Future imperative

The future of education is not what it used to be

Sir John Jones asks if the future of learning is in safe hands,  Not unless we follow three imperatives for effective educational change.

Graffiti gem

One of the best pieces of graffiti I ever read was written on a classroom wall in a tough Liverpool school where I was Head – “My dream is to live forever; so far, so good!”. The Head of English came storming into my office and asked if I had seen it. I was about to apologise when he stopped me to say that he wasn’t complaining. “It has inverted commas, starts with a capital, ends with an exclamation mark and has a semi-colon and comma. A grammatical masterpiece,” he concluded before asking for a pay rise.

The future is important to me

Having sent for the boy, I asked him why he had done it. “Well sir,” he replied,” The future is important to me, it’s where I intend to spend the rest of my life.” Then, looking me square in the eye, he asked: “Is that future safe in your hands?” We live in a rapidly changing world where most of the jobs our students will do have not yet been invented and the next 2 decades will see almost half of current jobs lost to computerisation and automation. This has huge implications for schooling and educators.

More repeats?

For decades education has taken the option to repeat itself, growing comfortable in a culture of standardization, linearity, control, conformity and compliance. The 1904 Regulations for Secondary Schools presented a curriculum largely similar to that delivered today so, in effect, we are readying our children for tomorrow by using a system that was designed for yesterday and preparing them for employers who died more than a century ago.

Five key qualities  . . . .

That is the bad news. The good news is that many leaders of industry, The OECD and The World Economic Forum agree that there are 5 key qualities we will all need to thrive and prosper – creativity, ingenuity, agility, adaptability and sociability. The very opposite of the 5 cultural principles that have brought us to where we are today. And more good news: PISA has already made a start by proposing to assess Creative Thinking in future tests.

. . . . and three imperatives

There are, I believe, three clear imperatives to address

1. Political will

2. The open embrace of change

3. An alternative view of attainment.

1. Find the political will!

First, politicians must support and promote the growth of educational systems that can find the right teachers and enable them to do the right things, in the right way, for the right reason. Barack Obama once said that no other profession has the potential to transform lives as effectively as teaching. The McKinsey Report (2007), argued that no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers and after researching the top 10 performing global education systems, found that the latter ensure 3 things:

  • the most able people are encouraged to become teachers.
  • they experience world class professional training and development.
  • all students have access to such high quality professionals.

Politicians, too, must set the right priorities by paying teachers well; by avoiding the use of education as a political football; by championing teaching as a great career path (in Finland teaching outstrips medicine and law as the most popular career choice although not the highest paid); by relieving teachers of unnecessary bureaucracy and by granting extensive statutory time for professional development and lesson preparation (in Singapore teachers teach far less than in the UK and are given generous preparation time).

2. Embrace change!

Second, education systems should encourage staff not only to challenge the status quo but invite them to take risks, experiment and innovate. ‘Swift to change, quick to adapt, slow to complain’ would make a great motto. In a relentless pursuit of excellence, teachers might then learn to break free of their comfort zones, let go of traditional methods and fully embrace technology on a journey from controlled teacher-centred pedagogy to a new role as guide and mentor in free, personalized, self-directed learning.

3. View attainment differently


The third imperative requires a focus on the way in which society views attainment and the myth of talent. Fixed mindset thinking has held back so many, as has a testing regime that still ties attainment to chronological age, promotes an ability to comprehend and memorise subject matter and blithely ignores the devastating effects of social disadvantage.

Demography continues to determine destiny and a quotocracy has come at the expense of a true meritocracy. It is time to wrestle the assessment beast to the ground.

What makes anything possible

Now in my seventh decade, this much I hold to be true; hard work and character trumps being smart; intelligence is neither cognitively one-dimensional nor is it fixed and the property of a select few; the Japanese concept of chiku (eating bitterness) and the joy of the struggle it implies is essential to growth; mistakes are good for you; we all have an inner spark and the challenge of awakening this genie from the lamp is at the core of great pedagogy; finding an individual’s passion is the shortest route to unearthing their true ability; the best curriculum starts with THEIR world and not THE world. In the right political system, in great schools, working in new ways with brilliant teachers and leaders anything is possible. It’s called ‘learning without limits’.

John Dewey said that if we teach children today as we taught them yesterday we will rob them of their tomorrow. Is their future safe in your hands?


Former Headteacher, lifelong educator and diehard Everton fan, Sir John Jones is one of the most inspirational and entertaining educational thinkers to grace the international circuit. 




Feature Image: by Ben White on Unsplash

Support Image:   by dehaasbe on Pixabay