Educating for the Future, Not the Past

Historian Robert Darnton has argued that we are currently in the fourth great Information Age in all human history.  The first information revolution came with the development of writing in 4000 B.C. Mesopotamia.  The second was facilitated by the invention of movable type (in 10th Century China and 15th Century Europe).  The third was marked by the advent of mass printing (presses, cheap ink and paper, mass distribution systems, and mass literacy) in late 18th Century Europe and America. The current Information Age is the fourth such era, marked by the development of the Internet and, more importantly, the World Wide Web in 1991 with its open access structure that makes possible the interconnection of all the world’s knowledge to all the world’s people.  The point of this historical perspective is to remind us that the last decade has seen transformations of a kind notable even from the long perspective of the record of human history.  Our Information Age has been the most extensive and rapid in human history, structurally altering traditional economic and political arrangements on a global level and, at the same time, restructuring communication, interaction, publication, and authorship in all currently available media.  Is it any wonder that many of us are wondering what will happen next—or asking how best to prepare ourselves for what comes next?

Historian Robert Darnton has argued that we are currently in the fourth great Information Age in all human history.  The first information revolution came with the development of writing in 4000 B.C. Mesopotamia.  The second was facilitated by the invention of movable type (in 10th Century China and 15th Century Europe).  The third was marked by the advent of mass printing (presses, cheap ink and paper, mass distribution systems, and mass literacy) in late 18th Century Europe and America.  The current Information Age is the fourth such era, marked by the development of the Internet and, more importantly, the World Wide Web in 1991 with its open access structure that makes possible the interconnection of all the world’s knowledge to all the world’s people.  
The point of this historical perspective is to remind us that the last decade has seen transformations of a kind notable even from the long perspective of the record of human history. Our Information Age has been the most extensive and rapid in human history, structurally altering traditional economic and political arrangements on a global level and, at the same time, restructuring communication, interaction, publication, and authorship in all currently available media.  Is it any wonder that many of us are wondering what will happen next—or asking how best to prepare ourselves for what comes next?  
On a practical level, we experience this daily as traditional media crumble (e.g. newspapers) and are replaced by new modes of communication (e.g. Twitter) seemingly overnight.   We also see this in the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Americans now change careers—not jobs, but careers—three to seven times, and over half of American workers are now employed in some industry directly related to computational or information industries.   Of the current generation of students in college right now, it is estimated that over half will end up in careers not even invented yet.  

On a practical level, we experience this daily as traditional media crumble (e.g. newspapers) and are replaced by new modes of communication (e.g. Twitter) seemingly overnight.   We also see this in the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Americans now change careers—not jobs, but careers—three to seven times, and over half of American workers are now employed in some industry directly related to computational or information industries.   Of the current generation of students in college right now, it is estimated that over half will end up in careers not even invented yet. 

How do you write a resume for such a future? That question has not been addressed by our formal institutions of education, from kindergarten to professional school. While we are seeing exciting innovation around the edges, we have not begun to rethink our core institutions nor the core standards by which measure the success of those institutions for a new century.  Our emphasis on specialization, on rote memorization, on multiple choice answers to a prescribed curriculum, and even on individual achievement are all products of the late nineteenth century Industrial Age when it was imperative to train an unskilled workforce for the factories.  Whether immigrants coming to the U.S. from many different countries or farmers moving into the cities for work, many of the institutions of what were called “graded schools” were designed to teach the regularity of factory life to those who might do the chore at hand, when the sun was up, on a schedule dictated by what needed to be done.   As many have noted, there is a reason that the school bell became the symbol of public education.  We’ve had over a century to hone the institutions and the forms of assessments that educate children for the workplace of the twentieth century.

What are we doing, on a national level, to educate our kids for a new digital age?  In a world where any knowledge is at your finger tips, is multiple choice really the way to be teaching kids about how to search and how to evaluate what you find?  Is extreme field specialization, so crucial for a segregated and hierarchical workforce, the right way to train kids for a future that might include three to seven career changes? 

Futurist Alvin Toffler has said that, in addition to reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, the most important “’literacy’ for the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Do our schools today teach that ability to rethink one’s assumptions and try again? The way we organize our classrooms now is geared toward producing success as defined in the last century, not this one.  It is great to see, both as part of the MacArthur initiative on digital media and learning and beyond, a world of parents and educators who are beginning to see that it is time to be thinking about the best way to educate kids for the future, not the past. 

Header image: Einstein Digital Divide @ http://media.photobucket.com/image/digital%20divide/tai-tran/it/web2/EinsteinDigitalDivide.jpg