for an inter-connected, global age. Driven by a deep commitment to educational opportunity and to the values of pluralism, citizenship, internationalism and interfaith dialogue, and emerging at a turning point – a crucible – in the history of this region, King’s stands as one of as one of the most radical and inspiring educational experiments of this century. But is it possible that it is already outdated, that the idea of an academy, modeled on the great boarding schools of the past, is now obsolete – that King’s is the educational equivalent of the telegraph?
I do not believe this. In fact, I believe that King’s, as much as any school in the world, is uniquely equipped to meet the challenges of an unknown future and to impart the capacities and qualities of character that our children need to flourish.  
What are those capacities and qualities of mind?
The National Association of Independent Schools and its Committee on Schools of the Future, have published what they have called “The Seven Essential Capacities for the 21st Century.” 

  • Analytical and Creative Problem-Solving
  • Complex Communication – Oral and Written
  • Leadership and Teamwork
  • Digital and Quantitative Literacy
  • Global Perspective
  • Adaptability, Initiative, Risk-Taking
  • Integrity and Ethical Decision-Making 

Educator and author Tony Wagner, who will be speaking at the Teachers Skills Forum at the Dead Sea here in Jordan later next year, interviewed 600 CEO’s world-wide, and asked them the following question: “Which qualities will our graduates need in the 21st century for success in college, careers and citizenship?” He came up with seven

  • Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  • Collaboration Across Networks and Leading By Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination 

Sir Ken Robinson, one of the world’s best known thinkers on creativity, innovation and the teaching of the arts, whose TED talks on education are among the most watched in the history of that series, came up with what he calls the eight C’s. Here they are:

  • Curiosity: the ability to ask questions and explore how the world works
  • Creativity: the ability to generate new ideas and apply them in practice
  • Criticism: the ability to analyze information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgements
  • Communication: the ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms
  • Collaboration: the ability to work constructively with others
  • Compassion: the ability to empathize with others to act accordingly
  • Composure: the ability connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance
  • Citizenship: the ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the process that sustains it  

Howard Gardner, a professor of education and psychology at Harvard University best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, has argued that there are “five minds for the future” young people require and which schools should teach:

  • The Disciplinary Mind: mastery of major schools of thought (including science, mathematics, and history)
  • The Synthesizing Mind: ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others
  • The Creating Mind: capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena
  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings
  • The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and citizen

Interesting lists and, as you might notice, with considerable overlap. What I find most interesting about this these lists is that there is very little about content knowledge, beyond certain minimal competencies, like effective communication (writing and speaking) and quantitative literacy (the ability to think with numbers). Disciplinary knowledge – the traditional core literacies of school – are important and necessary, and I think we do these that exceptionally well at King’s, but they are insufficient in and of themselves – really just a starting point for a great education.    
There are other habits and capacities of character that, these authors agree, are essential for young people, things like curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, leading by example, social awareness and respect for difference, ethical judgment, and integrity. Those are the things that really and truly matter, and I think it is these qualities – rarely emphasized, much less explicitly taught at schools – that a school like King’s nurtures. It nurtures them in its classrooms, beyond its classroom and throughout the school, and is able to do so because of its mission as a residential boarding school, its character as a global school rooted in this traditions of this region, its commitment to the liberal arts and to active, dynamic and inter-active forms of learning, and – most essentially – its focus on forging strong, vibrant and caring relationships between young people and adults, the very core and heart of learning and of this school.  
All this, I recognize, might seem unrelated to today and tomorrow, and you may be asking yourself: What does this have to do with Parents Weekend?
My hope in sharing these reflections with you is that they might offer some perspective on the class visits and conferences of today and tomorrow – and a different way of thinking about teaching and learning:
As a parent, teacher and educator, here are the questions I most frequently ask myself about our students and my own children. These are the ones I hope you will keep in mind over the next couple of days:

