The core goal of education is to prepare students for their future. This means that a radical transformation of education is inevitable and irreversible; it is only a matter of how efficiently we get there. Education can no longer give students the knowledge they need for the “present known”, or even for the “near-future known”. Education will lead students to become self-evolving learners so they will always have the tools for the “future unknown”.
Several threads lead to this logical conclusion:
First, present social and economic conditions require students to learn a set of skills (we call these 21C skills) that exceed mere command of a specific knowledge base. If formal education does not re-format to include a heavy focus on these skills, students will go elsewhere to acquire them, leading to systemic irrelevancy.
Second, while formulaic approaches to teaching 21C skills are valuable in starting to break the industrial model of learning, those same formulaic approaches are, by definition, a continuation of the industrial model. We have recognized for decades that skills like collaboration, creativity, and effective communication were key for success in the information age, and yet it has taken decades to even begin to include these key drivers in our learning experience. These are the skills that are needed for the present and the “near past”, but there is no guarantee that they comprise the skills needed for the future.
Third, the rate of change in the world has increased to the point that we will never again have the luxury of centuries or decades, or perhaps even years, to recognize, design, develop, test, and deploy new lessons for our students. Interconnectivity is increasing knowledge development and transfer at a rate that is vastly faster and more efficient than our ability to keep up with it.
There are only two logical outcomes. One is that the system fails to meet its own core mission of preparing students for the future at a time when the “unknown” is much closer to us than it was when information transfer was slow and inefficient. Failure is possible, in which case the system will become extinct and will be replaced by something completely new and different.
The second is that the system regenerates around the paradigm of self-evolution, both for students and for the system itself. Self-evolution is the only mechanism that ensures that we are prepared for true future possibilities, not for the present or the “near past”.
In “Leadership and the New Science”, Margaret Wheatley reminds us that Newtonian concepts of a universe made up of discrete, measurable, identifiable, building blocks are no longer valid. We use these idealized building blocks to get us closer to an understanding of our universe, but ultimately we have to leave them behind. The physical universe is comprised of probabilities, processes, and relationships, with hard-wired uncertainty beyond our control. We can’t prepare our students for a future based on Newtonian building block thinking; that future does not exist.
Self-evolving learners and school organizations must operate like all other self-evolving systems. Our best analogues are natural ecosystems. They respond to environmental stresses, rapidly test alternative success strategies, and embrace healthy and favorable adaptations. Preparation for the future is utterly woven into the system itself; it cannot become out-paced by a near or far future that includes completely unknown variables.
Education has begun to adopt tactical, perhaps even strategic, responses to the changed environment. They are Newtonian responses: reaction to an applied force. These have been great first steps (better than ignoring reality and not reacting at all), but tactics and strategies cannot succeed if the core mission is unfulfilled. The only way to fulfill our core mission given the environmental stresses is to learn to constantly evolve to meet those changing stresses. This must be our shared vision of the future of education.
Is my logic flawed? Poke questions at it! Stress-test it! That is what a good system does!