Futures Thinking and the Future of Education

Warning - this is long! It was originally written for my Organisational Development paper.


“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed - it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” (Robinson, 2009, p. 238)

Currently many schools can still be described as fitting the so-called ‘factory model’. These schools were born out of the industrial era and for the most part have failed to adapt to the needs of learners who exist in what can be defined as the knowledge or creative age. There are a number of areas that schools can develop so as to better meet the demands of the 21st century learner. But as Ken Robinson states it is not simply a matter of subtle change or reform, the education system needs to be transformed.

Schools in the modern era need to become increasingly student-centred, providing student choice and developing 21st century skills through blended learning modes and flexible spaces and structures. This transformation requires collaborative, student centred leadership, committed to a continuous cycle of improvement and change underpinned by inquiry.

A new context – the knowledge age

One of the central reasons we need to transform how we deliver education in the 21st century is the fact that we are living in a new age – the knowledge age. In the text 21st Century Skills, Trilling and Fadel (2009) look to the recent past to establish a timeline: agrarian age, industrial age and knowledge age. Acknowledging that whilst many cultures are still well grounded in the Agrarian and Industrial Age, the most developed are grounded in the knowledge age. McCain, Jukes and Crockett (2010) create a similar timeline in Living on the Future Edge, showing the world as moving through agriculture, working, and service to creative or knowledge age in the current day. Rachel Bolstad (2008) defines ‘the knowledge age’ as a new, advanced form of capitalism in which knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth (more important than land, labour, money, or other ‘tangible resources). New patterns of work and new business practices have developed, and, as a result, new kinds of workers, with new and different skills, are required.

New skills for a new age

A new age demands a new set of skills. These are commonly referred to as 21st century skills. In response to this, the school curriculum in the modern age has (or will need to have) an increasingly skill or competency-focused curriculum. The New Zealand Curriculum identifies five key competencies that have been identified as key skills for 21st century learners. These include thinking, using language, symbols, and texts, managing self, relating to others and participating and contribution. Similarly the American 21st Century Skills Partnership (see Figure 2) outlines a series of skills or competencies as the structure of effective learning in the modern age. Increasingly these competencies, rather than traditional curriculum content or subjects, seem to be informing curriculum design in the 21st century.

Figure 1: 21st Century Skills Rainbow

In considering the New Zealand Curriculum and what is identified in a range of literature there are some common assumptions about what skills are needed in the modern age, including complex communication skills, collaborative skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills well as highly developed information and media literacy.

Figure 2: 21st Century Skills

Effective schooling in the modern era

Assuming these skills are key to succeeding in the modern era, how we define an effective school will need to change also. There are many facets that make up the vision of what makes an effective school in the in the modern era (or knowledge age) such as having an increasing focus on developing powerful learning relationships, through inquiry and project learning in blended learning environments with increasing amounts of flexible or self-directed learning so as to deliver truly student-centred learning. There are a number of organisational structures or systems that will be required to support learning in the modern era.

Knowing the learner is central to a successful modern school. Organisational systems such as learner advisories need to be set up to ensure powerful learning relationships are developed and continue develop throughout a students time at school. A ‘learning advisory’ is a small group of students led by a learning advisor to provide both pastoral and academic guidance. This can include setting personal and academic goals and ongoing mentoring to ensure learners are making appropriate choices to ensure learning paths are meeting the needs of the learner. The Big Picture Schools website defines learning advisories as “the core organisational and relational structure … often described as the “home” and “second family” by students. A learning advisory within the Big Picture School system is made up of fifteen students with one advisor who works with the students throughout their entire high school career. This model has been in place at the Big Picture schools internationally for sometime. New Zealand Schools such as Opotiki College and Hobsonville Point Secondary School are establishing similar models to ensure powerful learning relationships can be developed between the student, teacher (or advisor) and home.

Learning advisories are a powerful mechanism for ensuring that partnerships are not only developed between teacher and learner, but also between the school and family and whanau. An effective school in the modern era may also look to connect with family and whanau in new ways such designing the school curriculum. As Hampson, Patton and Shanks (2012) of the Innovation Unit share in their text 10 ideas for the 21st Century, ways of achieving this are already happening in New Zealand:

“Discovery 1, a primary school in New Zealand, goes even further: the curriculum is designed by the whole community, with workshops taught by parents who have knowledge in specific subjects. Parents are seen as partners in schooling: families can choose to have days of learning at home, in addition to parents providing support and guidance in school to teachers and learners alike.” (p.23)

These kinds of initiatives see lines between school and home blurring, developing stronger connections with the community than ever before and helping to develop a sense of ubiquitous learning that can take place anytime and anywhere.

