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The Future of Learning Explored at PPE Institute

By Jill Anderson on August 28, 2009 7:23 AM

What exactly will the future of learning look like? That was the question on the minds of the 150 participants of the first Future of Learning institute held in August.

"You are here [with] the existential question of what is the future of learning," said Professor Howard Gardner during the opening plenary session. Gardner noted that participants likely would not find an answer to the question, but would walk away from the institute with even better questions and fewer misconceptions. "When you leave here you can have better conversations with a brain expert," he said.

The Future of Learning institute - offered by PPE in collaboration with Project Zero and designed to help educators understand how globalization, the digital revolution, and advancement in mind/brain research are affecting learning today and in the future - grew out of the Project Zero Classroom and the Future of Learning initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The initiative began in 2007 when a group of HGSE faculty got together to examine the evolving nature of learning for the 21st century. This exploratory project combines research and discussion from across the HGSE faculty with an aim to create an environment that promotes broad thinking about the contemporary forces transforming lives and, consequently, what students should learn, how they might best do so, and what kinds of learning environments might optimize their development.

Veronica Boix-Mansilla, education chair of the Future of Learning institute and principal investigator for Project Zero, explained that the institute sought to build on the success of the Project Zero Classroom which for the last 14 years has helped pre-K-12 educators create powerful learning environments. It also aimed to capitalize on the expertise of HGSE faculty and like-minded colleagues at New York University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Southern California on matters of learning writ large.

"We thought it would make sense to focus our attention on learning and how it is being transformed," Boix-Mansilla said. "We felt confident that we had the expertise at the Ed School to create a quite innovative experience for educators. Rather than invite participants to an institute solely focused on 'take aways' for direct use in the classroom, we would invite participants to think with us about the future of learning. We strove for a profoundly intellectually respectful engagement with participants."

The institute revealed that HGSE educators aren't the only people contemplating what the future of education may bring. The broad group of participants represented 30 countries and a multitude of educational professions including teachers/professors, principals/assistant principals, directors, coordinators/curriculum directors, department chairs, consultants, university presidents, superintendents, and chief executive officers.

"I enjoyed the diverse group of participants," said Karen May, a teacher and administrator from the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., who added that she was particularly fascinated by how everyone seems to be struggling with similar issues in education. "This has been a fantastic experience that is tremendously engaging."

Sara Hughes, an administrator from the FourC Bilingual Academy in Bauru, Brazil, relished in the opportunity to be with like-minded educators. "Everyone knows [education] has to change," she said. "Everyone [here] really wants to find arguments and discussions to convince other people, who may not believe that."

The four-day program aimed to help participants envision new approaches to teaching and learning. The Future of Learning initiative is not only concerned about the achievement gap but with what Professor David Perkins called in his opening remarks of the institute a relevance gap. Participants were asked: what matters most for people to learn at the dawn on the 21st century? Who is the learner of the future? Where, how, when will he or she learn best? Participants were also offered opportunities to reflect, make connections to practice, and exchange ideas. Each day began with a plenary session which examined one of the main focus topics: globalization, digital revolutions, and the advancement of mind/brain research.

Following plenary sessions, participants selected interactive courses that examined themes of 21st century learning like "Teaching for the Future," "The New Museum Mindset: What We Can Learn about the Future of Learning from the Future (and Past) of Museums," and "Our Bodies, Our Minds, Our 'Selves': The Relevance of Social and Affective Neuroscience to Education." Each day concluded with a learning group focused on participants' specific areas of interest.

Boix-Mansilla noted that the unique program design encouraged making connections among attendees and considering the proactive change necessary for the future. "Back in the late '90s, books in education tended to express our profession's millennial anxiety. We realized that we were preparing students for a changing world but we didn't know what was to come," Boix-Mansilla said. "Now, we have a better sense of some of the challenges that this generation will have to tackle from navigating the consequences of globalization, to managing the digitalization of every day life, to engaging the ethical dilemmas presented by our growing understanding of human biology. We also recognize promising learning targets such as learning in diverse groups, expert thinking, complexity, synthesis, problem framing, and learning to make sense of the unknown. In a sense, we may be witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm for learning -- one that is adequately situated in our changing times."

Participants were eager to tackle those changes. "In our journey for lifetime learning, we need to prepare our students, staff, and selves for the future of learning," said Aalaa Eldeib, principal of the Toledo Islamic Academy in Sylvania, Ohio, who hoped that the combined efforts of the participants would lead to those efforts of change.

Toledo Islamic Academy Assistant Principal Muhammed Kabir agreed. "Everything is changing so fast and differently that you need to keep up with it," he said, noting that the institute was well worth attending.

By the end of the institute, as Gardner had alluded, the participants had not found an answer to the future of learning. "We don't know the answers," Hughes said, "but we have to get talking about this."