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The following text is one of a series of texts written about the Future of Education in preparation for European Schoolnet's International Round Table held in Bruges in December 2006. See also "In search of lost values".

Three approaches to the Future of Education

How to interpret the call for "future visions"?

It is very encouraging to see that we have received fifty-four contributions from twenty-one countries across Europe in preparation for European Schoolnet's International Round Table meeting in Bruges. The experts were wiling to take the time to write and send us their visions of the future of education. This would seem to indicate that such visions have some importance, at least in their eyes.

Reading the contributions, it immediately became clear that there are differing ways of interpreting the terms "future" and "visions". We had not been explicit about what we expected on this point. This has produced some unexpected results. Amongst other things, we have been able to identify a certain number of categories of contributions according to how "future vision" was understood. These categories help understand the contributions. They also make it possible to point to a number of common traits within each category. These in turn can be seen to dictate the type of "vertical" relationship between the visions, the barriers pinpointed and the projects contributors singled out. Below are three such "categories". They cover many of the contributions received.

Three ways of seeing the future

The following three categories concern dominant ways of thinking out the future. Within each category there are a number of facets that often go together. Some of these are positive, others less so. They are necessarily caricatures, exaggerated to illustrate a point. Despite their exaggeration, one or other of them can be recognised in many of the contributions we have received.

1) The utopian approach

The first approach looks to the future as a rich source of inspiration. An ideal future is depicted. That future is an expression of individual or shared wishes or desires. Beyond them lies a set of underlying values for society, and education in particular. This approach might be called “utopian”. Utopia is often thought of as the unattainable dream. It is scoffed at. And one possible aspect of the utopian approach is a difficulty to move beyond formulating future visions and act. Often there is also a failure to take current constraints into consideration. But, as André Gorz pointed out, a utopian vision can also be the ever-present target to aim for in all we do. As such, it galvanises effort towards translating worthy values into actions and results in society. It is this exploration of underlying values (of society) and forms that could translate them into reality that we maintain is the positive force of the utopian approach. If the values expressed by the utopian approach were already fulfilled today, there would be no need to look to the future to see them realised. The utopian approach is then one of change and possibly rupture with the present.

2) The pragmatic approach

The second way of perceiving the future is through the past and its impact on the present and future. You might call this approach "pragmatic". The word "pragmatic" here means sensibly building on past experience. It is not a question of an exaggerated attachment to the past. Rather that past experience is seen as a source of rich experience. A lot can be learnt from it. Advocates of the future-at-any-price loose a lot by ignoring the past. Past experience, however, can become a barrier if it is seen as making the wished-for future very difficult, if not impossible. Proponents of such a vision would call themselves realists or pragmatists. Others would call them pessimists. Their leitmotif is: "things do not change" in education or only very slowly. This doesn't mean that pragmatists have no wishes for the future. Even those who think change is impossible often do. They will even put considerable effort into trying to bring about change. But the weight of experience has convinced them that whatever they want or do, things will just not change much.

3) The task-oriented approach

The third perspective sees the future through the present. For want of a better word, let's call it the “task-oriented” approach. When asked about the future, these people will tell you what they are doing now, in the present. One contributor began by saying "The future has already begun!" Attention is on the here and now. These people act. They get things done. They are dynamic. They are the doers. They have little time for the future. If they do talk about the future, it is more likely to be a wish list than a vision. "Action" is the key word. One of the characteristics of the "task-oriented" approach when thinking of the future is that it can be shaped by the force of will. They consider you can build the future in the present. This implies, to a certain extent, that the future is seen as predictable and can be programmed. These people might well have difficulties thinking forward to a hypothetical or unpredictable future. Such a future would be too intangible for people used to the pressure of deadlines here and now. In addition, they might well not think in terms of underlying values to be made reality, but rather in terms of projects and project goals.

A united front

It is probable that there is considerable incomprehension and possible tension between advocates of these three perspectives. However, aspects of all three approaches are necessary to build the future of education. You need to get things done in the present. You need to learn from past experience. And you need to be able to set aside the present and the past, from time to time, and project your deep-felt wishes into the future. At the same time, the past must not be a barrier to change. Excessive action must not become a barrier to understanding the underlying values behind action and projecting those values forward to visions of the future. Dreaming of the future must not be an obstacle to action nor a reason to refuse to consider the past. Our three sets of questions reflected all three perspectives: the vision; the obstacles; the project. However, many answers tended to be dominated by one or the other of these perspectives, sometimes to the detriment of the others.

From visions to barriers and on to projects

As mentioned above, contributors were asked to provide three things: a vision of the future; details of what they perceived as barriers to reaching that future; and ideas for research and development projects that could contribute to achieving that vision. If we look at this challenge from the perspective of the three approaches mentioned above: task-oriented, pragmatic and utopian, some interesting ideas arise.

From the task-oriented point of view, the vision is in the present. So are the barriers. As a result, any suggested project tends to pursue present developments. The approach is often centred on steady, incremental progress building on the present rather than change or rupture. Although this vision is aware of existing barriers, it is the project that stands in the centre of preoccupations. Sustainability of the project is paramount. Barriers are only important in that they get in the way of the project. Attention to the future vision is often limited. As a result there is a possible loss of the necessary relationship to underlying values as expressed in the future vision. Finally, it is generally in the task-oriented approach that technological solutions play a key role. Mainstreaming technology use is a good example of a task-oriented future.

From the pragmatic point of view, the barriers come before the vision. Any project, if there is one, is more centred on overcoming those barriers than reaching a specific vision. As a result, the proposed projects seek proof that ICT has a positive impact to be able to convince decision-makers and the public at large, for example. Or they look for arguments to convince recalcitrant teachers to adopt ICT in class. Sometimes perspectives seem to become confused. There are those people who clearly talk of the difficulty of making any change, but then go on to suggest a quite different project that doesn't address their concerns. In general, such "secondary visions" are task-oriented, but the underlying feeling is not of constructing the future in the present, but of battling against relics of the past.

Finally, from the utopian point of view, the values as expressed in the vision are paramount and the project aims at achieving that vision. Surprisingly, few people make explicit reference to the values that underlie the vision, even amongst those with a utopian approach. Sometimes the future vision seems so far from practical concerns that one wonders how to get from it to a project. As for the barriers, they are generally not central to the project.

A vertical approach

The strongest projects are those that are ground breaking, but that also draw on past experience and are couched in practical terms that clearly illustrate how they can be carried out. It seems important to us, to promote these projects which is why we aim to produce a catalogue of “future projects” bringing together all three aspects: future vision expressing underlying values; attention to the riches of past experience as potential for the future; and a solid task-oriented approach to creating that approach.

Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise 2006-12-04
Many thanks to Bert Jaap van Oel for his very thought-provoking input on this text.

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Created: December 4th, 2006 - Last up-dated: December 17th, 2006