The future is inherently unpredictable. Yet, everyone – including policy makers and managers in education – needs to make plans and take the future into account. Looking at trends informs our ideas about what might happen by giving us a better understanding of what is changing in education’s environment.
When studying trends, we are studying the past; there are no guarantees that the future will allow past developments to continue, let alone continue smoothly. We can sometimes be just plain wrong:
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, just before the 1929 Wall St. Crash)
Nor is it guaranteed that the trends that were important in the past will remain influential in the future; emerging trends barely visible at the moment may become of central importance in the future. When aircraft were just beginning to become operational, the military leader who was to become Commander-in-Chief during WWI declared:
“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” (Maréchal Ferdinand Foch, École Supérieure de Guerre)
The Trends Shaping Education publication is thus a starting point; it is not conclusive about what is setting directions for the future.
The following questions are useful when thinking about trends.
Which trends are relevant ?
Is this trend relevant in this specific context?
Trends may differ both in size and direction in different countries, regions, districts or even schools. Ageing populations, for example, may be a bigger problem in rural regions than in urban areas, or ageing populations may be concentrated in certain districts in a city or parts of the country.
International trends may have different impacts in different places: rising sea levels are potentially disastrous for Bangladesh but not for Nepal.
Are there other trends to take into account?
The trends in this resource are certainly not the only relevant ones and not all of them apply equally in each location or context. There may be other, perhaps local, trends that will be just as important to consider. Different places face different challenges: some, for instance, are declining and de-populating while other areas even in the same country are booming and attracting new people. Users will want to identify the important trends for their specific purpose.
How important are these trends ?
How predictable is this trend?
Trends differ as to how far their continuation is predictable. Some trends – for instance, to do with population growth or environment – lend themselves more easily to long-term planning. Others are less predictable, such as those to do with youth culture or international conflict. For these, making scenarios of what would happen if a particular trend would develop in a certain way may well be more appropriate than extrapolation would be.
What is the pace of this trend?
Some trends develop slowly (global temperatures went up around 0.74 °C in the last 100 years) while other trends are more dynamic (international trade in services quadrupled in less than twenty years). Trends with a slow pace are easier to deal with in the sense that they allow for more time to think about what they mean and how to respond.
What is the impact of the trend?
Climate change may be slow, but its potential impact is enormous, possibly threatening life on our planet. Other trends like changing fashion may be more rapid but have less impact on education. Generally, the more impact the trend has, the more important it is to anticipate it.
How can we deal with these trends ?
Can we predict?
When trends are predictable, long-term planning is greatly facilitated. With demographic change fairly predictable and all children going into primary education, the capacity needed in primary education in, say, 10 years time is open to calculation.
Can we influence?
If trends are not predictable, it may still be possible to influence them. Universities have great difficulty in predicting the number of students who will choose a certain study programme. However, they can attempt to influence the numbers of students applying through advertising campaigns.
Can we react?
If both predicting and influencing are impossible, creating the flexibility to be able to react after events occur may be the best option. For example, someone starting a business who does not know how it will take off is better advised to lease offices than buy them.