According to Buckminster Fuller (1981), who first identified the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” and is recognized for the invention of the geodesic dome, human knowledge doubled approximately every century until around 1900, but by the end of World War II was doubling every 25 years. Although the growth of knowledge may vary by discipline, there is some evidence that indicates that on average human knowledge is currently doubling every 13 months. IBM asserts that the build out of the “Internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. Clearly we are in the midst of a transition from linear to exponential growth of human knowledge, which will require “the development of vastly more complex software, share-ability, and artificial intelligence.” (Schilling 2013)
Given this exponential increase in knowledge and a learner’s ability to instantaneously access it using devices and platforms that are becoming more compact, analytically powerful and faster by the second, it becomes even more critical that learner success be defined and measured in ways that heretofore would be perceived as unconventional and possibly revolutionary.
Attributes of Prospective Employees
An education system or school’s success is often defined by outcomes like graduation rate, closing achievement gaps between groups, students’ scores on standardized tests, college going rate of graduates, percent of students reading at grade level, number of AP courses offered/taken, number of students who passed algebra and other such metrics. Students collect credits in required subjects, earn good grades, finish homework, do well on quizzes and participate in class — all ways that they demonstrate their desire to be successful. Are these all indicators for what is valued by the communities that our schools and school systems serve?
Employers endorsed educational practices that “require students to conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; gain indepth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem-solving and communication skills; and apply their learning in real world settings.”
Ironically, if we were to ask potential employers how they define the attributes of a successful entry-level employee, the aforementioned indicators are curiously absent. Indeed, the findings from a recent online survey of employers conducted by Hart Research Associates (April 2013) support this. Key findings included: skills that help contribute to innovation are a priority and essential to an organization’s continued success; demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than an individual’s chosen major; the importance of ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills and the capacity for continued new learning. Moreover, employers endorsed educational practices that “require students to conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; gain indepth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem-solving and communication skills; and apply their learning in real world settings.” To what extent are students in today’s education institutions developing these types of skills and attributes in any given day, month or year of learning/instruction? It likely varies from state to state, district to district, school to school and yes, from classroom to classroom, but there is certainly no overarching system in place that reliably and accurately determines how well learners are being equipped with these types of skills and attributes.
21st Century Skills
Over the years, a number of organizations have emerged that focus on identifying the competencies, skills and attributes needed for success in the Digital Age as well as others that forecast what learning systems need to be in place to meet the educational demands of an information-rich society.
More than a decade ago, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning was formed to bring together the business community, education leaders and policymakers to position 21st century readiness at the center of U.S. K-12 education and to kick-start a national conversation on the importance of 21st century skills for all students. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework includes creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communications, collaboration, information and media literacy, ICT (information, communications and technology) literacy, life and career skills in addition to core subjects and 21st century interdisciplinary themes. It is in some ways surprising that the framework, which includes a number of the skills and attributes employers in the Hart survey identified as both important and desirable and even essential, has not been adopted in more educational institutions as a foundation for learning. Perhaps academic history, traditions and conventions run so deep that they are most influential in what happens on the ground in teaching and learning, despite what research tells us.
Success in the Digital Age Defined by Learners
KnowledgeWorks has created its business to look into the future of learning and to identify the societal contexts and trends that influence that future. Their first infographic, A Glimpse Into the Future of Learning, identifies changes that will “point the way toward a diverse learning ecosystem in which learning adapts to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school.” Included are terms and constructs like continuous career readiness, diverse credentials and certificates that reflect the many ways in which people learn and demonstrate mastery, self-organizing “schools,” individualized learning playlists, digitally-mediated or place-based learning experiences, radical personalization, social innovation and ownership of learning in new ways. According to KnowledgeWorks, at some point in the not too distant future, learners will define their own goals and aspirations for learning, and meeting or exceeding them will define success.
Thus, instead of striving to set down a marker and define what learner success and outcomes could or should be today or 20 years from now, perhaps it would be more constructive to allow definitions to emerge from and be shaped by the learners themselves; employment market needs; and our changing societal trends, contexts and values. Time will be the marker and a global force majeure may very well dictate how quickly we shift to meet the fundamental changes needed to be successful in the Digital Age.
Fuller, R. Buckminster (1981). Critical Path. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press.
Schilling, D. (April 2013). Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours.
It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. 2013. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates.
KnowledgeWorks. (July 2013). A Glimpse into the Future of Learning.