Focusing On What Is Going To Stay The Same in Education

One of my favorite writers (and thinkers) in the world, Shane Parrish, recently wrote a post titled, “What’s Staying the Same?”. In this post, he flips the questions we all are normally asking (what is going to change?) into one that has relevance for all aspects of life, but especially for education:

I want to know the future. So do you. However, our desire to know the future leads us to seek answers to unanswerable questions.

The question, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” is a popular one in nearly all industries. The siren song of avoiding uncertainty and knowing the future is hard to resist. Having the answer is the equivalent of signaling to the world that you’re an oracle.

The best thing? No one will remember how wrong you were.

To capitalize on what’s going to change in the future, a lot of things have to go right. Not only do you have to speculate the changing variables correctly, but you have to guess how they will interact. And you have to go all in on that version of the future. On top of that, you have to hope that your competitors thought you were crazy and didn’t invest resources in that version of the future. This is why it rarely works, and when it does it’s mostly luck.

While predicting the future is important, it’s often not knowable. We’re speculating, but our brains convince themselves otherwise. Plausible answers about the future tend to cement as reality in our minds. We convince ourselves that we know something that is not knowable.

The range of possible futures is always changing, a lot like electrons. Electrons baffle physicists because they are hard to pin down.  Any attempts to locate them require the use of energy.  Electrons are so light that the energy we use to locate them changes their location. In the same way that shining a light on an electron will change its position ever so slightly, investing in a particular version of the future will change the probability of that particular future ever so slightly. Complicating things further, it’s not a single-player game—it’s a multi-person game and the odds are always changing.

Beyond that, once you shine the light on what’s going to change and how this time is different, you may forget to look at a simpler and more important question: “What’s not going to change in the next ten years?”

Taking time to think about what is NOT going to change helps us put perspective on the things that we should focus our time and attention on now. This is not to say we shouldn’t focus on helping kids prepare themselves for a future of change, but instead take time to look at the other side as well.

What is Staying the Same?

Neil Gaiman, award-winning author of Coraline (and many other books), recently gave a talk at the Long Now Foundation about “How Stories Last” which was an incredibly fascinating look into how stories grow, morph, and live on. In his talk he compared paper books to sharks, because nothing is as good at being a book…as a book is:

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

As I continued to listen to the talk I couldn’t pull my mind away from this analogy. It made too much sense. I read ebooks all the time. I read magazines on my phone and articles on my iPad, and just about everything else on my computer. Yet, when I truly care about a subject, a person, or a story…I’ll drop everything to buy the book. I see the same thing as an author when my paperback books still sell as well as my ebooks.

Books are easily shared. They can be saved on bookshelves and re-read or kept as a memento. Books will almost always exist because they serve a wonderful purpose, and do it extremely well.

The Sharks (Truths) of Education

In education, we are consistently looking towards the future. We wonder what will be the “new” or “innovative” idea that will transform education. We search for quick-fixes and spend so much time talking about the problems…and yet, I believe, we have many educational sharks that are often discarded as not mattering anymore.

I’ve done this myself. I fail to see what is working right in front of my eyes, what has seemingly always worked while falling for a shiny new practice that may not be a better solution.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be innovative. Far from it! But we should be just as intentional about building on current and past best practices, as we are about looking towards next practices.

Here are some truths in education that have mattered for a long time, and will continue to be relevant into the future:

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Truth #1 is the reason we educate students. It’s for their benefit. But, it only matters to our students when they own the learning. When we give students choice, allow for inquiry, and foster creativity–then we see the amazing things they can do. Technology plays an interesting role in student ownership. That device in their pocket has all the information in the world. It can connect them to anyone, allow for collaboration, and be used for a variety of innovative purposes. As teachers, we have to embrace the notion that technology can open up a world of learning opportunities, and then give our students the chance to own those opportunities.

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Truth #2 comes from a quote I first heard Tom Murray say on stage, “Every child in your class is someone else’s whole world.” As a parent who now has a child in school, this really hit home for me watching my daughter leave the house every day. Technology brings us closer together through communication tools, real-time collaboration, and sharing apps that bring video/pictures/audio to life. But it also does more than that. It transforms our social/human connections with little moments that can make a kid’s day, or make a parent proud.

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Truth #3 is all about the story. I’ve written before about the power of stories in education. It’s one of the best ways to teach and a favorite way of mine to learn. Stories have passed the test of time, and continue to enlighten and motivate people every day to learn and grow. Technology has transformed storytelling. Watch a Pixar movie and try to tell me differently… Technology expands our depth of story and allows us to share stories wider and farther than ever before. When something goes “viral” it means a story has struck a chord and reached millions of people unlike any other time in history. As teachers and students, we can use technology to transform our storytelling, and how we learn.

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Truth #4 is something I firmly believe and try to say in every conference and school I speak to: Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything. We are the guides and our students are the heroes of the story. When we don’t know what the future holds for our students, our job changes. [footnote] Let’s face it. None of us have any idea what the next five years are going to look like. Let’s not pretend we know what our students will be doing with their lives and in their careers. [/footnote] Technology can empower us as guides, because we don’t have to fear not being a content expert (especially as content continually changes). Instead we can rely on the fact that we are master learners ourselves, and technology is a resource we can share with our students to help them learn anything.

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Truth #5 is based around the Alvin Toffler quote (although it may not have been him who said it first):

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read and write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Technology create a learning environment where unlearning and relearning is the norm. Where we can get new information, analyze it, apply it, and use it to create or evaluate. If Toffler is right (and I think he is onto something) then we should adopt a mindset that praises unlearning and relearning, and treats learning as a continuum.

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Truth #6 is something all of us know who work in education. We have an impact. We make a difference. It’s why we got into this profession in the first place, and it’s what keeps us here and moving even on the hardest days. Technology lets our connections and impact move beyond the classroom walls, and continue to be powerful long after our students are out of sight.

What are some of your truths of education? The things that won’t change in 10 years? Please share below!

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