Voices from the Field: Insights into the Future of Learning

By Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

This piece is the third article of a three-part series on educational perspectives from a variety of stakeholders in the educational ecosystem. We surveyed a wide array of educators, from classroom practitioners to school and district level administrators, to academic professors and researchers. These educators span early childhood to secondary grades and represent a broad swath of specialties. In this piece, we compiled and analyzed their responses pertaining to the future of learning. This research was done before schools and districts were faced with mandated remote learning as a result of the pandemic.  

Thirty years ago, few educators could have imagined that their students could connect with peers from across the globe with smartphones; that artificial intelligence and computer-generated analysis would be helping us to better understand individual student experiences and overall trends in classrooms, schools, and districts; that digitized learning platforms would allow for anytime anywhere access to instructional materials; or that kindergartners, along with learning their letters and numbers, would be learning the foundations of computer coding. With the exponential growth and development of technology, contemporary educators can no more likely predict the details of the future workforce and economy, overall consumer market, and what schools should and will look like to match those spheres.

Despite this lack of a crystal ball, our educators did provide insights on what they believe is needed in order to make sure we are preparing our institutions–so they can effectively serve our students–for this rapidly changing future. First and foremost, our educators described the need to build a robust infrastructure that can support and adapt to the future needs and aspirations of our society. And, they continuously noted that the foundation of that infrastructure must be student-centered pedagogy, strong educational leadership that supports the holistic development of students, and the utilization of technology that supports personalized, authentic learning experiences.

Educator Wishlist

When we asked our panel of educators about what resources they wish every student or classroom could have access to, the responses were not about flashy new tools. In many ways, their wishes reflect a desire for simple, foundational tools that directly support student growth and development:

  • “We are pretty spoiled because we have a lot of technology in our classrooms. All of our students have their own Chromebooks which has been great. I really wish our classrooms could have large sets of guided reading books.” (Second Grade Teacher)
  • “I wish every student and classroom could have access to a school library that is funded and staffed with a certified librarian.” (Donna Kouri, Indian Prairie School District)
  • “I wish all students could have access to a positive relationship with an adult.” (Tracey Ratner, Indian Prairie School District)
  • “I wish all students could have access to whichever tools they need to navigate the curriculum and be successful. Each student is different; therefore, the tool or resource that works for one may not necessarily work for another.” (Dr. Nicole Mancini, Broward County Public Schools)

And, our few respondents who did describe a wish for additional technology or devices, wanted technology in the service of providing greater access of resources to students, increasing the options of learning modalities offered to students, and overall, better meeting individual student needs.

Daryl Diamond, Director of Innovative Learning, Broward County Public Schools shared her desire for the “use of a learning management system where all curriculum content is in one place and can be accessed as many times as needed by a student and where teachers provide resources in a variety of modalities meeting the needs of all students.” Diamond further wished for opportunities to help her students connect with others around the globe: “The ability to video conference with other learners around the globe to solve global issues is a very valuable tool in helping students see how connected we are.” These wishlists all fulfill similar desires–to meet our students where they are, provide the necessary supports to move their learning forward, and to help them grow as human beings.

A Trend Towards A Holistic Approach to Student Growth

When we asked our educators about trends they are seeing in their classrooms and districts that provide insights into the future of education, they primarily spoke of students needing greater overall support for academic learning, for social-emotional development and challenges, and personalized approaches for each student’s unique learning profile. Ratner explained the importance of acknowledging and meeting the multilayered facets of students’ needs: “I think one of the trends we need to pay attention to as we look toward the future of learning is how mental health is impacting our students. We need to pay attention to students who have experienced trauma [and their] SEL needs.” In addition to the broader approach for each individual student, many educators noted the trend that we are seeing a greater diversity in our student population, expanding the overall spectrum of needs in a given classroom, school, or district.

In sharing their hopes for the future of education, our educators described a system that matches these increased student needs with an acknowledgment that these issues should be included in a school’s overall learning approach and be paired with a robust system of support. Respondents focused on the need to broaden our view of students beyond just academic achievement to their overall growth and development as human beings. In order to do this, we must embed, as part of the school experience, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed teaching, and materials and practices that are culturally responsive for our ever-diversifying student body.

