Anytime you try to predict the future, you risk myopia. We tend to see it through our current lenses, a stance which limits the range of vision and possibility. And true to their humanity, people can become skeptical. A couple of years a go I saw a t-shirt which read, “If this is the future, where’s my jet pack?” But committed educators must ponder the future.
Recently I attended a workshop led by Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools. The topic was Trends and Design Strategy. Pat and NAIS COO Donna Orem outlined 12 trends which will have major impacts on independent education. Without going into great detail, I’ll say they are the same trends affecting most industries: shifting demographics, a volatile economy, consumer demand, and disruptive technologies. It’s a perfect storm. We spent the second part of the session debating which most matter to the future of independent education and the best ways to respond.
In one of those cases of fortuitous timing, two days before the workshop I had attended a lecture by Ray Kurzweil, whose most recent book is The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Essentially Kurzweil predicts the merging of machine (technology) and mankind. For instance, now that we’ve mapped the genome, we can treat it as software and reprogram accordingly. For instance, why not eliminate the fat gene that served us when when we were hunters and gatherers but now causes health problems? What hardware can improve our physical beings? Potentially life expectancy can outstrip the death rate. Kurzweil bases many of his predications on what he calls “the law of accelerating returns.” Technological innovation and its impact on societal paradigms always has followed an exponential curve. His theory has some credibility. Around 1980 or so, Kurzweil predicted how the Internet would develop and subsequently work; that a computer would beat a human in chess (it happened a year earlier than he thought); and how people would band together with simple tools to overthrow the Soviet regime (affirmed in a conversation he had with Gorbachev).
I’ve also finished Don Tapscott’s Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. Tapscott examines how economic, social, and technological innovation is slashing through all cultural sectors. The idea is that old ways of thinking won’t solve the problems they have wrought. For instance, we shouldn’t necessarily expect an economic oversight system to amend the problems which allowed the mortgage crisis of 2008-9 to occur. (I imagine I’ll come back to Tapscott’s work in a future post.)
Naturally this led me to ponder all the major change I’ve seen in my lifetime, soon to be 50 years. Yes, it’s significant—but doesn’t really drive home the point. After all, it’s about accelerating returns. So think about a high school senior, born in 1992 or 1993. You know, when Yugoslavia was still a single nation and the first Clinton was just entering the White House. If you had a cell phone, it was around the size of a brick and weighed nearly as much. You would have bought your music on a CD. And the first popular web browser was being launched. There were some conferences being held to consider the notion that this whole world wide web idea might have some economic implications.
Of course, my primary concern has to do with whether all this change should prompt education to change. And in some ways it has. But in some ways it’s also superficial. Schools are among the most traditional institutions we have. There is an old joke that it’s easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course in an independent school. Schools operate in much the same fashion they have for decades. There are many reasons for this. Simply put, change is hard in any circumstance. Three other points add to that in schools. Many teachers naturally teach how they were taught. Many parents expect school to look as it looked for them. They don’t want their kids being used as guinea pigs. Three, things are changing so rapidly that it’s hard to find clear direction about what kids need to thrive in the coming decades.
Yes, the times, they certainly are a’changing. And while we may not know exactly how, we have an obligation—as educators and as parents—to respond accordingly. As Tapscott points out, “...it’s worth remembering that the future is not something to predict, it is something to achieve” (25). That seems like a great mantra for independent education. Particularly since, as Pat Bassett stresses, we should be preparing kids for their futures, not for our pasts.