  • Are my children learning to read for pleasure, enjoyment and appreciation? (It has been said that reading is the skill that make all other learning possible.)
  • Are they learning to write and speak well in English and Arabic?
  • Does my daughter enjoy numbers? Can she think with numbers and statistics and use them to advance and interrogate claims?
  • Is my son learning to think in a disciplined way – as a scientist, a historian, an artist (a very different thing, by the way, than learning subject area content)?
  • Are they demonstrating high levels of engagement in classes? Is my daughter active and attentive in class? Does my son listen actively, participate in discussion and exchanges ideas? You may have noticed that both collaboration and communication appear on all three of the lists I just showed you. One of the reasons we have invested in small classes and equipped them with large discussion – or Harkness -- tables is that we value active learning, and we want students to develop and practice the skills of respectful discussion and dialogue.
  • Are our children excited and inspired to learn? Are they developing the attributes of what I would call “deep learners?” Do they take joy in learning and pursue it for its own sake?
  • Is my son curious and open to new ideas? Does he ask questions? Is he willing to explore new topics and subjects?
  • Is there evidence of a growth mindset – the belief that effort, practice, and hard work, rather than innate intelligence, is the key to performance and success.
  • What are my child’s strengths? So much in education focuses on deficits – but much more important than these, especially at this age -- are strengths. What are these, and how can we deepen them?  
  • Are they developing a robust sense of self-confidence, a sense of “yes – I can do this”?
  • Are they developing new and distinctive interests and passions and exploring the many opportunities that King’s offers?  

A recent article in the New York Times on the education of boys noted that jobs requiring the skills of “empathy, impulse control and collaboration” have grown much more quickly than other kinds of jobs in the last quarter century.
This poses a different series of questions.

  • Are our children developing strong habits of self-management and appropriate levels of independence, autonomy and self-direction?
  • Is my daughter reflective about her learning, open to feedback and able to act upon it? Can she talk in an informed way about what and how she learns?
  • Does my son seek help as needed and advocate for his own learning by seeking feedback, asking questions, and arranging for additional support?
  • How is my daughter managing her free time, her evening time, her time on the weekends? How is my son balancing fun, friendship and study?
  • Are they managing their screen-time, or is the screen managing them?  

In a recent study entitled "How College Works," two scholars studied the collegiate experience of hundreds of students in an attempt to identify “those decisive moments that changed the direction and intensity of their educational experience.” What they discovered is that it was not program, curriculum or facilities that was decisive: it was people – the connections and relationships that students were able to make with teachers and other students. This, too, has important implications for how we think about school:

  • Are children developing open, strong and trusting relationship with their teachers? With their advisor? And the dorm parents?
  • Are they comfortable working and collaborating with other students and working in teams?
  • Is my child’s peer group inclusive, open and healthy? Does my daughter’s peer group have a positive impact on her?
  • Are their interactions with adults and peers positive and kind?
  • Do they recognize and express gratitude to others?
  • Are they taking advantage of the tremendous diversity of this community and extending themselves beyond their core group of friends?
  • Do they exercise and model leadership – in class, on the dorm, and in how they approach learning? Do they lead through influence?  
  • Are they adventurous and fully engaged in the life of the school?  King’s has so much to offer beyond the classroom – in service, the arts and so many other areas. Are they taking advantage of these opportunities? Are they willing to experiment and try new things?
  • What positive commitment have they made to the school and the community?  

None of these capacities develop overnight; we know this – and many, if not most, are just beginning to emerge. So I hope that, especially today, we can take the long view of our children’s education, recognize that most of these capacities take time to learn, and fortify ourselves with patience and faith.
This is not, I know, an easy thing for a parent to do. We live in an age of instant delivery, where almost everything is at our fingertips: our friends, an Uber, a movie from Netflix. But education does not work that way: it is not a deliverable commodity, but a dynamic and often messy process. So much of our worry and anxiety as parents is about the short term: about SAT scores, university placement, grades, GPAs, Tawjihi. These things matter, they matter a great deal, and we work intentionally with students to prepare them for these hurdles.

But we must also remember that, education – at least any education that will meet the challenges I have outlined to you this morning – unfolds over time, and rarely in a predictable or linear way. It is full of ups and down, highs and lows, and every child develops according to a narrative that is uniquely and individually their own. And attending to that narrative, as I said to this faculty at our opening faculty meeting, is our most important responsibility: to honor the uniqueness and individuality of each student; help them discover and build on each young person’s unique talents and strengths; challenge them to improve and grow; and help them develop a powerful sense of confidence so they can see the future for what it is – a great opportunity, full of promise and possibility.

Last updated
November 2, 2016