Education for the Unknowable Future

The world is changing at a rapid pace. So what might the future of education look like for children starting at Preschool this month by the time they reach their mid-teens? We asked our Principal, Melvyn Roffe to cast his eyes a decade into the future to think about what education might look like...

So much about education seems to change every year. 

Whilst education is by its very nature about the beneficial change we hope to bring about in the lives of children and young people, it is really important to distinguish between changes that genuinely meet their needs and those that are merely passing fashions. It is also important to think about what is most likely to still be relevant in that unknowable future where we will be sending them to live their adult lives.

I’m convinced that the heart of good education will continue to be a mastery of a certain body of knowledge and a mastery of certain core skills with which we apply that knowledge to the world around us. In that sense nothing much has changed since the school moved to Colinton Road in 1932.

But the means by which pupils now acquire that knowledge and the context within which they apply it has changed radically, as have many of the skills needed for its application. 

And that is the change that will surely continue at a dizzying rate. 

At Watson’s we have embraced technology as one of the methods of learning which can help us keep up. All pupils have access to dedicated iPads in the classroom in the Junior School and pupils in the Senior School must bring their own device to support their learning. This has been a very successful strategy to augment more traditional methods. 

The ubiquity of technology has taken the novelty out of having a smart device in the classroom and instead pupils are expected to evaluate how it can aid their learning and to realise when other methods are more appropriate, reliable or maybe even faster.

So, for all that I have championed a technology-rich approach throughout the school, I remain something of a sceptic about much vaunted claims that artificially intelligent (AI) machines will soon be taking over from the teacher in the classroom. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown we saw both the strengths and limitations of technology in educating children. There is no doubt that technologies such as AI and AR (augmented reality) can add a great deal to the experience of learning and open up some particularly interesting possibilities for more relevant and effective assessment. 

But during the lockdown we discovered anew just how important the relationship between pupils and teachers is. For decades, research has placed the quality of the learning and teaching relationship between children and their teachers as far and away the most important factor in a successful and happy school career. 

That’s one of the non-negotiables at Watson’s too.

I hope that significant change will, however, come in the way in which we organise learning, the way we assess learning and the links between what we do in school and the expectations of the “real world” of higher education and work. 

That is why we prize the partnerships we have with a wide range of other schools, universities, businesses and other organisations locally, nationally and internationally. 

Learning in abstract is nowhere near as powerful as seeing learning being put into practice, whether it is speaking a foreign language abroad, making a presentation to an audience of business people or analysing a scientific problem with a university post-graduate student. All these happen for Watson’s pupils as a matter of course.

So much of the exciting “real world” knowledge lies today at the margins of disciplines (for example in bioengineering) and it is increasingly normal for teams of specialists to work together to deliver ambitious projects. 

As such, it is more and more bizarre that education systems tend to divide studies up into supposedly discrete “subjects” and spend time emphasising the differences between rather than being excited about what they have in common. 

Our Junior School curriculum features a range of specialists who are able to augment the general educational experience and in the Senior School specialists increasingly work together to demonstrate how apparently different subjects can actually throw light on each other whilst retaining their own intellectual rigour. This will be an increasing feature of education in the future, I am sure and something our pupils need to be prepared for.

Pupils also need to be prepared to address the problems of the “real world”. 

Through our Project 810 work, we are seeking new ways to encourage pupils to do just that as part of their school experience. In this way teamwork, leadership, research and advocacy all naturally become parts of a pupils’ “toolkit” of experiences and skills. 

We have already seen how the Watson’s Malawi Partnership has provided new insights for our pupils as they have worked to develop relationships with their peers in Africa and have had to address their own preconceptions and prejudices and work around problems they would never previously have contemplated.

Examination success will no doubt continue to be the benchmark by which schools’ reputations are judged, but I hope that they will increasingly be seen as only part of the story. 

They may be necessary, but they are certainly not sufficient in enabling young people to thrive in a world of bewilderingly fast-paced change. Preparation for examinations inevitably prioritises the accumulation of certain types of knowledge and the ability to deploy it in relatively predictable ways. There is little scope for the off-beat answer or too much fresh thinking. And if you try teamwork in an exam room you’ll certainly not be rewarded!

I always encourage pupils to be creators of knowledge for themselves and others rather than mere consumers of it for exams. Apart from the intellectual challenge that it provides, this approach also emphasises that children and young people should be encouraged to have “agency” in their learning and as in their interaction with the world around them. 

After all, it is almost certain that during their lifetimes “they’ll learn more than I’ll ever know” as Louis Armstrong sang in Wonderful World. They will need to keep asking questions, keep working on problems and keep learning throughout their lives. If we’ve set them up to do that, we can be satisfied that we’ll all have done our jobs.

Our Digital Open Morning takes place on Saturday 3 October - click here to register.

If you register to join us for our Digital Open Morning, we’ll be in touch later in the summer to offer you the opportunity to book a tour of our school, in line with Scottish Government guidelines. 

The application deadline for 2021/22 is Friday 13 November.