The Future of Education
No one who takes education seriously is remotely pleased with today’s status quo. Progressive educators look out and see an ossified school system that rewards compliance and passivity. Educators of a more classical bent look out and see an abdication of expectations and even an abandonment of civilization. Higher education seems like a runaway system, with skyrocketing costs and plummeting value for students. Early childhood education remains a challenge even for the minority who can afford something of quality. And newfangled ed-tech point solutions seem to mostly miss the point that the substantive issues are pedagogical.
All of these problems are real. The cracks in the system show from daycare through universities, and the deepest criticisms of opposed philosophies of education are all true. And yet…
Zooming out even more widely, there has never been a more exciting moment for education.
First, the current status quo does is, historically, quite recent and anomalous. The system that exists in most of the modern world is a blend of pre-20th-century classicism, a general knowledge approach that has roots going back to antiquity, and early 20th-century forces of progressivism, wealth, and scale. In certain ways, the most stale elements of each are what ended up enduring: the weak motivation of traditional education and the weak structure of progressive education are happened to what congealed together just as we decided, as a society, to valorize and institutionalize education en masse.
While this sounds depressing, the opposite is true. The important takeaways are (a) that the current, congealed status quo is recent, and (a) recent and (b) that its practical form is dramatically less than the sum of its parts. is also cause for optimism. This is cause for optimism.
The same is true of the widespread dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction is not passive and resigned, but is serving as a sweeping impetus of thought and action. It’s not evident in the number of “outsiders” trying to create and scale new solutions, but it is true of the incumbents as well. Even those inside the institutions of higher education, for instance, fully accept they will not look at all similar in a few decades, and the forecasting of the coming changes is now a cottage industry. K12 is in the grips of a deep state of disarray, and beneath the noisy proclamations—to change wholesale, to stay the course, to seek the middle road—there is a collective recognition that the future is uncertain, and needs work. With respect to early education, everyone, bar not a single culturally prominent exception, thinks that early education is mission critical, and far too important to be left sidelined and fragmented. The pedagogical status quo in any education domain is the result, at this point, of pure inertia, not ongoing advocacy based on conviction.
Second, even as the institution of school struggles, if we widen the view from education—the systematic support of learning and development, at which we’re failing—to learning, the act of discovering and internalizing knowledge, the story is very different. Learning is in a golden age. Globalization and the information age have massively enabled human beings that seek to explore, investigate, and know. We casually take for granted both content resources that vastly outstrip what existed barely a generation ago, and the declining costs of things like tools and travel.
Even as schools get worse, there’s never been a better time to be a learner—or a thoughtful educator, one who has a sense of how to make the most of the sudden accessibility of the universe of knowledge and the low cost of ways to directly explore and investigate it.
Third, and most importantly, education, as a field and as an industry, is ready to come into its own. Pedagogues are identifying and moving beyond false alternatives and experimenting with new forms of delivery: experiential learning that is deliberately structured, knowledge-intensive curricula designed to lead to independent research opportunities, more people taking more advantage of interpolating learning with work. More thinking is being done and more experiments are being run. It’s fragmented and scary—but exciting.
Education as a field of study was a latecomer, trailing other Enlightenment advances, such as science, industry, and political liberation, by a few centuries. The greatest thinkers in education are relatively recent. And their better ideas have been gaining momentum. Maria Montessori’s ongoing influence, direct and indirect, is a particular source for optimism, as is her approach in integrating the many needs of a developmental human around the idea of a holistic conception of human agency.
We have widespread dissatisfaction, ready-to-use component parts, and rapidly maturing, truly exciting ideas in education. The potential is enormous: education could enter its Kitty Hawk phase just as the current system is hitting its nadir.
The result won’t be rapid, wholesale replacement of the status quo with something better. It will be experimentation, movement in a thousand seemingly different directions that in aggregate is massively upward. It will continue to feel fragmented—but increasingly, exciting. More judgment will be required of both educators, parents, and learners—but it will start to feel less like desperation and more like the privilege pushing a frontier.
Everyone is displeased with education and right to be displeased. But the wider truth is that there’s never been a better time for education. It took until the 21st century for the field and the world to be ready, and the frontier awaits.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.