Futures: The Eye of the Storm

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In a world where disruption buffets the world, this is what our school will want to be: the eye of the storm.

Last September as part of the Futures exercise, the school hosted a Symposium titled Waves of Disruption that brought together nearly 100 alumni, parents, students, staff, governors and friends for two days. Attendees came from all over the world, motivated by an important desire to explore the future of the school.

One would think inviting an alumni panel to talk about the future is nothing more than an invocation of the past. Our alumni panel, with kids of their own right now or imagining kids of their own, respected the past but did not focus on it. While they did not suggest turning our backs on structure, or university education, or classroom learning, they did desire a future education for their children that was at least as good as but different from the education they had at the school.

They want schooling that is more flexible and collaborative, less bookish and more responsive to the world around us, less slavish toward university credentials and more attentive to the intellectual rigour of practices such as the university tutorial – where the dialogue between sharp minds tests each other.

We also had alumni speakers; experts in their fields. Globally, we heard that the old order is cracking under the weight of new currents and that future alliances and shifts in power would be motivated by unpredictable self-interest. We heard that economic and social disparity will require, on the one hand, individual responsibility and action to improve local crises and, on the other hand, macro-economic changes for broader solutions. Artificial intelligence, powerful and inevitable as it is, will also possess vulnerabilities on a frightening scale. To those in attendance – a particularly well-educated group – the title of the symposium, Waves of Disruption, seemed precisely accurate.

These discussions echo discussions in other venues, in other media, from people unconnected with our school, that challenge the notion that the future will be smooth. Rather, the future will be disrupted by technology (especially artificial intelligence), by globalization in a world of scarcity, by geopolitical re-alignment, and by climate change, to mention the major issues. The questions these challenges raise are big ones: Where will populations live? How and why will power be wielded? And by whom? What will we do when all the mundane practicalities of life, from shopping to driving our cars to producing all of humanity’s needs, will be fulfilled by automation that learns as it goes, never forgets, and only gets better?

Forecasts often assume stupidity on the part of those responsible for the future. Therefore, we hear about the end of universities, the end of the automobile, the explosion of cities, the desertification of the tropics.  Likewise, considerable blindness and stupidity is attributed to those whose role it is to educate the brains of the future – and for those whose role it is to govern. The antidote to such stupidity is intelligent questions and discussion, along with a solid foundation. Our school will transform, following this path. The only schools that don’t transform will be those governed by the same mindset that denies climate change. The unfortunate thing is that like those who deny climate change, those who are slow to adapt to shifting forces in education won’t pay the consequences themselves. A couple of decades later, their successors will. In the meantime, we want to be the eye of the storm: secure and steady.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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