Ratner described, “ My hopes are that we can work to support the mental health needs of our students and their families in a more systematic way. I also envision classrooms truly being communities where trust and growth are at the forefront.” Victoria Saldala, Director, Bilingual/ESOL Department, Broward County Public Schools added that it is imperative that we create, “culturally sensitive classroom[s] accepting of diversity and languages.”

To accomplish this, we must also systematically cast wider nets of support for teachers and students. A second-grade teacher shared, “[We need] more social workers and school psychologists that are able to really help students that are dealing with trauma in their lives. So many kids are suffering and we expect them to learn in the midst of all the trauma that they have experienced or are experiencing. They are not getting help outside of school, so we should be providing that service to them in school.”

Many respondents mentioned the inundation of standardized tests and corresponding high-stakes consequences for teachers and schools as a negative trend that schools and districts must address going forward. Several expressed that standardized tests capture only a very narrow band of achievement and often are not a productive part of a learning cycle. Malissa Beckmann, 1st Grade Teacher, Batavia (IL) Public Schools explained, “We need to look at the SEL needs of students and the role and nature of testing. Often, I find myself reassuring parents that this type of testing is just a small piece as to who their child is as a learner and that I also have [other] data points that are a more true reflection on their child’s learning throughout the year.”

Guy Barmoha, Director of Secondary Learning, Broward County Public Schools further summed up this sentiment, “Although testing is important, we need to be mindful of what we are asking students to do to show mastery.” Mancini further explained that “The extreme focus on assessments is at times a significant barrier to productive learning” especially when the primary focus becomes the test result rather than what students know and understand. Once again, our educators highlighted the need for personalized, student-centered approaches to teaching, learning, and assessment of that learning.

Technology in the Support of Student Learning

In order to better meet students’ needs, our respondents shared a desire for technology that enables personalization and allows for multiple pathways of both instruction and assessment so that all students’ learning is accurately reflected. Mancini noted that “My hope for the future of education is that all children have the opportunity to engage in experiences where their talents and strengths are leveraged to personalize their individualized learning pathway.” Barmoha further described this type of ideal learning environment:

I envision an open classroom school where students are working on the personalized pathways for success built upon their strengths. Teachers are available to answer questions from students in regards to their project or problem they are trying to solve. Teachers hold mini-lessons on concepts that are at the forefront of the standards and student interest. I hope for a district that accepts multiple modes of assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of content.

And any desire for an infusion of technology in classrooms was simply a means to this end. Diamond explained that she hopes to “utilize technology to enable multiple ways of representing content while allowing students to use various software to demonstrate mastery of content as a creator.” She would also welcome resources that allow for a “more authentic application of knowledge to solving problems that can demonstrate a student’s aptitude with content.”

Hopes for the Future

As a society, the task that we hand public schools is herculean and continues to grow with every news, fiscal, and legislative cycle. Whenever there is a challenge we collectively must tackle–from preparing a workforce for a global economy to ensuring the emotional health of our youth, to continuing learning in the midst of a pandemic–we expect our schools and districts to immediately adapt, grow, and succeed, often with a shrinking pool of resources. In short, as Ratner shared, “teachers are continuously expected to do more and more.”

But, even despite this, those on the front lines are still approaching the future with tremendous hope. Diamond described her ideal school environment of the future:

Curriculum that creates personalized pathways for students and will make education meaningful. The purpose of schooling would not be to obtain information and knowledge; students have immediate access to that via the Internet. Schools should instead help students make sense of the knowledge and how to apply the knowledge to areas in which they have an interest. I hope for SEL to be established in all schools as a foundation for learning. And that we can ensure that all students have access to the technology they need and the expectation that all students can succeed and thrive.

As we look to the future of education, these educators, amazingly, are embracing the additional directives as an opportunity to better serve the many needs of their students. Their hope is that curricular, financial, and public support will follow their lead.

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Kristen Thorson

Kristen Thorson is a Getting Smart Columnist. She is known for her experience as a teacher, interventionist, and curriculum and assessment developer

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