Student choice and opportunities to learn through passion projects or impact projects have been recognised as a way for students to experience authentic learning and an increasing sense of student agency. Passion projects allow learners to explore and build on personal interests. Schools such as Albany Senior High School already have ‘Impact Projects’ at the heart of their curriculum, as does St Hilda’s Collegiate, where all Year 9s connect to a person in the community through their Passion Projects. Project learning or ‘project based learning’ can provide learning opportunities that are authentic and support learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Project learning involves completing complex tasks that result in a realistic product, event, or presentation to an audience (Trilling and Fadel, 2009). Trilling and Fadel (2009) argue that the benefits from project learning include “increased ability to define problems, improved reasoning using clear arguments, and better planning of complex projects. Improvements in motivation, attitudes toward learning, and working habits were also found” (p.111).

Similarly, inquiry-based learning is central to curriculum and learning design that seeks to encourage student-centred learning. A wide range of future-focused learning theory cites inquiry as an important 21st century skill. As Trilling and Fadel (2009) suggest, inquiry and design learning methods, combined with traditional ways of acquiring skills “guided by caring teachers and parents and powered by today’s digital learning tools” (p.94) are at the centre of a 21st century learning approach. Inquiry based learning sees the learner taking the lead with their learning as they inquire or research a topic. Learners may be provided with a framework or s series of questions to guide their inquiry, or may design their own framework or questions to develop an increasingly self-directed model of inquiry.

In the modern era, if schooling is to be truly student-centred, learning should also be rich in differentiation so as to meet the needs of diverse learners. Differentiation is about providing different ways for learners to achieve a particular outcome. As Tomlinson (2001) states in her text How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms “kids of the same age aren’t all alike when it comes to learning, anymore than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or likes and dislikes” (p.1). Assuming this to be true, coupled with the increasing diversity of future career paths it is important that teaching and instruction is differentiated to meet the needs of diverse learners (and diverse futures). Tomlinson calls for a need to differentiate instruction for learning style, interest and readiness. She suggests that the teacher can also differentiate the content (or context), the process used to learn and the product that is created to demonstrate the learning that has taken place. Differentiation, like student choice and passion projects, provides a way to achieve an authentically student-centred learning to better meet the needs of the learner in the modern era.

Digital competency is also central to learning in the modern age. As Trilling and Fadel (2009) state “technology and the digital devices that fill a knowledge worker’s toolkit” (p.25) are increasingly important as learning enablers in the modern age. Therefore, blended learning delivered through richly integrated digital technologies are key to enabling many of the aspects outlined above that come together to meet the needs of learners in the modern age. As modern learning environments evolve to allow open and flexible use of learning spaces, so too does ‘bring your own device’ policies, robust Wi-Fi infrastructures and sophisticated Learning Management Systems support learning to become flexible and ubiquitous making learning available anytime, anywhere.

As Mitra (2013) states “unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved.” (pg.1). The concept of increasingly self-guided learning and flexi-time is also central to learning in the modern era. This is of course enhanced by inquiry learning and blended learning as learning becomes less bound to specific time or spaces. The Coalition of Self-Directed Learning Schools in Canada has been developing a model of self-directed learning with students enjoying full days of ‘self-directed flexi-time’ for over 40 years. Within New Zealand Schools such as Ormiston Senior College and Hobsonville Point Secondary School also providing students with opportunities to become increasingly self-directed during extended periods of “flexi-time”.

How you would develop it to meet the needs of students in the future

Making the necessary changes to create effective schools for a modern era require schools to become learning organisations that can sustain ongoing change. For a school to become what Senge (1990) refers to as a ‘learning organisation’, so as to meet these needs of learners in a modern era, it is important that the entire organisation is underpinned by inquiry. Teachers will need to be able to cope with increasing rates of change and will need to become what Darling-Hammond (2009) refers to as ‘adaptive experts’ so as to be responsive to the needs of learners in an increasingly student-centred learning environment.

