Four Lessons for the Future of Education

By Chris Bradford, Founder and CEO

Insights from “Cultivating Changemakers” at the European Parliament

Two centuries ago, an apprentice weaver named Ned Ludd burned down the new automated weaving machines that had been recently assembled in his hometown of Huddersfield, England. The rise of these machines threatened to put Ludd and his peers out of work – and the Luddites sought to protect their livelihoods from the changes wrought by technology.  Today, we use “Luddite” as a derogatory term. Our embrace of technology has brought a higher standard of living across the world. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, I believe we will again create a higher standard of living for humanity, with new kinds of jobs and better working conditions.

But the changes brought by technology will be painful for the communities built on the previous economic structure, as they were for the Luddites. During the industrial revolution of 200 years ago, we built an education system around the new industrial model, and then we left it. We have retained the Prussian model of education from that 19th century. Across the world, we continue to prepare factory workers for an age in which factories will no longer exist.

We have failed to invest in the kind of “Education R&D” that is so critical to ensuring that the pain felt by Ned Ludd and his friends will not be replicated in our times. It is the responsibility of educators and education systems to build skills in advance of when they are needed, and to evolve the work of schools to meet the needs of our evolving world of work.

In Brussels, ALA and the European Parliament gathered education leaders from across the world to tackle the question of how education must evolve to cultivate changemakers for the fourth industrial revolution. I took four key lessons from the intense day of presentations and conversations:

First: The future demands new skills and new ways of teaching and learning. The college degree as we know it has never been less valuable than it is today, and it is growing less valuable with each passing day. But learning how to learn has never been more important than it today. A commitment to lifelong learning is fundamental if we are to keep pace with technology. We must ask ourselves how we are enabling lifelong learning and building in learners at every level the capacity to teach themselves. This autodidactic capability is at the core of ensuring that each of us evolves alongside the evolving world of work.

Second: intention and authenticity matter. In Brussels, we heard from winners of the Global Teacher Prize and founders of some of the most transformational schools on the planet. As they described their classrooms and schools, they described places in which teachers and learners coexist as members of a community with a sense of shared purpose and common intention. The learners in these classrooms are tackling authentic projects that they find deeply meaningful, which generates the drive and aspiration to learn and to push through failure. But too much of the work that is happening in schools across the world is inauthentic. Too many of our schools exist without a sense of shared purpose or intention. We must invest in intention and authenticity.

Third, we must start small and bridge the gap. Most of the transformational innovations in education have happened outside the public education system. They have happened in formal or informal spaces in which we have tested models, failed quickly, and discovered things that work. In Brussels, we heard about innovators emerging from Teach for All, about the impact of affordable private schools in urban slums, and about leadership academies like ALA. How will we identify experiments that are working and shine a light on them? Students, educators, investors, philanthropists, and policymakers must work together to create an enabling environment that will scale these interventions to meet the accelerating needs of our future.

Finally, everyone is a stakeholder in education. Every human consumes education: we are students, teachers, buyers, and enablers of the system. As stakeholders, we must act in ways that do not uphold the status quo, but instead actively deconstruct it and allow those around us to recognise what really matters. University admissions officers must begin to describe their admissions decisions not in terms of exam scores, but with the evidence of character and achievements that demonstrate that students will be successful in university and on a much longer journey of life. When I am asked by a parent for my perspective on a school, I must answer not by simply providing the school’s pass rate, but by describing the ways in which the school encourages authentic learning, challenges students to craft projects of deep importance, and invests in the important work done by teachers.

As stakeholders in education, we must embrace that there is much to be done – quickly – to ensure that our schools are relevant to the challenges of tomorrow. Burning down the machines in an effort to protect the status quo will be a fool’s errand. We must break down our approach to schooling and credentials instead. By working together, we can improve the quality of education for all, across countries and socioeconomic strata. And we must.

View ALA CEO Chris Bradford’s Closing Remarks at the European Parliament here: