We will not be able to simply ride our way into the future.  We’ll have to invent our way into the future…In fact, our lifestyles and technologies have once again outgrown our physical and social infrastructure. 

We will not be able to simply ride our way into the future.  We’ll have to invent our way into the future.

As we moved headlong into the Great Recession, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, declared, “The economic crisis doesn’t represent a cycle.  It represents a reset.  It’s an emotional, social and economic reset.” 

In fact, our lifestyles and technologies have once again outgrown our physical and social infrastructure.  I’ve compared it to putting a size 12 foot in a size 8 shoe.  Every institution in society is facing not just a subtle change, but a reset.  No one gets a free pass, not even education. 

As we think about today’s learning paradigm, let’s consider this.  We invented a system of schools and colleges for an Agricultural Age.  We reinvented them for an Industrial Age.  Now, we’re moving at hypersonic speed into a Global Knowledge/Information Age, even an Age of Knowledge Creation and Breakthrough Thinking.  Many of us are working feverishly to get students ready for the 21st century, frequently operating in a setting and often facing mentalities of another time.

Perspective and Context for a New Paradigm  

Part of our job is to develop and exude a sense of perspective.  We need to help everyone around us see education in the context of a world that seems to be powering forward on steroids.  Avoidance, hoping change will go away or spending our time and energy defending the status quo, won’t cut it anymore. 

That’s why I’ve written Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future.  The book, a classic external scan, focuses on massive forces that impact the whole of society.  Each of these trends has profound implications for education.  In turn, how we educate future generations has massive implications for each of these trends.  Our education system is, after all, of this world, not separate from it. 

The Future is Not What It Used to Be

The future is where students in our schools today will be spending their lives tomorrow.  Harvard’s David Perkins observes, “We assume that our life and the lives of our children will be similar.  Wouldn’t education be more interesting if we connected what students learn to the future?”  The future, to quote a classic ad, “is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”  Here are a few pieces of evidence.  In each case, ask, “What are the implications for how we operate our schools and for what our students need to know and be able to do?”

  • Lifelong learning will be available any time, anywhere, any pace and any way.  Social media coupled with smaller, more powerful mobile devices have taken learning on the road.  
  • Active learning; project-based education; real-world education; learning through inquiry; learning across disciplines; and teaching thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills are becoming rules of the road.
  • In the U.S., non-Hispanic whites are expected to fall below 50 percent of the population by about 2043.  For those 18 and under—by 2018.  This phenomenon has already happened in many states and communities.
  • Beginning in 2011, Baby Boomers started reaching 65 and will hit that milestone at about 10,000 a day for approximately 30 years.  Millennials started turning 30 in 2012.  Count on massive retirements coupled with a whole new style of leadership and set of parental expectations.   
  • Leadership will become increasingly horizontal with an emphasis on listening, engagement, collaboration, making sense and developing a unifying sense of direction.
  • Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet, followed by English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian.  By 2050, it’s expected that the order will be:  Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Arabic.
  • Between 2000 and 2050, the populations of less developed nations will increase by 60 percent, while populations of more developed nations will increase by only 4.3 percent. 

Let’s take a look at just a few other realities we’ll all be facing.  

High-Tech, High-Touch and Digital Connections

Ubiquitous, interactive technologies are shaping how we live, how we learn, how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world.  We’ve gone from Flash Gordon to flash drives in what seems like the blink of an eye.  Big data and the cloud are already here, along with growing demand for people who work in data analytics.  Quantum computers are on the horizon. 

Damian LaCroix, a Wisconsin superintendent who served on Futures Council 21, which provided advice and counsel for Twenty-One Trends, remarks, “We can’t educate today’s students for tomorrow’s world with yesterday’s schools.”  He points to “the proliferation of technology flipping the 20th century model of education and transforming it into a new digital high-tech, high-touch landscape.”

Let’s Get Personal and Tap Ingenuity

Let’s face it.  Personalization is not just an approach to education.  In fact, it’s what we all expect.  We want our clothes to fit and instant help if our smart phone breaks down. 

Of course, personalizing education begins with knowing our students and how we can engage them in learning.  That means we’d better have a good understanding of each student’s abilities, talents, skills, aptitudes, interests, cultural background and a variety of social and economic factors.  In a world of diverse talents and aspirations, we will increasingly discover and accept that one size does not fit all.

Futures Council 21 member Laurie Barron, the 2013 National Middle School Principal of the Year and now superintendent in Kalispell, Montana, declares, “personalizing the learning environment and building relationships will be increasingly crucial.”  In addition to academics, she adds, schools should be focused on “developing students who are well-rounded, productive citizens who give back to their community.”

Our future hangs in the balance.  STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is critically important.  However, we need to aim for a fully educated person.  Every educator and student should have the ability and willingness to deal with paradox, controversy and complexity; creatively see things in a new light; and function across disciplines. 

Many people want the equivalent of education box scores, like the ones we find on the sports page, where we can easily find winners and losers.

In our new paradigm, how will we deal with a perplexing scoreboard mentality?  Many people want the equivalent of education box scores, like the ones we find on the sports page, where we can easily find winners and losers.  Yes, we need assessments to help us constantly improve individual student learning.  All institutions need to be accountable.  However, testing should give us clues, not necessarily conclusions, since there is really no finish line for an educated person.  

Revisiting the Purposes of Education

Why do we educate people?  As we consider the need for higher ground and a new paradigm, let’s imagine that each discipline or subject doesn’t stand alone but contributes to higher purposes.  Here are a few for consideration: 

  • Creating good citizens. 
  • Enhancing employability. 
  • Helping students live interesting lives. 
  • Releasing ingenuity that is already there. 
  • Stimulating imagination, creativity and inventiveness.
What Can We Do to Shape the Future?

Since the Twenty-One Trends are a snapshot of the big picture, they represent our common ground.  They are a rallying point for bringing people together in common purpose.    

Explore the 21 Trends
In Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, author Gary Marx devotes a chapter to each of these forces and places them in sections of the book that he calls “Spheres.”  All have profound implications for education.

  • Demographic Sphere:  Generations, Diversity, Aging.
  • Technology Sphere:  Technology, Identity and Privacy.
  • Economic Sphere:  The Economy, Jobs and Careers.
  • Energy and Environment Sphere:  Energy, Environmental and Planetary Security, Sustainability.
  • Education and Learning Sphere:  Personalization; Ingenuity: Depth, Breadth, and Purposes of Education.
  • Public and Personal Leadership Sphere:  Polarization, Authority, Ethics, Continuous Improvement.
  • Well-Being Sphere:  Poverty, Scarcity vs. Abundance, Personal Meaning and Work-Life Balance.

Try this.  Hold community conversations or appoint futures councils to consider implications of these trends for how we operate our schools and colleges and for what our students need to know and be able to do.  Then, clearly define characteristics of the education system we need to truly get our students ready for the future.  That process can put us on the road to common ground, a sense of ownership and a refreshed paradigm for today’s learning.   

Perspective?  The famed British Primologist and Anthropologist Jane Goodall perhaps said it best:  “We have not inherited this planet from our parents.  We have borrowed it from our children.”

Gary Marx
Gary Marx is president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, VA.  As a futurist, author and speaker, he has visited 80 countries on six continents and spoken in all 50 U.S. states. He is author of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future, (Education Week Press, 2014).  His web site is at www.GaryMarxCPO.com.  Books available at www.edweek.org/go/21Trends