Learning organisations will need to be structured in such a way that that they can accommodate increasing levels of self-direction and look to be developing student agency. This will include redeveloping structures such as timetables so as to set aside time for self-directed learning or flexi-time, as well as allowing time for project learning and the pursuit of passion projects. Learning design is the key to providing the ‘enabling constraints’ that make flexible, self-directed learning manageable and meaningful.

Ensuring that there is direct leadership focused on learning relationships will also help learning organisations to meet the needs of learners in the modern age. Learning advisories and powerful school/whanau relationships need a wide range of organisational structures to ensure the can be effective. Timetables need to provide time for advisories to take place and professional learning needs to focus on teachers developing strategies for getting to know the learner and learning how to support leaners in setting robust academic and personal goals. Systems also need to be put in place to support ongoing school-family/whanau communications. This may include developing online student portfolios that encourage peer and parent feedback, or systems similar to those seen in the self-directed schools in Canada which included fortnightly student/advisor interviews that were summarised online and emailed home to parents at the time of the meeting. Reporting structures will change to become less formal and more regular updates and more likely a triangulated conversation between advisor, learner and parent.

Just as communication and reporting systems will change, so to will assessment. Personalised assessment will be needed to measure personalised learning. NZQA have already shared their ten-year vision for providing online, anytime, anywhere examinations in a bid to meet the need for increasing personalised means of assessing learning. In speaking to SPANZ, NZQA Chief Executive Dr Karen Poutasi (2013) outlined the plans for our national assessment approaches will change to meet the needs of learners in the modern age.

"Phase 3, the Transformation phase, will go from years 6 through to 10. This is when we expect it all to come together, and NZQA will deliver assessment to anyone, anywhere, anytime, online and on demand.”

It is changes such as these that will enable transformation of how we deliver education possible. It is a reality that, in a secondary environment at least, assessment directly impacts on curriculum design. Therefore, anytime, anywhere assessment will be an important step in transforming the current curriculum design norms.

As Trilling and Fadel (2009) state in ‘21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times’ “Technology and the digital devices and services that fill a knowledge worker’s toolkit – the thinking tools of our time – may be the most potent forces for change in the 21st century” (p.25). Indeed, each of the aforementioned organisational systems is enabled, or at least enhanced, by the integration of ICT and blended learning design. Seamlessly integrated digital technologies and ubiquitous access to learning and assessment requires careful strategic planning. Planning needs to firmly based around the needs of the learner (see Figure 3), ensuring the necessary infrastructure (network, Wi-Fi, Internet provision, provisioning, single sign-on etc.), teacher professional development (supporting teachers to change pedagogical approach through teaching as inquiry), designing integrated Learning Management and Student Managements Systems and developing Digital Citizenship of teachers and learners to ensure systems are reliable and robust and the approaches are pedagogically sound.

Figure 3: Strategic Planning for ICT Integration

Appropriate leadership capacities and strategies in what is inevitably a change-orientated environment

A collaborative culture is central to a 21st century learning organisation. As Schein (1992) suggests “culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin in that leaders first create cultures when they create groups and organisations” (p.137). To develop a collaborative culture within a student-centred learning organisation requires a collaborative student-centred leadership model. As Robinson (2011) states in Student-Centred Leadership, future-focused schools recognise the need to build a team who can collaboratively support the five dimensions of student-centred leadership: establishing clear goals and expectations, resourcing strategically, ensuring quality teacher learning and ensuring an orderly and safe learning environment.

Robinson (2011) also identifies three capabilities needed for student-centred leadership: applying relevant knowledge, solving complex problems, and building relational trust.

However, in an age where transformation is called for, future-focused leadership is required. Future-focused leadership is about change management and becoming a genuine ‘learning organisation’. As Senge (1990) states “the organisations that will truly excel in the future will be the organisations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organisation” (p.151). In order to ensure organisational leadership is responsive to the needs of the learner, it is important that leading change is central to the organisation. There are three levels of leadership central within an effective learning organisation: governance, school leadership and teaching. Each aspect can be adaptive and responsive if underpinned by a continuous cycle of inquiry.

As Ministry of Education website (2013) states “Schools in New Zealand are self-governing and managed within a national framework of regulation and guidance…National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) for school administration set out desirable principles of conduct or administration in schools.” To insure these are met school boards are required to develop charters and annual plans in order to meet these requirements and report their performance accordingly. Taking a ‘governance as inquiry’ approach involves applying an inquiry cycle to the governance process.

