As we enter 2022 humanity is exhausted. Few of us can remember being so downtrodden in our
lifetimes. Physical (climate) and social (low trust and mutual dislike) negativity are at extreme levels.
Mental stress has rarely been so high for so many. Education is in disarray.
Yet human evolution is a crazy thing. It can rebound when things seem hopeless. It can take off with
great speed and power when new configurations begin to appear and feed on themselves. In this
respect, there are six reasons why I am optimistic about learning in the coming year. Together they
provide a runway to future learning that could be transformative.
At the same time, the next period could go horribly wrong. There is a vacuum now. Bad things fill
vacuums faster than good things do. My six optimistic reasons are not automatic. They provide a
platform for what’s worth fighting for. The hard work remains to be done. The quality of our future,
maybe even our very existence, depends on our individual and collective uptake of these six
6 Reasons to be Optimistic about Learning:
Escaping a bad system
Most people already knew in 2019 that the existing educational system was stultified
—before Covid struck. At least 75% of students were bored or alienated; inequality was
baked into society and worsening. In retrospect we will acknowledge that we were
fortunate to be jolted out of a bad system that was harming most of us; indeed,
ultimately all of us. Escaping a bad system is reason 1 for being optimistic.
Recognizing and working with our best allies
The longer that Covid has persisted the more that students and teachers recognize that
change in learning is needed. While tired to the bone in the short run, more and more
students and teachers want change in learning compared to what they had before.
More powerfully they see each other as allies (students and teachers). They are ready
to put in the effort to develop new ideas. Parents too will end up being supporters. Our
best partners for better learning are right at our doorstep.
- Well-being and learning are joining forces
It was never a good idea to let learning become an academic island. After one year of
Covid we realized that well-being was essential to learning. After almost two years, we
are concluding that well-being is also learning. In addition to the importance of academic
knowledge, most people know that human qualities are essential: like compassion,
reliability, teamwork, helping others in time of need, gratitude, loyalty, dependability,
courage. More people know that mental and physical well-being are crucial, and fragile.
Overall, good at learning and good at life will become the new goal.
New more powerful forms of learning are on the rise
Three forces for better learning are converging. One consists of ‘new purpose,
belonging, meaning, global competencies’ (such as our 6Cs: character, citizenship,
collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking). A second involves
equity and thriving for all becoming deeply integrated in all learning. The third consists
of breakthroughs in the science of learning and development related to immersive
whole-child learning with respect to ‘pedagogies, partnerships, learning environments,
and leveraging digital’ for all in relation to engaging and changing the world. Learning
and living will merge around these three aspects. We now have the potential to engage
Diverse leadership will grow and present new benefits
By diverse I mean leaders of all ages, especially the young; and people of a variety of
ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. General populations are rapidly becoming more
diverse; sheer numbers will push diversity upwards. Discrimination will remain, but
there is a hidden benefit here: people who struggle and move up generally make better
leaders. As this becomes more known it will result in more effective leaders being
appointed. This movement will face prejudice, but because the potential leaders will be
better and more plentiful it will gain momentum.
Systems will begin to change
Believe it or not, when dysfunctional systems don’t change, they eventually are
replaced. We are beginning to see radical cracks within the system toward what I call
greater action founded on principles of ‘systemness’. The latter is an awareness on the
part of larger numbers of people at all levels that the system needs to be changed, and
that such change is the responsibility of people from all levels (local, middle, and
central). Some of the obvious new developments include: the recognition that
eradicating poverty needs to be an explicit goal (with respect to health, food, shelter,
safety, jobs)—this in fact is an explicit goal of some systems; replacing punitive
standardized tests with new metrics of assessment (such as performance metrics)
linked to feedback and developmental learning; and the increased power and
interactive presence of the local and the middle with a new role for the centre as a
partners in systemness improvement.
It is debatable whether human evolution will inevitably self-correct in positive ways (humans are born
to connect but not all forms of connection turn out to be positive). But I do think when destructive
patterns begin to feel permanent that most of us, especially the very young, are inclined to want to
do something about it. They are our best bet. This is why a strong learning system is key. It will be
beautifully ironic if positive contagion turns out to be our savior.
About the Author:
Michael Fullan is a Professor Emeritus OISE at the University of Toronto and Co-Director,
New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL).