The rapid proliferation and advancement of digital tools, content, and platforms are undeniably key contributors to a transformed view of learning and schooling. 

Since 2006, KnowledgeWorks has studied major trends and drivers of change that are transforming our fundamental assumptions and relationships at all levels of society.  We investigate, with our partners at the Institute for the Future, how new tools, processes, and resources are altering our interactions with ourselves; within our organizations; and with systems, societies, and economies.  We also examine how these shifts are dramatically transforming every area of our individual and collective experiences, including our experience of, and expectations for, learning and education.

The rapid proliferation and advancement of digital tools, content, and platforms are undeniably key contributors to a transformed view of learning and schooling.  In fact, the possibilities offered by open education resources, mobile devices, and new types of learning platforms, when combined with growing interest in learning progressions, hyper-personalization, and alternative forms of credentials, are already beginning to suggest entirely new models for the future of education.  In these future-leaning models, students are experiencing learning that is customized, connected, amplified, authentic, relevant, and resilient.

These learners are:

  • Making an impact on their immediate and broader communities as they engage in service-based, project-based, and other types of immersive and authentic learning experiences
  • Contributing, co-creating, taking risks, feeling ownership, and even making use of failure as they engage in a continuous learning process
  • Using data to track their progress and to understand their cognitive, social, and emotional strengths and challenges
  • Collaborating with educators and with experts in their communities and around the world to customize rigorous learning experiences based on competency and interest instead of time and age.

As they do so, these learners are making robust connections to their own performance, their communities, and the world and are redefining what we prioritize as essential skills and capacities.  Each of these connections is important in its own right.  However, as globalization continues to redefine the economic, social, and cultural dynamics of contemporary societies, it is essential that our students develop the ability to work with a highly heterogeneous range of groups and individuals in order to thrive in the future.

Leading Examples

As complex as such emerging demands for learners may appear, there are leaders who are successfully pioneering approaches to transforming schools and to building learners’ capacity to communicate and collaborate in our globally interdependent world.

In one example, DaVinci Charter Academy in Davis, California, which is part of the New Tech Network of more than 90 schools, is embracing the demand to develop learners as connected citizens who can work collaboratively with a wide variety of individuals.  It is doing so by creating a culture characterized by trust, respect, and responsibility and by immersing students in project-based learning across the curriculum.  Lydia Dobyns, President of New Tech Network, tells the story of Sam Warren, a senior at DaVinci.  When asked to describe his experience at school, he says, “It’s not necessarily all about group projects in the literal sense, but a place where people are looking to learn from each other, rather than compete with each other all the time.  It is a very intellectually involved, warm, and welcoming community.” Sam goes on to say, “Students have the right to bend the rules with the help of the teacher for the sake of their learning.”

DaVinci Charter Academy in Davis, California is embracing the demand to develop learners as connected citizens who can work collaboratively with a wide variety of individuals… by creating a culture characterized by trust, respect, and responsibility

And how does Sam feel he will benefit long term from having attended DaVinci?  “I’m much better at communicating with all sorts of people in many different ways,” he said.  “I’ve been taught to properly communicate with peers, teachers, and community members.” As our world becomes smaller, Sam is developing the necessary skills to interact effectively with anyone and everyone he encounters in his community and around the globe.

From Ohio to Washington, EDWorks schools are focused on building students’ capacity to work with a wide range of individuals of all ages and all levels of expertise.  At the eSTEM Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, students participate in regular “design challenges” through their Advisory classes, according to Harold Brown, President of EDWorks.  These cross-curricular design challenges require students to apply theory learned in mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies to solve real-world problems.  The problems that they address range from building a model roller coaster that moves cars with a specific g-force to creating new tools that help older adults overcome limited mobility.  At Delta High School in Richland, Washington, chemists, geologists, biologists, and engineers from the Pacific Northwest National Lab hold professional seminars for students on the school’s campus, coming into the classrooms to help students conduct experiments and find solutions to a wide range of community problems.

Policy Opportunities

The only unfortunate thing about the examples above is that they do not yet represent the typical experience of most students across the nation.  This disparity of experience creates what we might call an “old world learning” versus “new world learning” gap.  The good news is that federal and state policy can play a significant role in dissolving this gap, helping innovations such as these thrive and scale.  Specifically, according to Matt Williams, Vice President, National Advocacy and Partnerships at KnowledgeWorks, federal policy should address the following: transforming low-performing schools, reimagining the roles of school systems and communities, advancing educational technology, fostering innovation and research and development, and using data to drive continuous improvement.

At the state level, the Obama Administration’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver package presents an opportunity to rethink and re-scope the way states support schools and school systems by investing in a new accountability system and developing systemic supports for low-performing schools.  To fully capitalize on this waiver package, KnowledgeWorks recommends that states establish the following:  a new accountability system; innovative interventions; recognition and supports for low-performing schools; a new approach to state takeover of failing districts; and anytime, anywhere learning experiences for educators. 

Implementation of these state and federal policy recommendations will make it possible for more learners to experience high-quality learning experiences, such as those described in New Tech Network and EDWorks schools, which will prepare them to thrive in our globally connected world.

Jillian Darwish is Vice President, Organizational Learning and Innovation (OLI), for KnowledgeWorks.  An award-winning educator and leader, she has taught a wide range of students from primary through graduate school and has received national recognition for the design and implementation of an organizational learning system serving a 500-member organization and 22 public school districts.  Dr. Darwish earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning; a master’s in elementary education from Xavier University; and a doctorate of education in curriculum and instruction from the University of Cincinnati.