By Mark S. Steed, Principal and CEO of Kellett School
The Future of K12 Education
As we are all too aware, predicting the future is fraught with difficulty. That said, prophecy is less about gazing into the crystal ball, as much as reading the signs of the times and plotting the direction of travel. So, here are some ideas about where High School (K12) education might be heading over the next decade.
A. Direction of Travel
As a global society, we have been on a journey from the physical to the digital for some time now. Take how we pay for goods and services as an example. Twenty years ago, cash was King and today most transactions are contactless with the receipt sent digitally. The impact of COVID has been to accelerate this process of digitisation.
This journey from the physical to the digital with COVID being an accelerator of change has been played out in many areas of life – and education is no exception.
Education has been a late adopter when it comes to the digital revolution and it is yet to see the disruptive transformations that have been seen in so many other industries. Indeed, a University of Oxford study in 2013 on the future of employment concluded teaching is one of the least likely professions to be impacted by computerisation. Having said that, over the past ten years, EdTech has begun to have a real impact on education both to enhance and augment what is going on in traditional classrooms, and to develop alternative, disruptive models of schooling.
B. Teaching and Learning
Schools have been on a journey from traditional face-to-face teaching to ‘blended learning’ pedagogies for some time. By ‘blended learning’ we mean programmes which are a combination of bricks-and-mortar and online learning. Typically, these involve an element of in-school classroom instruction combined with remote learning which may be video-conferenced ‘synchronous’ lessons, or online recorded ‘asynchronous’ teaching.
There are number of factors that are driving this shift, but, ultimately, they all come down to cost. The traditional high school model of a teacher standing in front of a class of 20 to 30+ students is unsustainable for four significant reasons.
First, there is a global shortage of teachers. It is estimated that English-speaking international schools alone require an additional 505,000 teachers by 2020. This shortage is already even more acute when it comes to teachers of specialist subjects, such as physics. According to data from the U.S. National Center For Education Statistics only 47% of physics classes are taught by a teacher with a degree in the subject.
Secondly, schooling is increasingly becoming too expensive for Governments, where this is provided by the state; and for parents where it is not. Global education expenditure was estimated at US$5 trillion in 2014. U.S. Federal, state, and local governments spend US$720.9 billion, or US$14,840 per pupil, to fund K-12 public education, accounting for 11.6% of public funding. Governments around the world understandably are looking for more cost-effective ways of providing education.
Thirdly, the present system is failing too many young people. According to UNESCO, globally there are 263 million children are out of school.
Fourthly, the traditional not-for-profit model of schooling has not proved sufficiently agile to adapt to increasing demand, and thus globally we are shifting to a for-profit model. We have seen this in Hong Kong over the past twenty years. The traditional school providers were all not-for-profit (Kellett, CIS, GSIS, HKIS, HKA etc.) but most of the new schools are operating with commercial partners on a for-profit basis (Harrow, Malvern, Shrewsbury etc.).
Alternative Models for Schooling: Education at Different Price Points
This shift towards for-profit education is throwing up new, alternative models of schooling. Looking to the future, it is likely that we will see commercial providers offering aggregated models of education with schools at different price points, much in the same way that airlines offer different passenger experiences for the same flight.
In K-12 education the variables are class size, the range of facilities, the qualifications and experience of teachers and the amount of face-to-face contact time.
Premium schooling is a classroom experience as we know it with qualified specialist teachers standing in front of a class of 20-30 students.
Mid-range schooling combines a limited in-school experience which focuses on practical subjects, specialist teachers delivering video-conferenced ‘live’ lessons, and work on an online learning platform.
Budget education is wholly remote learning with recorded lessons and online self-marking tasks.
For the purists, the concept of ‘mid-range’ and ‘budget’ schooling will be quite alien, but these provide much needed, more accessible and affordable models. We would all like to see every child sitting in a classroom taught by a trained expert with a range of stimulating resources at her fingertips, but the reality is that this is not possible. Indeed, in the context of 263 million children who are not in education, these structures bring home the reality that face-to-face teaching already is a luxury product, when viewed from a global perspective. In this way, EdTech has huge potential to lead to a greater democratisation of education, by making schooling accessible to the missing millions.
