Book Review: Learning Futures

The book, written in 2011, questions the widely accepted notion that we need to prepare young people for the emerging knowledge economy. According to the author, the education Professor Keri Facer, schools should not just focus on skill development for the economy, but instead, become a focal point for shaping the future of society. Schools should not just be training grounds, but also discussion and policy-making arenas.

The book is strongest when presenting the social and technological trends shaping humanity. It starts with a discussion on intergenerational relationships, touching upon topics such as the tensions between generations and changing roles. For instance, adults who used to have a monopoly on knowledge and expertise, now lag behind the young digital natives who are more competent in using the latest technologies.

The next chapter is about human evolution and emerging technologies that enhance human capabilities, which have the potential to change the whole meaning of being a human. Prof. Facer talks about bionic replacements and upgrades, as well as drugs taken for cognitive enhancement. Science fiction concepts are followed by real-life examples to show that the future is just behind the corner.

The author also touches upon the future of work and society, where jobs are increasingly done outside permanent employment: “the boundaries between employees or consultants, volunteers or players, consumers or contractors are blurred.”  Similarly, she expects the current separation between work and private life to disappear as “digital technologies are used to extend the workplace across time and space.”

There is also a discussion on the implications of gathering, sharing, and collecting ever-increasing amounts of information about people and objects. The book presents important questions concerning the open access to data and the administration of knowledge.

An intriguing part of the book is dedicated to future scenarios, most of which are rather apocalyptical. For instance, one example mentions a “Fortress World” where “The affluent live in protected enclaves in rich nations and in strongholds in poor nations – bubbles of privilege amidst oceans of misery. In the police state outside the fortress, the majority is mired in poverty and denied basic freedoms.”

The book is the weakest when presenting economical concepts, providing space for even long-discredited ideas like import substitution: “The import replacement model advocated by Jane Jacobs, for example, which seeks to produce with local goods and local labour those products which are currently being imported”. Environmental and Malthusian concerns are not missing neither: “we need to invest in the agricultural production and research that will allow us to feed a growing population in a depleted environment”.

The last part of the book focuses on Prof Facer’s views on the future of schools. She is highly critical of equipping students with flexible skills “able to adapt and respond to whatever comes about.” Instead, she wants schools to be purposeful, and take an active role in shaping the future. “Rather than envisaging a ‘future-proof’ school that tries to insure itself against socio-technical change, therefore, we have the opportunity to create future building schools…such schools would see themselves as places where students, educators and the wider community can come together to participate in a conversation about the future.”

One can sympathise with Prof. Facer’s dissatisfaction with the limited role of schools in shaping the future of society. However, today’s schools, even in the richest countries, fail to provide the most basic skills for their students. As the OECD PISA test has shown, most graduates lack even advanced reading or mathematics skills. The book does not even attempt to explain how the schools would progress from this extremely low level to start becoming the beacon of progress in society.

The last chapter is dedicated to the description of an imaginary school depicting the author’s vision of the future. This school is more than not just an educational institution, but also a community centre where people from all age groups meet. There is a lot of nostalgia here, one can firmly imagine the Greek agora that inspired the author. The physical world is perhaps too dominant, despite the author’s own descriptions of a digital future. There are a few contemporary ideas, such as the digital “resource map” that details all the experiences of a person, but they are rather confusing.

Surprisingly, the discussion on “learning” itself is extremely short, except for some sections on students working on real-life projects and introductory courses given by specialists. These topics would have profited from more detailed explanations.

Verdict: The book has been an enriching experience and is extremely thought-provoking. The author has extensive knowledge of a wide range of topics and is able to present some of the most critical questions that humanity needs to answer. It should not be read to get answers, but to stimulate thinking.

Link to Book: https://www.amazon.de/Learning-Futures-Keri-Facer/dp/0415581435

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