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Que Será, Será: The Future of Independent Schools is Not One Thing Only

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As usual I had a pretty amazing experience at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference just ended (read participants’ thoughts here), buoyed along by some happy personal news and some uncommonly fine socializing. The student musical groups were a delight. Our Independent Curriculum Group reception was a smashing success, even with some of our expected guests delayed by inclement weather. EdCampIS (read the record here) was wonderful, naturally, and made better still by watching friends on the NAIS staff experience their first EdCamp.

Also as usual, the future loomed large in many of the sessions and keynotes—from a brilliantly conceived wearable, er, thing that replicates the function of the digestive system and leaves sugar cubes in your pocket to an interesting and vaguely consoling panel involving college presidents whose view of “education next” seemed as confused as my own. There was even an hour of gloom and doom projecting a coming five years of social and technological upheaval and radically declining enrollments in brick-and-mortar schools; the audience was advised to think about ways to mothball—the presenter’s word—parts of their school campuses in ways that won’t make their communities think that they are failing utterly. (He also mentioned that driverless cars would mean more kids riding around drinking and that parents “are only going to get worse.” Shoot me now.)

Predicting the future has always been perilous. We’re getting better at foretelling the weather than we were thirty or fifty years ago, but I own neither a flying car nor a hoverboard. No one really saw the iPod coming, nor the DVR nor the ubiquity of something we now call design thinking, however long the model has been around in art schools. We long to accurately define what’s ahead, to wrap our heads around the future before it arrives.

We predict, or admire and attend to those who do, because having a plausible, verified-by-experts sense of the future allows us to set aside for a bit, at least, our own unease about the unknown. At an event like NAISAC, the experts are usually more than plausible, or at least their positions and experience persuasive, and we like those who speak our language—either the language of education or the most currently fashionable language of whichever business notion has captivated us at the moment. And we’re not above being titillated by visions of the demise of our schools and even our professions—perhaps because as humans we are extremely good at making ourselves believe that ill-fortune, even the most extreme and widespread ill-fortune, will befall others, not us. Conferences give us a chance to mix future-think and schadenfreude.

That one dismal hour really had me down, shocked, dismayed, and then the college presidents’ confusion revived my spirits. I realized that everything that any of them said is going to come true, but not for everyone. There is no universal future, even when in time some new things, as the iPod and its offspring have done in their turn, will become widespread in their application and influence. Some schools will downsize, some will fold, some will thrive as online providers, some will maintain the status quo and—in the face of all our predictions—grow and prosper; some kids will misbehave in the back seats of automobiles. All futures are possible, and all are true.

Nor will one idea, one trend, one technology, one insight change the work we do. We will, as we always have, lurch forward into the future, learning what we can and groping our way toward doing a better job in our classrooms, filling our schools, better understanding the way kids learn and how to capitalize on that understanding.

Of course, some ideas and some new technologies or industries will predominate, and these will be, for a few years or maybe more, the defining elements of their time. Those who talked about these early on will be regarded as gurus, and maybe they’ll get rich. We’ll equate with their lucky foresightedness with true sagacity, and perhaps they’ll keynote future morning sessions at NAIS conferences.

My saying this won’t change anything. We will still seek after the One True Vision of what is to come, and we’ll still hearken to voices that somehow resonate with what we most want and what we most fear. But educators in 1915 had and shared no more accurate a picture of 1920 than we do now of 2020. Optimistic, confused, and dire—the visions spun out at NAISAC are all possible and they are all true; we just can’t know which will be true for us.

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