The Future of Education

On Friday, November 17, GDS hosted a gathering of heads of school and college presidents from around the country to discuss the future of education. While it is not unusual for school heads or college presidents to meet with peers, this meeting was unique in bringing these two groups together to examine common challenges from two closely related but nonetheless different perspectives. The conversation was lively and informative. While we didn’t solve any single problem (nor was this the goal for the day), consensus emerged around the fact that as the world changes, education needs to change along with it.

The world into which our students will head upon graduation is being transformed at an unprecedented pace. Thinking broadly over the sweep of human history, the predominant economy has evolved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to a knowledge economy to, most recently, a human economy. In a human economy, creativity and collaboration skills are prized, as rote tasks can be performed more efficiently by a machine or by someone in another part of the world. Technology and globalization have revolutionized our speed of connection and accelerated the pace of change, planting the seeds for the human economy.

In spite of a rapidly evolving environment outside of the classroom, many classrooms look the same as they did a hundred years ago. Students sit at individual desks, often in rows, with an instructor at the front of the room. Assessments are summative, with students being given a single opportunity to demonstrate what they “know,” often never returning to that material again. Subject are siloed by discipline. The vast majority of instructional time is spent with teachers talking and students listening.

At GDS, we are working to evolve our academic program to better prepare young people for the world beyond our walls. Our classrooms are flexible by design, providing easy opportunities for small-group collaboration. Our recently renovated High School library has set aside space for group study and project work, along with the Odradek, a center where students can tinker, make, innovate, and model hands-on solutions to complex problems. Our planned Lower/Middle School building will feature small and large-group meeting spaces, along with makerspaces at each grade level, providing environments ideally suited for innovation and collaboration.

Throughout our program, we work to engage our students in learning from a range of disciplinary perspectives. This is true in the third grade “Researchers Luncheon,” for which students employ interviewing, drawing, culinary skills, and empathy to tell another’s story. It is true in the seventh grade, when students explore the concept of “power” through the lens of history, literature, music, and other modalities. It is true of our new High School Minimester offerings, in which a student can explore diverse topics like “Urban Garden Design and Food Access in DC,” which challenges them to work as scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, policymakers, and more.

When I asked the college presidents how we, as K-12 schools, can best prepare students to thrive in college and beyond, they had a clear and perhaps surprising answer: We’re looking for complex problem solvers who know how to collaborate and lead in diverse settings. They didn’t talk about test scores or course requirements or extracurriculars. They were most interested in the skills and capacities we were developing, and they also named the importance of curiosity, intrinsic motivation, and resilience.

To be clear, schools must remain places where students learn to write and compute, and where they learn a foundational knowledge of history, scientific concepts, and more. However, after ensuring minimum competencies in a range of disciplines (a floor), we must provide opportunities for students to dig into those areas where they are most interested (i.e. no ceilings!), developing the knowledge, skills, and habits that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Schools must change to meet our changing world. Education is undergoing an important evolution, making it a thrilling time to be an educator. This evolution will of course involve risk, imperfection, and perhaps even moments of failure. And yet not evolving means a far greater risk—that of failing the students who have been entrusted to our care, and of failing the future, which will need the talents of our young people to build a better world than the one they are inheriting.

A GDS student will…

  • Build networks and collaborate across difference
  • Innovate and create
  • Take risks, tolerate failure, and learn from failure
  • Self-advocate
  • Think critically
  • Communicate clearly and powerfully
  • Tackle complex problems
  • Learn actively and resourcefully
  • Engage as a just, moral, ethical citizen
  • Lead

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