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Ten Years from Now in Education
May 2007

The following article was written at the request of a Canadian education magazine. All of the details apply to the United States, except for the population projections. In 10 years’ time, U.S. schools will have roughly 2 million more students than they do today. Other than that, though, the attitudes and situations will be about the same.

Ten years is both a very long time, and a seemingly short time. For many educators, ten years encompasses a big chunk of their working careers. Yet, at the same time, 1997 doesn’t seem all that long ago. I went back to columns I wrote for Teach magazine ten years or so ago to see what the concerns were at that time, and how things have changed, and I was both surprised and discouraged.

Just over ten years ago, I wrote a column titled ‘Trapped Between the Neo-Luddites and the Techno-weenies’ in which I talked about the very strong resistance on the part of many teachers (and especially teachers’ unions) to allowing computers into the classroom. I often felt as if I was trapped between two, hostile camps of educators: those who thought computers were wrong and that the people who liked them were just bad people; and those who thought that computers were a panacea, could cure all the ills of the education system, and that anyone who opposed them was a knuckle-dragger who just didn’t ‘get it.’ My position then and now is that (a) used properly computers can be very powerful, useful tools (although this is extraordinarily difficult to do); (b) used improperly, computers are destructive black holes, siphoning off resources and giving very little in return; (c) the appearance of computers in the classroom is inevitable; and (d) the biggest barrier to computers being used well is the inexperience of teachers in using them. I also remarked that computers would fall from $3,500 and up to below $1000, and eventually to a few hundred dollars. (People thought I was dreaming in Technicolor on that point.)

But the surprise is that although the battle is over on whether computers belong in schools and the classroom (they’re here), the debate over their utility continues unabated. Moreover, I’m now convinced that the debate will continue to rage because people are asking the wrong questions. If you ask ‘Are computers useful in education?’ the answer is ambivalent. If you use computers well (which is still difficult to do, but becoming easier), then the answer is that yes, computers are very useful. If you use them poorly, then they produce lousy results, and you are worse off than you would have been without them. Better questions would be: ‘Who uses computers well in education?’ and ‘How do they use them to produce superior results?’ The wise use of computers is still not widespread, but should be. Unfortunately, non-classroom educators (such as school boards and ministry of education bureaucrats) tend to want to reinvent the wheel on every issue, including the use of computers, rather than study what other people have already successfully done.

But let’s come back to my ten-year time-frame, and ask what we can expect over the next 10 years in education.

Well, first, on the surface, not that much will change for schools. A school in 2017 will look very much like a school today, or ten years ago. There will still be classes and grades, teachers and students, and so on. Unfortunately, although as a society we need a radically different education structure, the odds are very much against getting one. I discussed this elsewhere, so let’s put that aside and talk about the changes that are likely to occur.

The most noticeable changes will be in the students themselves. First of all, there will be fewer of them than there are today. The number of children between the ages of 5 and 19 in Canada will decline by almost 7% – or by about 400,000 across the country. And high school students will decline even more radically – by almost 12%, or about a quarter of a million students. In turn, this is going to squeeze education budgets across the country, especially as provincial governments will be looking for places to cut back spending in order to increase money available for health care for aging boomers.

But perhaps the biggest change in students will be in attitude and aptitude. I sat next to a post-secondary math instructor for a technical institution at a dinner recently, and asked her how her students had changed over the past ten years. She said there has been an enormous deterioration in the quality of students. Today they are tremendously poorly prepared, with many of them unable to do even routine arithmetic without a calculator. Worse, she said they didn’t really didn’t care whether they could do math or not. They just wanted a passing grade, even if they left the institution incapable of doing the work for which they were certified. (Fortunately, she also told me that her dean made it an iron-clad rule that nobody passed unless they could do the work. This means, though, that she routinely fails anywhere from 20 to 50% of the students who take her classes.)

Some of this can be ascribed to the ludicrous philosophy that was floating around ten years ago of how important it was to pass students to avoid harming their tender egos. But much of it has to do with the attitudes of students and parents as well. On the part of the students, the attitude is too often ‘whatever,’ accompanied with a shrug. A sizeable minority of students don’t care what they learn or can do. If they can pass without effort, so much the better. School is an impediment to what they do online and in their social lives. Many parents’ attitudes are more complex, a kind of mixture of ‘you look after my kids – I’m too busy (and important)’ on the one hand, combined with a hectoring ‘how dare you diss my child by failing them!’ I would summarize it that we are currently educating the spoiled children of spoiled children.

Ten years from now it will be worse. First, the kids in school, especially at the lower grades, will be third-generation spoiled children – the children of today’s high school, college, and university students. Next, society will be less tolerant of kids and parents. The financial pressures from health care will be enormous, and we boomers, selfish people that we are, will want the very best – as long as someone else is paying for it. We will also want those bratty kids out of sight and out of the way. ‘Breathing while being a teenager’ should be, in the eyes of many boomers, a punishable offence – as, indeed, it’s becoming in the U.K. And parents themselves will be even less supportive (and demanding) of educators.

Teachers will change as well. I’ve had many teachers tell me that an increasing percentage of their colleagues are there purely for the job, and could care less about the students or the results. Teaching is no longer a profession – it’s a union job with big holidays. These factors have always been there, and always been one of the attractions of teaching, but teachers were usually dedicated to the ideals of education first. Ten years from now the ‘whatever’ attitude of today’s students will become the ‘whatever’ attitude of many new teachers. You want me to teach whole language instead of phonics? Sure, whatever. You want me to pass everyone, or fail a specified percentage? Sure, whatever. You want me to please the parents, pass the students and get them out of here? No problemo, dude.

This isn’t an encouraging view of the future. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. If I’ve missed something, or have made a mistake somewhere, please tell me – I’m eager to learn. Or just forget the whole thing. Whatever.

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

© Copyright, IF Research, May 2007.

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