Once again COVID-19 is likely to be an accelerator of change. The pandemic has been the greatest experiment in distance learning in the history of education and, most importantly, it has forced the ‘laggards’ and ‘late adopters’ (both individuals and institutions) to upskill and to embrace new technologies. This has laid the foundations for the greater adoption of new technologies, both to enhance and transform how students learn.
C. Assessment and Qualifications
Whilst education has generally been making the transformation from the physical to the digital, the one area which remains most stubbornly wedded to the physical is the public examination system. Formal assessment is very much the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to discussions about the future of education.
The Examination Hall
How is that we are still using a nineteenth century examination model of students sitting in rows in silence without the use of technology? The impact of this method of assessment is far-reaching, for it dictates a significant part of what and how we teach in schools and universities. What is more, this form of assessment is totally alien to the twenty-first century workplace. C21 employers no longer look for candidates who have mastered a body of factual knowledge, but ones who have a portfolio of skills. These needs are aligned to the changes in the way that we work, which has shifted to project-based tasks solved by smart teams who collaborate and communicate through the use to technology.
An Existential Threat to Education as we know it.
This dislocation of the exam hall from the world of work, in turn, has undermined the validity of the qualification framework to such an extent that most top employers no longer rely on High School and College grades to identify talent. Instead, they conduct their own testing to identify candidates who have the skills and aptitudes which they value.
Qualifications are no longer a proxy for employability.
The ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms abandoned qualification-based recruitment models back in 2016 and many have followed. Furthermore, best practice around diversity and inclusion means that companies increasingly are shifting to anonymised application processes that screen out data which identify educational institutions and even the class of degree awarded.
These changes pose an existential threat to the current ways in which education is conducted, both in schools and universities.
Micro-qualifications and Mastery
So here again education is on a journey from the physical to the digital; from the examination hall and certificates for knowledge, to digital portfolios of micro-qualifications for skills and experiences.
The models for the future of assessment and qualifications are already well known to us from the world of professional assessment in the workplace.
Take the way in which we certificate learn to drive, for example. The Drivers’ Licence is awarded on the basis of passing the ‘Written Test’, which assesses a level of mastery of a body of knowledge, and the ‘Practical Road Test’, which assesses skills. The written test is online, marked automatically and the result given immediately. Candidates can take the written and practical road tests when they are ready to do so; and the outcome is pass or fail – there are no A*s or ‘Grade Point Averages’ for learning to driving.
Distilling the features of this process, we have an assessment model fit for the C21.
Mastery – we should move away from a model of awarding grades or scores to a binary system of ‘has mastered this body of knowledge/ skill’ and ‘still working towards mastering this body of knowledge/ skill’.
Micro-qualifications – Examination specifications will be broken down into smaller units allowing greater flexibility to put together bespoke programmes of learning. For example, take the way in which tech companies such as Microsoft and Google award IT certification – there are a suite of courses each of which has a micro-qualification based on mastery or course completion. These combine to form pathways to overarching qualifications that certificate mastery at a given level of experience and competence.
Online Testing – e-Assessment has come a long way from simple multiple-choice examinations and there are now many ways to evaluate mastery, many of which can be marked automatically and therefore give immediate feedback to candidates. Given that many professions, including medicine, have embraced online testing, the reticence within education is surprising.
On Demand Testing – the current model of end of semester examinations will be replaced with a system where candidates sit examinations throughout the year when they have reached a level of mastery.
D. And so . . .
The first two decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a reticence by schools and universities to deviate from established norms both in the classroom and the exam hall. This needs to change for two reasons. First, there is a powerful moral argument here that by embracing and harnessing new technologies we can provide access for every child to schooling and thus make the world a better and fairer place. Secondly, if it is to continue to prepare our young people for the challenges that they will face in the changing world, our education system needs to embrace new ideas and pedagogies.
In the words of Guiseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa in his ever-relevant historical novel, The Leopard:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
About the writer:
Mark S. Steed is the Principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong; and previously ran independent schools in the U.K. and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead.
 Frey and Osborne ‘The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, 2013 Available at https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf
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 ‘U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics’ https://educationdata.org/public-education-spending-statistics accessed 27/04/2021
 UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Fact Sheet No.39 October 2016 Available at http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs39-the-world-needs-almost-69-million-new-teachers-to-reach-the-2030-education-goals-2016-en.pdf
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 Guiseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa The Leopard 1958