Are We Relevant?

With every pedagogical and strategic decision we make at Butler University, we must ask ourselves a crucial question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

James M. Danko, President Butler University

Yesterday I pulled the quarterly Butler Magazine from my mailbox.  I dumped the bills and junk mail on my desk and sauntered toward a comfy canvas patio chair on the deck, the Butler Magazine in tow.  Let me be completely honest, the Butler Magazine doesn’t often stir me with excitement, but this spring edition was completely different.  The full cover depicted Butler’s new brand, The Future of Learning, Choosing the Right Path.  I turned the cover to read the president’s letter.  James Danko began his message with the quote above.  Let me ask you the same question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

The Butler College of Education’s vision statement begins with these words, “We must prepare students for schools as they should be, not simply perpetuating schools as they currently exist.”  Schools as they should be?  Please don’t focus on a specific model but rather imagine this as a relentless pursuit of truth, relevance, and application – each day a new justification for its existence, a new opportunity for growth.  The fundamental context of this complex confluence called learning is always the student, our learner.  Who are these individuals?  What does the world demand of them in 2015?  Who do our students aspire to be?  The art of my job as an administrator presents exciting challenges.  Educators get to raise the curtain to a phenomenal world.  We want them to experience this world with all of their senses.  This world must be relevant; each student has a birthright to interact, each according to his curiosity, each according to their discovered passions.  Teachers are not primarily dispensers of knowledge.  Rather, we are mediators in series of connections and attendant meaning for our students.  By instilling and assisting our student’s critical thinking we empower our students to self-instruct, to synthesize ideas and beget new ones, the highest level of critical thinking.

What will the future of learning look like?  Whatever it looks like, strong critical thinking must permeate the learning dynamic.  Our children from the first day they cross a school threshold must learn how to organize new information, assess uncertainties, ask good questions, determine problems to be solved, develop multiple strategies to solve problems, appreciate different points of view, work in teams, and always be open to new information that may lead to new solutions.  This is a journey that never has a final destination.  The Irish band U2 said it well, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  We don’t ever want a child’s curiosity to be sated.  Feed the monster.

Lisa Randall is an amazing woman.  A child prodigy, Lisa went on to become one of the world’s best theoretical modelers in the field of particle physics.  Dr. Randall has written two fabulous books, Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  These two magical discussions make the Standard Model of particle physics assessable to mere mortals like me.  Most of us look at experts like Dr. Randall as apex critical thinkers.  We stand in awe as they grapple with the seemingly incomprehensible universe.  But do you know what struck me most about Lisa and her colleagues?  It is their humility.  The more they know, the more they realize what they don’t know.  If new knowledge shatters their understanding of the universe, they do not perceive a failure.  They see an opportunity.  Lisa says, “I cannot wait for secrets of the cosmos to begin to unravel.”  What do I want the future of learning to look like in the classroom?  No matter what it physically looks like, I want my students to say, “I can’t wait to learn what comes next in my personal journey.”

What will the future of learning look like? Butler President Danko’s words were not merely a challenge, they were a warning.  Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen predicts that half of all American universities may be bankrupt by 2028.  Culture changes, American education must adapt or become irrelevant.  Will we heed the current warnings?  Can public entities subject to state and local political forces adapt quickly enough?  Do we have the requisite humility of our apex critical thinkers?  Will we commit to the challenge?  The clock is ticking.

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