opinion

​Preparing For an Unknown Future

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This fall, nearly 4 million children are starting kindergarten, enough 5-year-olds to simultaneously fill every seat in every NBA arena in the country for five weeks in a row. They will be joining the other 47 million students already in U.S. public schools and learning what it means to be a student.

Our 4 million kinders will leave public school in 2029 having spent more than 16,000 hours of their lives doing mandatory classroom time, and if they are lucky, they will enter the job market sometime in the 2030s.

Let’s imagine what the world might look like when these kids arrive on the scene of adulthood. If we continue on our current trajectory, they will come of age in a world filled with smart cities, embedded augmented reality, smart robots and revolutionary nanotech. Maybe.

They will also inherit at least some of the effects of climate change, pervasive poverty, famine, discrimination and war — problems that generations before them failed to unravel. The truth is that we simply cannot know with any accuracy what the future holds. The changes are too fast, too furious, and the variables too volatile to get a reliable understanding of life that far out.

Remember that less than a decade ago, when the first iPhone was unveiled, it would have been impossible to conceive of a world ruled by tiny pocket computers that augment every part of our lives or to grasp the potential of a connected world 1.7 billion strong.

And because of exponential technologies (the essential bits inside your tech that get smaller, faster, cheaper and more powerful at an exponential rate) the changes in the coming decade will be even more unfathomable than those which redefined the previous decade. But just because we can’t see these changes doesn’t mean they are not coming.

Everyday, 50 million students are greeted by 3 million teachers, but why? Are we preparing these kids for the lives they will encounter? How do we even begin to prepare kids for a future we cannot comprehend?

Clinging to an outdated system

The good news is that we have a lot of room for improvement and once we start moving in the right direction we will improve the chances these kids will find success. Without some major changes, we are selling snake-oil disguised as opportunity. That is because the current design of the school system is more than 100 years old. Originally inspired by the efficiency of factories and certainty of science, the mass education movement largely sought to standardize and sterilize schools nationwide.

Think about a traditional high school with kids grouped by age, learning broken down by subject, systems governed by periods, bells, and hand-raising. This is not how the world works, it is how factories work. The process was designed to produce workers for the industrial revolution and was quite effective in training young Americans to tolerate the monotonous, routinized and thoughtless work that powered American factories.

In the 100 years since we sterilized our schools with “scientific management,” there has been vast transformations in the skills that power the workforce and a shockingly small number of modifications to the system we use to educate our children and very few updates to the content we choose to teach them.

We are so far into the dystopian farce of U.S. schooling that we are blind to the idiocracy and brainwashed against the possibility of systemic innovation. This is the only way we know and it is cemented in our brains by our own 16,000 hours of time on the mandatory education assembly line.

Given this shared national experience, it's not surprising that innovations commonly target improvements within the existing system (ex. ways to improve the efficiency of passive content consumption or the improved use of low-hanging data points to make sweeping comparisons of heterogenous populations).

But these kinds of solutions don’t offer anything to our 4 million kinders seeking work in 2035. They will not need to pass multiple choice tests or regurgitate facts to be successful in 2035. They will be looked down on when they expect to be spoon-fed directions for solving neatly siloed problems, something learned while spending their own 16,000 hours seated quietly at a desk solving problems with clear cut answers using predefined processes. They would be great factory workers but they are likely to perish in our modern world.

The future of work and embracing innovation

Cathy Davidson, CUNY professor and expert at the intersection of technology and history, offered the conservative prediction that 65% of our students will end up in careers that have yet to be invented. Even with this knowledge, we persist in training our students to be unskilled workers even though we know that all the jobs involving routine tasks and predictable decisions will have long been automated or outsourced by the time these kids hit the workforce.

The jobs of this century require grappling with complex multidisciplinary problems, analyzing data on a grand scale, evaluating sources and synthesizing those deemed are relevant. They require self-directed learning and interactions with abstract knowledge and the application of higher order thinking skills.

Doing right by these 4 million kinders (and their 47 million peers in grades 1-12) is going to require a multi-front approach towards shifting our reform resistant school model. This is not a drill. It will require all hands on deck with collaboration across industry, government, K-12, higher ed, parents, teachers and students. The battle for innovations is currently happening on four fronts:

Innovation from the outside: Whether you are funding educational technology companies or you are working for one your responsibility is the same. Change your lens. Pivot from streamlining our obsolete system towards new ways to use technology that support the future of learning. You will have to leave behind instincts that were sharpened by your own 16,000 hours of time doing school in order to pursue projects that might transform the very essence of teaching and learning and in so doing begin to prepare kids for 2035 and beyond.

Testing new models: Develop and test new school models. Startup schools are not uncommon in Silicon Valley and afford serious potential for challenging the status quo. A major challenge of this approach is juggling all of the pieces that a brand new school must put in place properly (or intentionally redesign) before the innovative parts of these models can work their magic on the students. If you are a startup school leader and are wondering what all the pieces are this Big Green Checklist is designed to help you keep all the balls in the air or at least on your mind. The benefit here is that these schools can work outside the system to test and reveal formerly inconceivable models for education.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is heading up one such new model for school underway that aims to extend the boundaries of K-12 to include birth-K and extend the services of schooling to include integrated health care and ongoing parent education. The Primary School offers a softer, more personalized, high-touch approach than the current model of mass production schooling and will shed some light on obstacles associated with poverty and the potential of health care and community in supporting well-being.

