An interesting thing happened on the way to accomplishing our plan.
The world changed!
“Sustainability” is the word du jour. Unbelievably, some people still define “being sustainable” as “successfully defending the status quo.” To borrow alliteration from Thomas Jefferson, that is an idea that “never was and never will be” truly sustainable. The question is not, “When will things get back to normal?” Instead, the question is, “What will the new normal look like?”
In fact, sustainability depends on adaptability, flexibility, resilience, transparency, redundancy, and timing, coupled with a sense of where the world is heading and what we want to become. Without aspirations, circumstances will drive our future.
Staying in Touch.
If we hope to be successful in getting our students ready for a fast-changing world, we need to constantly be in touch with political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and demographic forces that impact our communities, our nations, and the planet. We are of this world, not separate from it.
On the other hand, when we build a wall to keep the world at bay, we isolate ourselves and quickly become obsolete. Couple that concern with another reality: We too often give our attention to everything but the non-stop need to shape our institution to meet the ever-changing needs of society. Unfortunately, when that happens in schools and colleges, some of our students may go down with the ship. Longer-term, the institution puts itself in peril as growing numbers of people take to the lifeboats and sail off toward other horizons, looking for the education their children need to stay ahead of the curve in a world that is in constant motion.
Staying in touch is not a new idea, and it isn’t a new program. It’s simply a way of thinking, and it’s basic to active learning, project-based education, real-world education, learning across disciplines, and learning through inquiry. Many of the same processes we use in environmental scanning and in planning, such as trend analysis, gap analysis, and scenario development, can also be used to make education vastly more interesting and connected to the real world.
Considering Implications of Trends.
One of our more recent books, Sixteen Trends…Their Profound Impact on Our Future, calls attention to an array of societal forces that impact all of us, wherever we are, whether we like it or not. They are sometimes the root causes of many of the issues and problems we face. Take a look at the following trends. Think about their implications for how we operate our schools and colleges, for what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for life in a global knowledge/information age, and for future economic growth and development and quality of life in our communities.
- Technology will increase the speed of communication and the pace of advancement or decline. Nick Negroponte at MIT told us long ago that we were moving from atoms to bits. Now, we’re on our way from macro to micro to nano to subatomic. Few things in recent history have been as astounding and earth-shaking as the convergence and miniaturization of technologies. Faced with these ubiquitous tools that put students in touch with each other and with the world, educators are thinking beyond stand-and-deliver to facilitating and orchestrating learning. A growing essential is to help students understand that we’re depending on them to develop new generations of technologies that will power our civil society and our economy in the future.
- Release of human ingenuity will become a primary responsibility of education and society. It’s no secret that we are moving from plain old information acquisition toward knowledge creation and breakthrough thinking. The future will be driven by our creativity, imagination, and genius as we put ideas together across disciplines to create new knowledge. We know that we will not be able to ride our way into the future, we will need to invent our way into the future. Our challenge is to personalize, to understand interests, abilities, talents, and motivations, and to produce students who are both curious and persistent. Of course, our students also need to be able to function as part of a team.
- Pressure will grow for society to prepare people for jobs and careers that may not currently exist. While employment in for-profit and nonprofit industries may not be the only reason for education, it’s one that gets the attention of everyone who is hoping for a productive and interesting life, including nearly all students. While career awareness and even preparation are important, career adaptability has become paramount. Legions of people, now in the workforce, will soon be working in jobs that don’t currently exist. Today’s students can expect to change careers several times, and many will invent their own jobs, careers, and industries. As educators, we need to understand that what we do or don’t do today will have profound implications for the future of both our civil society and our economy.
- Majorities will become minorities, creating ongoing challenges for social cohesion. Fact: By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau is telling us, only 46 percent of the total population of the country will be non-Hispanic white--36 percent of young people from birth to 19. We live in an age of massive migration, as people cross political boundaries and oceans seeking opportunity to provide for their families and use their talents. Of 100 people who live on the planet, only about five live in North America. As the faces of nations and communities change, we need to revisit consensus, look for common denominators, and redefine sometimes arcane identities that may no longer reflect reality. For educators, this trend also carries the challenge of raising all boats, not just a few.
- As nations vie for understanding and respect in an interdependent world, international learning, including diplomatic skills, will become basic. When Greece sneezes, we all get a cold. Whether we like it or not, we are moving at warp speed from isolationist independence toward interdependence. What happens to one of us has an impact on all of us. Consider the rise of Asia and its implication for understanding languages and cultures; for our ability to build personal, business, political, and diplomatic relationships; and ultimately for our individual and collective futures. In fact, understanding the people, histories, and cultures of the world may be among our new basics. Consider these diplomatic skills: open minds, natural curiosity, patience, courtesy and good manners, a sense of tolerance, and the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Consider the need to understand economics, history, law, political science, government, civic responsibility, human rights, and social skills. Those who don’t have that kind of understanding may be among our new disadvantaged.
