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My last article explored a few ideas about changing the education status quo. I suggested that most school improvement approaches, based on self-evaluation (looking inwards) and learning from good practice (looking outwards), are not bringing about transformative change in student outcomes. Is this because we don’t have a clear focus on the outcomes that will matter in the future (looking forwards)?

We live in a rapidly changing world in which education is always playing ‘catch up’. We want education itself to drive change. How often are we led to believe the solutions of the future lie in the follies of the past? It’s easy to self-evaluate against the norms of today, but without thinking about the future, we have no way of knowing if what we’re teaching has any relevance at all. And therein lies the problem.

It’s probably because most of us are so involved in the daily pressures of school life that we rarely have time to think about how relevant today’s lesson will be in our students’ lives in 10 years. For example, are we confident that someone else is preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist but, arguably, might one day – ‘fact and authenticity judges’, ‘virtual reality police’, ‘data miners’, ‘technosphere cleaners’, ‘cloud pilots’; or do we see that as our role? We’re all juggling our work across so many competing priorities and horizons. Let’s explore three of these.

The ‘first horizon (H1)’ (‘how good are we now?’) is very dominant in our lives. It’s our engagement in the current education system – business as usual day-in, day-out. Within this horizon exists the case for change and sometimes a story of decline, and while it may be delivering relatively successfully for the present, in some cases it will be losing its fitness for purpose over time. Thus, the education system becomes out-of-date and less relevant. Student outcomes often remain much the same even though, arguably, schools seem to improve. People begin to lose faith in what they are doing and wonder if there’s a better way. This is often the trigger for a conversation about the future.

The ‘second horizon (H2)’ (‘how do we get to where we want to be?’) is the transformational system. Here, innovation has started in the light of the apparent shortcomings of the first horizon. It is the ‘future space’ where tensions are played out between vision and existing reality and between innovations that merely improve the status quo and those that transform it. This is the place where improving schools spend increasing amounts of their time. Think about ‘whiteboards’, for example. Yes, transformative where they’ve been used to open up new ways of interactive learning. But no, not where they merely reinforce the chalk and talk pedagogy of the blackboard.

The ‘third horizon (H3)’ (‘how good can we be?’) is the future system. It is about ideas for the future that require the transformative change of the second horizon. The first stirrings of a third horizon are those innovations already happening but that today look way off beam. You only need to think about how your current hand-held device would have been perceived in the realities of two decades ago. This horizon is the long-term successor to ‘business as usual’, the produce of radical innovation that introduces new ways of doing things, and a new approach that offers a fresh, visionary possibility. In time, the third horizon itself becomes the dominant culture with all the limitations of the first horizon, but that’s for another day.

Great schools know all about this. They’ve done their ‘three horizons’ planning and know just how important ‘learning to’ has become. They understand that ‘skill-free’ lessons are not lessons for the future at all. Therein lies the hope for the young people we all serve.