Similarly, effective leadership needs to be underpinned by a cycle of inquiry to ensure that leaders are continually reflecting on the needs of the school and learners and adapting their practices accordingly. Research and reading focusing on future thinking often talk of the increasing rate of change (and even ‘hyperchange’) and for this reason it is important that leaders and teachers see themselves as adaptive experts and as Darling-Hammond (2009) states “Adaptive experts also know how to continuously expand their expertise, restructuring their knowledge and competencies to meet new challenges.” Taking a leading as inquiry will support leaders to be responsive to need whilst also continuously expand their expertise.

Governance and leading as inquiry represent how leading change can be managed on a macro level, this change needs to be echoed on a micro level within the classroom. Teaching as inquiry focuses on how the day to practice of the teacher can be responsive to the needs of the learner. Now, more than ever, teachers need to see themselves as life-long learners who are adapting to changing needs of students (Bolstad et al. 2012). As Timperley (2007) states “an essential element of this inquiry is that teachers see themselves as agents of change - for their students and their own learning” (p.xliv). ‘Teaching as inquiry’ allows a teacher to align their learning to meet the demands of their curriculum and the needs of their specific students. This assists in making the professional learning authentic and personally meaningful in a way that initiative-focused sporadic professional development does not. Teaching as inquiry also allows staff to work with and learn from one another, and as Southworth (2000) states “persistent self-renewal, which is becoming more and more crucial to a school’s success is strongly associated with developing the capacity for staff to learn with and from one another” (p.191).

In this change orientated society it is important too, that the learning organisation appreciate the need for cyclical ongoing improvement and understand the importance of leveraging by making changes in periods of growth. As Sigmoid Curve Model suggests greater overall improvement is achieved when organisations make time of growth or improvement rather than times of decline.

Figure 4: Sigmoid Curve Model


As Mitra (2013) asserts the traditional educational model is a robust system, as it successfully manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age. But, as Gilbert (2005) states “the production-line model of education is a one-size-fits-all system” (p.61) sorting people according to their likely occupations that historically included primarily task-driven, labour or managerial roles. This is no longer good enough, with our focus now on what Gilbert describes as “diversification, on developing new industries and “adding knowledge” to our existing ones” (p.62). This calls for a new approach to education in New Zealand and beyond.

In conclusion, schools need to make a number of changes in order to meet the needs of learners in the modern age. As Mitra (2013) asserts schools today are the product of an expired age; standardised curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. The ‘factory model’ may well have been a good fit for the industrial age a new approach to schooling is required to meet the needs of the ‘knowledge age’ in which we now live. Schools need to become increasingly student-centred, providing student choice, developing 21st century skills through blended learning modes and flexible spaces and structures. This transformation requires student centred leadership, committed to a continuous cycle of improvement and change underpinned by inquiry, because as Mehta, Schwartz and Hess (2012) state in The Futures of School Reform “If we keep doing what we are doing, we’re never going to get there” (p.1).


Bolstad, R., & New Zealand Council for Educational Research. (2008). Disciplining and drafting or 21st century learning?: Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future. Wellington, N.Z: NZCER Press.

Bolstad, R., & New Zealand. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning & teaching: a New Zealand perspective. Wellington, N.Z.: Ministry of Education.

Center for 21st Century Skills — Redesigning education for the 21st Century through the convergence of art, business, creativity, innovation, engineering, and science. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2, 2013, from http://www.skills21.org/

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Mitra, S. (2013). We Need Schools... Not Factories. Huffington Post. Retrieved September 23, 2013 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sugata-mitra/2013-ted-prize_b_2767598.html

Robinson, V.M.J. (2011). Student Centred Leadership. San Francisico: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Robinson, V.M.J., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Wellington: New Zealand. Ministry of Education

Schein, E. H. (1992). Organisational Culture and Leadership (Second Edition). San Francisico: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Senge, P. (1990). The Firth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. New York: Doubleday.

SigmoidCurve.jpg (JPEG Image, 817 × 529 pixels) - Scaled (58%). (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2013, from http://blogs-images.forbes.com/rebeccabagley/files/2013/01/SigmoidCurve.jpg

Southworth, G. (2000). How Primary Schools Learn. Unpublished Paper.

The New Zealand Curriculum - NZ Curriculum Online. (2007.). Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-documents/The-New-Zealand-Curriculum

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/waikato/Doc?id=10044807

Trilling, B., & Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). 21st century skills: learning for life in our times. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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