Friday, December 3, 2010

Where's My Educational Jet Pack?

            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, “’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.


pam said...

The line about not wanting my kids to be guinea pigs rings true to me. Whether or not I like to admit it, I do feel a sense of wanting them to have an advantage -- for me, that means warm relationships with their teachers, enrichments every day, strong academics and less time spent preparing for standardized tests. I worry sometimes about how rocking the boat will affect what I perceive as the outcome.

But the boat needs to be rocked. I believe education in general HAS changed; however, I don't think those changes are positive, and I feel that if they continue as established, we'll see the current generation of kids grow into highly-strung, overworked, risk-averse, competitive adults who don't know how to fill their free time because they've never had any.

When I consider the future of education, I see strong generalists as educators of primary and secondary children. Generalists capable of weaving history, literature and writing into a lesson or linking math and science. Who knows? Maybe a "generalist" is actually a teaching team with a single objective, measured by its ability to work together to meet that objective. These generalists must be capable of incorporating meaningful technologies into lessons when it makes sense. I use a rolling pin to roll out dough and pound cold butter, not to stir a pot of soup; and I don't walk around the house wielding the hunk of wood looking for a way to use it. But to know that the heft of a good rolling pin would make it the perfect tool for pounding cold butter into something malleable, I had to have gotten my hands dirty by working with the pin in the first place.

It strikes me that while the three "Rs" are still important, it's just as critical to teach children to plan and organize, use what they have to solve problems, work together even if they aren't best friends, take risks, and develop their right-brain capabilities. Above all, I hope that in whichever direction we head, we remember that these are children and allow them free time.

I like that your posts make me think. Not only about the current topic, but about whether my actions support the beliefs your posts prod out of me.

Mark Crotty said...

Pam, first, thank you for the wonderfully thoughtful comment.

Your first two paragraphs link in a vital way. First, the advantage that you want is the one I think we all want for our kids. At the same time, we want this to happen in a "safe," tried-and-true fashion rather than something that might risk their future. In the case of this school, that has to do with placment into a high school. So rather than really reevaluate and rethink, many people approach it like weight training. They load on more weight and do more reps.

But we know that for general wellness, cross-training is actually better. That's why I love what you say about strong generalists. I've hinted at this in various pieces and plan to expand upon it in the future.

And then, continuing the wellness theme. You mention how certain practices may lead to problems in adulthood. Let's consider that in the short term as well. In trying to help kids learn and pushing them ever harder, I worry that we may be defeating our own goals in the way the load and stress can hamper learning.

I'm glad the posts make you think. I hope to get many people thinking. These are hard problems to address unless people are pondering them. Then the really hard work can start.