Will Richardson is the author of a popular education blog at willrichardson.com as well as the co-founder of ModernLearners.com which promotes raising the bar on change conversations in schools. Richardson is also known for his work in pushing school reform, with a particular focus on the integration of technology in learning.
Does the current way of education fully prepare children for the 21st century?
I think by and large schools are still preparing kids for the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first century. I think many of the skills that we hope that kids leave us with are becoming quickly obsolete. There aren’t too many opportunities for kids to really practise the types of things that they’re going to need to be successful in their lives. They can’t practise those in schools and we don’t do a great job at teaching them.
There was a recent study that said eighty percent of kids said that five years out of college they pretty much had to relearn everything and that they were constantly learning new skills as the world changed. I think skills are now about having a certain kind of mindset. Kids, and people generally, are going to have to really think about how they can continually learn, continually upskill, learn new things and apply those new learnings to the work that they are doing. It’s never going to stop.
What is the role of the teacher?
I think the role of the teacher is really changing and is going to have to continue to change. First of all, I think that a teacher is now more of a connector than a content expert. With the invention of the internet and all the ways that we can use technologies to connect through the web, there are now more knowledgeable people out in the world rather than in the classroom. That’s an interesting new reality.
It’s a challenging reality for teachers who for hundreds of years have been the experts in the room, but I think we have to bring those other people in now - people who may know more than we do, people who may share passions with our students in ways that we don’t. I think that’s a very important piece of it.
Secondly I think that teachers should be the master learners in the classroom. If there’s any expertise that every teacher should have, it should be in learning, specifically how you learn in these modern environments. How do you use the web to connect to other people? How do you share your own work so you become findable and connectable online? How do you make the interactions with those people work to benefit you as a learner? They should then model these skills for the kids that are in the classrooms.
I think too often kids don’t see teachers as learners, they see them as teachers, and that really needs to change now because teachers are everywhere. The most important thing we can help our kids with now is developing them as learners, and they need to see us do that as well.
Do you think standardized testing is an effective way to assess learning?
I think standardized testing does more harm than it does good. A lot of the stories and research that’s coming out now, especially in the United States, suggests that standardized tests raise anxiety levels to a very high degree, they cause depression in kids, they cause all sorts of emotional issues, because of all the emphasis that we put on that one test.
The test itself doesn’t really give us feedback on how to help a student become better at whatever it is that student might be deficient at, because we don’t get the results until six months later. It’s not something that’s immediate in terms of feedback.
So, I think we have to rethink assessment. The interesting thing is that in a lot of places around the world, people are pushing back against these standardized assessments. In the future I think we need more portfolio or performance-based assessments, where we can look at what a student is doing and say: ‘Yeah, he or she understands that concept. He has those skills, she has that literacy,’ rather than trying to make them answer a question on a test that everybody else is answering, because that’s not how the real world works.
I’m not saying we don’t test and we don’t assess some things, but certainly the pressure that we put on these standardized assessments and the stakes that we have put on them now in terms of evaluating teachers based on those test results, I think is totally dysfunctional. I think it’s harmful to kids and teachers and I think that’s something that absolutely has to be rethought, especially given the changes in the world right now.
What would be the most exciting learning environment?
I think that any learning environment that engages kids is one that allows them to pursue what they have a passion and an interest in. I don’t think technology solves the engagement problem. Just by giving kids technology, that doesn’t make them more engaged in the long term.
The learning environments that are most productive are the ones where kids are working on projects that are interesting to them, asking questions that they’re interested in, working with other people and with their peers - places where kids really want to learn more about whatever it is that they are working on. Learning doesn’t end. There isn’t necessarily a test that says: ‘Now we’re done with this. Let’s move on to something else.’ It’s ‘Well, what’s your next question, the next thing that you’re interested in, the next problem that you want to solve?’
Those are the types of learning environments where kids are fundamentally most joyous and interested, and are doing amazing work. If you start with that and then you add technology to it, then it becomes really interesting, because technology amplifies our ability to learn, to create, to connect and communicate, but it’s not required. It’s the classroom culture first and foremost that puts the emphasis on learning and then, once that’s established, the technology becomes very interesting.
What role do you think government should play in education?
I think governments have a big role to play in education, but unfortunately I think in government and policymaking positions at the moment they don’t really understand the changes that are occurring, and they don’t understand what schools need to be in order to help kids be successful in their lives moving forward.
I think we still have this very traditional mindset. We hear these traditional narratives about what schooling is and what the pathway through school is. Everyone needs to take this particular subject at this particular time, they need to take this particular assessment from this particular teacher.
So the structures are rooted in the way that we do school, and governments could do a better job of encouraging people in education to innovate. Encouraging them to look at different ways of structuring schools and the type of work that we do in classrooms with kids, but to do that they need to educate.
One of the most disappointing things to me is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of education in a contextual sense that’s coming from a state house or a country’s capital or policymakers. I think that’s the most important thing. If they can set the context and help educate people as to how the world is changing, what the new skills and literacies are, what those things are that kids need and then say: ‘Now you have the freedom to innovate around that at your local level,’ I think that would be the best way to do it. I think then we’d get a lot more kids engaged and prepared for the world that they are going to enter once they leave school.
What was your favourite moment in your own education?
It’s interesting because I think that my favourite moments as a learner have come after my formal education. When I started blogging back in 2000-2001 and I started connecting to other people who had a passion around answering the question ‘how do schools change in a world where we are so connected and we have access to so many people, so much information and knowledge and so many technologies?.’
When I got engaged in those conversations with other people from around the world, it was a powerful moment and it changed the way I thought about schools, about teaching and about education in general. As a parent of two kids it made me look at their experiences very, very differently.
So, I’m not sure that my formal education was the most profound part of my learning life. I think it’s what’s come after that has fundamentally changed me in some very interesting and profound ways.
The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… be totally focused on the learner and less focused on the idea of school and education. I like to say that ‘I’m long on learning and I’m short on schools’ meaning I think schools are going to radically have to change in order to accommodate and to support kids in these new learning environments.
So the more that we can look at what we do in the classroom, for example the technologies that we buy or the policies that we create, through the question ‘how does this improve agency for learning in kids hands?’ or ‘how does it improve their agency to learn on their own?’ I think that’s the most fundamental question we have to ask right now, because they have to be learners. They have to be kids who are going to be constantly learning, who are going to have the skills, the literacies, the dispositions to go out, solve their own problems, teach themselves whatever they need to know and to be fluid non-stop learners throughout their lives.
So the next 100 years is going to be all about the learner. It’s not going to be about schools. It’s not going to be about teachers as much, teacher’s roles are going to change, but it is going to be how do we prepare kids to be really, really powerful learners in this new environment.