Transformation from the inside: This requires the redesign of an existing school and requires methodical attention as school teams work together to shift existing procedures and practices. These schools often have some form of the status quo in place, which means fewer growing pains than a brand new school. While this is true, this kind of revolution requires patience and finesse in order to get buy-in and engagement from the old guard. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but you have to be both prepared for the challenge and flexible as you find the best ways to shift your learning community.

Zuckerberg also has a hand in this approach and like The Primary School the effort has the potential to be a game changer. The Summit Base Camp Personalized Learning Platform was designed by Summit Charter Schools with support from Facebook engineers in response to a problem. Graduating seniors, while more likely to attend and complete college than non-Summit students, were not completing college at a rate that school leaders were hoping for so they set out to empower learners to be self-directed and engage their students in “deeper learning projects.”

The platform sits alongside a systemic redesign where a few pilot schools are even prompting students to progress along a continuum rather than separating students into arbitrary grade levels. They have also drastically reduced the emphasis on “content mastery,” where in typical schools your success is judged primarily on this, the Basecamp model reduces this type of learning to just 30 percent of your grade. The other 70 percent is derived from something Summit calls “Cognitive Skills,” which are a blend of skills called out in the common core, NGSS and other 21st century skills. These skills are clearly a marker of the present rather than the past and have substantial relevance to the the future of work.

This is one of the most aggressive and outside the box school transformation models currently underway, as it shows some real potential for equipping students with the skills they might need to succeed in 2035. The best part here is that after reasonable success with the pilot, Summit has expanded to a new cohort of 100 new schools with more than 20,000 new students. These guys are going at this problem from every angle with a number of unprecedented approaches. Did I mention the platform is free?

Shifting mindsets: If you are an army of one, not a district or school but a small pack or lone wolf looking to join the fight for the future, there are paths forward. One of these paths can be found in design thinking, a tried and true approach to innovation with a track record for overcoming sticky and pervasive problems in other industries. If you want to go deep on design thinking, these process cards from Stanford’s d.school are a good place to start but the good news is that you don’t have to be totally immersed to start acting like an innovator. Instead, you can focus on these three mindsets as you begin the school year. Model them, discuss them with students and reflect on what they add to your innovation toolkit:

  1. Flex your empathy muscle: Schools are full of hustle and flow, constant fires and a variety of other tensions. For the most part, we tune this out or assimilate it into the routine without a second thought. Instead, take a moment to stop and watch so you can see and hear the words and body language of someone nearby. Turn your autopilot agenda off and immerse yourself in an observation or interaction with someone who was having a problem or learning something new. Listen, ask questions and be genuinely curious about their experience in the moment. Do not offer your own ideas or any kind of solutions, just observe and listen. If mechanical efficiency is the value of the old guard, try overriding it with authentic engaging interaction.
  2. Abandon your ego: This is not ego in the self-important sense. It's not even necessarily a bad kind of ego, and we all have it. Our thinking is unconsciously shaped by a lifetime of previous experiences and because we have had these experiences the conclusions they lead us to feel slightly more natural than the way others might think about the same thing. We are predisposed to our own thinking because it makes sense based on these experiences. To shake this up, you have to make an active effort to engage with and understand deeply ideas that are different than your own, particularly when others are offering solutions to a problem. To be innovative, we must be able to consider all possible solutions without judgement. As you practice this mindset your ability to suppress your ego will grow stronger, you will be exposed to new ways of thinking and begin to expand the ways in which you approach problems that arise in life.
  3. #ReclaimFailure: In the efficiency model of schooling, failure is an unnecessary and pesky delay. If all students do not learn to add multiples of 10 within the allotted 50-minute instructional period, we will find those with wrong answers and communicate this with a bright red F, a scarlet letter communicating inability, inefficacy, and often times shame. For years I have wanted to start a campaign to reclaim failure and that time has finally arrived. Failure as a shameful label gets swept under the rug, suppressed behind a closed door and hidden before others have a chance to think less of you. It is a kill switch, shutting down interest, engagement and effort.

Instead failure could be a cause for celebration, an indicator of forward progress and a symbol of a door opening. Failure could be seen as an opportunity to learn about what didn’t work and what you might change in your next go at a problem. If we lift the stigma of failure, we begin to build grit and determination in our students and ourselves. When we give ourselves permission to fail, we exercise self-compassion and we unblock hidden resistances inhibiting us from trying out of the box solutions. Reclaiming failure empowers innovations and returns us to a more natural state for learning. Humans are not made to do everything correctly the first time or master new content and skills at exactly the same rate as everyone else their age. We are made to triumphantly fail forward.

Our kindergartens will need these mindsets to find success in the careers of 2035. They will need the cognitive skills taught at Basecamp and the interindustry support being piloted at The Primary School. These kids will be lucky to stumble into these or other innovation hotspots in American education, but without radical shifts in our current model many will spend their 16,000 hours without ever having the opportunity to practice the skills they need to be successful in our unknown future. If we have any hope of doing right by the 4 million students in the class of 2029, then the time for change is now.

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