It would be understandable if the mind went immediately to technology when considering the future of schools in the 21st century, especially given the technology that's come about in the last 25 years or so: Cell phones, personal computers and even fax machines are all relatively recent developments.
That's doubly so in light of the advances that technology has given us. The Internet has replaced the need for encyclopedias. Word processing has replaced handwritten reports. Email and social media have made communication instantaneous. Maps may become obsolete, given GPS navigation, and even books are being threatened by new technologies.
In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, applying those advances, tracking new developments and putting them to work in the classroom is the job of Technology Director Bruce Chmieleski.
The district is integrating a model being developed by companies across the country to decide what kids will need to know to compete in a global environment, companies that range from Adobe to the Walt Disney Co.
Chmieleski says core subjects -- the ones everyone learns in school, such as English, math, social studies, writing, languages and science -- will remain the top priorities. Those are things he says everyone needs to know, but district schools are learning to weave new themes into them, like global awareness, financial, economic and business literacy. Civic, health and environmental awareness are part of the package.
Beyond that, new horizons are opening up, and it's Chmieleski's job to stay ahead of the curve.
"To move civilization forward and move the culture forward, it requires a broader understanding, that's what the 21st century skills are all about," he said. "The challenge for us is how to teach kids to be critical thinkers."
He said tomorrow's students will have to learn new information, communication and technology skills to navigate in a digital world.
They'll need to learn new ways of learning, too, with increased attention on creativity, problem solving, communication and collaboration.
Chmieleski said schools will also have to adapt, to teach kids that are used to two-second shots on television shows.
"There's challenges to every education system to bring that kind of dynamic world to the kid, to make things attractive and engaging, because if they're not engaged, they're not very motivated," he said.
The district is already using up-to-date technology in its classrooms, with students in some science classes teleconferencing with scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Lab via projection TV. Chmieleski can envision teleconferences with forest rangers talking about the environment without the need for a field trip.
If, say, there's a discussion about World War II, a class may decide to contact an expert. A class may start a dialogue with another classroom anywhere in the world.
"That kind of flexibility is where things should be going," Chmieleski said.
The district has some model rooms dubbed the Classroom 2.0 project where Chmieleski said there's a projection system "to make things big and bring kids into the frame. You've got a good quality sound system."
Chmieleski also wants a one-to-one computing ratio where every student has access to a computer. That, he says, will require changes to school infrastructure, creating enough bandwidth not only for computers but for smart phones and other handheld devices.
Students may have e-books customized for them someday, and there might be what Chmieleski calls a flexible environment, "so that you're not locked in to having these structured desks that don't move around." It could mean desks and chairs on wheels, or lightweight tables that can be quickly moved to form new work groups or stacked out of the way entirely.
"That allows you to do different forms of collaboration very quickly, rather than having all kids in the standard seating structure," he said. "The nature of education is going to be less of this structured one class that's going to be meeting for 18 weeks, with one teacher. You're going to find more personalization and individualization. There's going to be more online learning and self-paced stuff ... I suspect in the future you won't see six-period-a-day high school, where you say, 'Here's your schedule.' You'll see more dynamic scheduling than that."
This new world will require a new breed of teachers, and Chmieleski admits there will be holdouts.
"They'll come along, or they'll eventually retire," he said. But he noted, "I've seen some people who didn't see the value in technology stuff, they like things the standard way, they've dialed in, it's all great -- and then, all of a sudden, there's a piece of something that comes along, and they go, 'Wow.'
"I've seen things that light them up when they're burnt out or tired."