These few trends provide only a glimpse of societal forces that have profound implications for education. Others that should command our attention include: an economy based on social and intellectual capital, personalization, aging, generations, continuous improvement, planetary security (the environment), polarization, and the quest for personal meaning in our lives.
Creating a Future.
Turbulent times offer a unique opportunity to create a future, and focusing on the implications of these and other trends can help us get from where we are to where we need to be. In addition to strengthening our environmental scanning, pursuing active learning and project-based education, including futures studies; and conducting more brainstorming sessions and workshops, we might want to consider holding Community Conversations.
Those conversations can bring together dozens or hundreds of diverse people community-wide to consider implications of trends and then create a description of the education system we’ll need to get our students ready for life in a fast-changing world. At the very same time, they can describe the characteristics of a community that is capable of sustaining that type of future-focused education. A bottom line – school systems, colleges, and universities should be conveners and turn their institutions into the crossroads of their communities.
Making a Choice.
When people understand trends and issues, we say they are “in touch.” When they don’t understand trends and issues, we say they are “out of touch.” Let’s show the world that we are indeed in touch. One of the best ways to do just that is by moving ahead with the process of creating our own future. If we don’t, someone else will, and simply announce it to us, possibly even go around us, leaving us alone as the world rushes by.
John Quincy Adams, considered by some to be one our brightest U.S. Presidents, is reported to have said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” We have a distinct choice. We can simply defend what we have or we can create what we need to get our students ready for the future. Which will it be? Let’s see the hands.
Sixteen Trends…That Will Profoundly Impact Our Future
This list is drawn from the book, Sixteen Trends ... Their Profound Impact on Our Future. (Note: The symbol → indicates a clear, nearly unmitigated trend from one condition to the next, while ↔ indicates a trend that can be expected to develop or continue based on evidence and the reality that certain existing conditions are very likely unsustainable. In some cases, a tug is evident between current and future conditions.)
- For the first time in history, the old will outnumber the young.
(Younger → Older) Worldwide: (Developed World: Younger → Older. Underdeveloped World: Older → Younger)
- Majorities will become minorities, creating ongoing challenges for social cohesion.Worldwide: (Diversity = Division ↔ Diversity = Enrichment)
- Social and intellectual capital will become economic drivers, intensifying competition for well educated people.
(Industrial Age → Global Knowledge/Information Age)
- Standards and high stakes tests will fuel a demand for personalization in an education system increasingly committed to lifelong human development. (Standardization → Personalization)
- The Millennial Generation will insist on solutions to accumulated problems and injustices, while an emerging Generation E will call for equilibrium. (GIs, Silents, Boomers, Xers → Millennials, Generation E)
- Continuous improvement and collaboration will replace quick fixes and defense of the status quo.
(Quick Fixes/Status Quo → Continuous Improvement)
- Technology will increase the speed of communication and the pace of advancement or decline.
(Atoms → Bits) (Micro → Macro → Nano → Subatomic)
- Release of human ingenuity will become a primary responsibility of education and society.
(Information Acquisition → Knowledge Creation and Breakthrough Thinking)
- Pressure will grow for society to prepare people for jobs and careers that may not currently exist.
(Career Preparation ↔ Career Adaptability)
- Competition will increase to attract and keep qualified educators.
(High Demand → Even Higher Demand)
- Scientific discoveries and societal realities will force widespread ethical choices.
(Pragmatic/Expedient → Ethical)
- Common opportunities and threats will intensify a worldwide demand for planetary security.
(Personal Security/Self Interest ↔ Planetary Security)
(Common Threats ↔ Common Opportunities)
- Understanding will grow that sustained poverty is expensive, debilitating, and unsettling.
(Sustained Poverty ↔ Opportunity and Hope)
- Polarization and narrowness will bend toward reasoned discussion, evidence, and consideration of varying points of view.
(Narrowness ↔ Open Mindedness)
- As nations vie for understanding and respect in an interdependent world, international learning, including diplomatic skills, will become basic.
(Sub-Trend: To earn respect in an interdependent world, nations will be expected to demonstrate their reliability and tolerance.) (Isolationist Independence ↔ Interdependence)
- Greater numbers of people will seek personal meaning in their lives in response to an intense, high tech, always on, fast-moving society.
(Personal Accomplishment ↔ Personal Meaning)