Opinion: Looking to the future

We are in a change process. There are sweeping education reforms in the pipeline and as a country, as educators, as education service providers, as parents, as children, and as citizens we are being asked to have a say.

It’s been a busy start to the year with Education Conversations, Education Summits, surveys, and work programmes. The government is working to progress a revised (ECE) Early Learning Strategic Plan, revise Tomorrow’s Schools, and is exploring – finally - an Education Workforce Strategy. The focus is: what do these areas need to look like by 2035?

So, what sort of education system will we have in 17 years? Will we have teachers? What sort of teachers will we have? What will their skillset look like compared to today? And what about all the non-teachers working in ECE or in schools? Will they have qualifications of some sort, as Playcentre parents do? What are our expectations here? And what of the role of government? It is doubtful that government’s role will diminish over time from the highly-regulated approach taken today, but we continue to see education (and ECE particularly) as a constant political football lurching from one flavour of policies to another.

I’m worried about this debate. Worried because the Greenfields thinking we need to answer these and other questions doesn’t appear to have started yet. I’m also worried that without strong sector engagement in this debate, we will end up with a future focus limited to fixing what we know rather than preparing us for whatever challenges the future may bring.

A recent article by University College London Professor, Rose Luckin, (10 June 2018) Eductech 2018: AI will never replace teachers, expert says, EducationHQ, tries to reassure teachers that there will always be a role for the teacher in a more advanced AI (Artificial Intelligence) world. Professor Luckin may be right. But what sort of teacher or educator will that be? The role of a teacher in a future technology world is likely to be different from today, with different responsibility levels and different expertise.

A discussion in the ECE Strategic Plan Reference Group the other day included concern that teachers are currently suffering from scope creep. That is, a growing breadth of skill expectation. The example offered was the need for teachers to be better skilled at identifying learning challenges. I’m assuming that this scope creep will stop short of diagnosing clinical learning disorders, but where do we draw the line?

Scope creep like this has been a feature of the health system for some years now, with nurse’s roles in hospitals increasingly becoming more and more specialist, with care assistants picking up the majority of the manual labour work. How does this picture play out in education, or specifically ECE?

The previous National-led government introduced an initiative called communities of online learning – or COOL for short. This was roundly rubbished by the teachers’ unions, as they fear the advance of online learning will displace teachers and lower the standard of learning by bringing learners closer to their screens. Part of the appeal of COOL was that it would enable shared learning opportunities where teaching resources were scarce, such as in the area of Te Reo. COOL has been dropped by the incoming Labour-led government. But I wonder should it be dropped?

Online learning opportunities are clearly inevitable as we look to the future. Isn’t the challenge for us to plan and define how online learning should work in our education system so as to preserve and build on quality and good learning outcomes? I hope we are not missing an opportunity here.

The flipside of this online debate is the possibility or likelihood that online programmes for children’s learning may emerge and could displace our existing teacher-led options. They exist now. Jackie Mader’s article (3 November 2017) Online Preschool: Does it work? The Hechinger Report, focuses on an online ECE model in the United States.

The discussion is whether this approach works and whether it misses too much of what we would regard as driving quality in the learning experiences of the children. Do we have a right to stand in the way of options such as this, given parent choice is a fundamental aspect of what makes New Zealand ECE what it is? Whether we like it or not, online learning options for our student teachers, and for our children, exist now and are not going away.

As a marketer (by background), I constantly remind myself - and those around me - that our responsibility is to make our choices and decisions about “them” and not about “us”. “Them” in this context are the children enrolled in our services today and into the future. This means we sometimes have to make choices that we, personally, may be challenged by but that can be justified as in the best interests of those we serve.

In 2016, the ECC’s annual conference featured Rohit Talwar, Global Futurist and Founder of Fast Future Research, who spoke about the future of education and educationalists, and the challenges we face to get from now to then. Examples of Rohit’s work can challenge people, such as this You Tube presentation: Humans and Technology in Collaboration filmed at a PWC 2016 work conference: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhbSE4BaMck

Another example is Sue Suckling the Independent Director and Future Strategist and Chair of the NZ Qualifications Authority, presenting on The Future of Education (February 2017): www.youtube.com/watch?v=56FwkZ7olak

I’m reminded of a variation on an old adage: If you stick your head in the sand and open your eyes, you’ll see sand. If you pull your head out of the sand and open your eyes, you might just see the horizon! I am hopeful that the way we are looking to the future for our education system and for our children and society will have us all looking to the horizon without sand in our eyes.

We have a significant opportunity to make our education system future proofed, and I do hope the discussions, surveys, reviews and working groups, deliver drafts for consultation that we can hold high and show what a progressive country New Zealand is.

For ECE, the ECC will be participating in all discussions and attending working groups and meetings. We will be encouraging our sector members to have their say on the discussions, surveys and reviews. And, even though we don’t have a crystal ball to gaze 17 years into the future, we hope that the voices and inputs of many will deliver an education system to meet today’s needs and those of 2035. That’s no small task.

Peter Reynolds

Chief Executive Officer

Early Childhood Council

To read Professor Rose Luckin’s article on AI, go here.

To read Jackie Mader’s article (3 November 2017) Online Preschool: Does it work? Go here.