Six contrarian predictions for the 2010s

No one can predict the future, but cultural moods and global trends indicate that these six educational reforms could be headed to a classroom near you in the next decade. The only guarantee? That every one of them will be controversial and bitterly contested.

By Hank Pellissier

Hello, metric system

What does the United States share with only Burma and Liberia? Thankfully, it's not appalling poverty and short life expectancy, but it's something just as outdated and primitive. Hint: miles, inches, quarts, pounds, Fahrenheit. Good grief, we're still non-metric! As futurist Thomas Frey points out, using antiquated systems slows progress. For instance, the metric system creates a time suck for  schoolchildren because it takes far longer to memorize our excruciating formulas (36 inches per yard, 128 fluid ounces per gallon, 16 ounces per pound, 5,280 feet per mile, etc.) than it does to grasp the sensible base 10 metric system, conceived by a Flemish mathematician and initially adopted by revolutionary France in 1791.

Why do we cling to the troglodyte system inherited from the British colonial era? With the new focus on readying our students for a global economy, it’s only logical that, over the next decade, U.S. schools leave behind this archaic measuring mess and join the civilized world. After that, we might even resolve the whole cursive-versus-printing debate and develop a user-friendly keyboard.

K-8s replacing middle schools

The middle school concept — instituted only four decades ago and operating nowhere else in the world — has long been regarded as the "weakest link" in our educational system. Studies of distinct regions often indicate that middle schools have increased discipline problems and truancy, plus sagging test scores in reading, math, and science. Why? Critics suggest that wrenching fragile prepubescents from an established K-5 community of parents, faculty, and students and heaving them into huge classes of strangers impairs learning. Middle school proponents contend that multiple classes and a variety of teachers improve academic quality and prepare kids for the culture shock of high school.

Wherever you come down on the subject, it’s worth noting that middle schools — which replaced the equally loathed junior high schools — have been given an "F" in numerous cities. Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and others are gradually replacing them by expanding elementary schools into K-8s. If these cities are a harbinger of what’s to come, middle schools will dwindle in the 2010s.

Robot teachers

In Japan, Teacher Saya is never sick or late to work and works nonstop without taking toilet breaks or texting friends. She can't be tortured with tacks on her chair, because she feels no pain. Kids don't dare misbehave in her class because she can scold them in multiple languages. Invented by Professor Hiroshi Kobayashi of Tokyo University, Saya won’t be winning a best-teacher-of-the-year award anytime soon, though. She was recently tested on a group of fifth- and sixth-graders in Tokyo, who took to poking her cheeks and giggling.

Is "hiring" Teacher Saya practical? Well, she takes roll call, smiles, gives class assignments, and yells "Be quiet," but that pretty much completes her repertoire. Still, some experts in Japan are optimistic that robots will help fill an expected labor shortage in the coming decades. Of course, educators are appalled. One professor of robotics maintains that Saya’s best hope is to get a job as an educational aid, inspiring children about science.

On the plus side, she'll never burn out, and though she bears a disturbing resemblance to the late Michael Jackson, in this video kids seem to like her.

Free universities

Despite accelerating tuition costs at countless universities, at least some higher-education programs are becoming cheaper. In fact, parent pocketbooks will be spared $100,000 per child when this trend delivers, and it is progressing on multiple fronts. The University of the People — founded by the United Nations — is devoted to the "democratization of higher education" with tuition-free online classes and study materials. (Marginal costs remain for enrollment and exam processing.) President Barack Obama is considering a government-sponsored free online university for community college attendees, and MIT's OpenCourseWare, Wikiversity, Moodle , and Curriki already offer tens of thousands of free online courses. Brilliant but burned-out teachers take note: This fall Harvard University announced a tuition-free doctoral program for education leaders.

The only downside to most of these programs? The free e-learning trend doesn't get your teenager off the couch. Want your child to go someplace free but still have an old-fashioned college experience — away from home? Check out these tuition-free colleges.

$50 laptops for second-graders

Despite skeptics of early computer use like author Jane Healy and the folks at the Alliance for Childhood, it seems inevitable that computers in classrooms will become more commonplace. Ideally, inexpensive, kid-friendly laptops with patient learning programs, encouraging voices, and clever reward systems will teach every subject superbly to enthralled youngsters. The games will be so fun that students won't even realize they're feeding their cerebellums. Teachers will still be essential but will devote much of their time to teaching tech skills, since up to 50% of class time — particularly in higher grades — will be spent with a cheerful, interactive computer.

Increased computer use will accelerate the homeschooling trend, as software programs improve and parents realize their kids can learn the same material at home — without the social problems or inconvenient commute. For more insight on the kids-and-computers debate, check out Bob Johnstone's Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning, a book about the first laptop school, and this overview of the controversy and research around young children and computers in schools.

Todos estudiamos el espaƱol

The United States is becoming increasingly Spanish-speaking, with projections (pdf) forecasting that 30% of the population will be Hispanic by 2050. Already, the majority of children born in the two most populous states — California and Texas — are Hispanic. Does that mean Americans will embrace bilingualism? Probably not. Still, to communicate with our fellow classmates, travel around the hemisphere, and conduct business with our NAFTA partners, Spanish will be perceived as increasingly essential. Spanish-immersion schools will expand their present popularity, and bilingual teachers will be in high demand.

Mandarin will also become another common second language, necessary for communicating with our immense trading partner China. Another possible international tongue (and definitely the simplest for language-phobic kids) is Globish — a simplified form of English with 1,500 words designed to operate as the lingua franca of business.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.