The Only Thing Constant is Change

The Only Thing Constant is Change

Children enter kindergarten at the age of five and exit from college in their twenties. How can we predict the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed over a 20-year time span? We can’t. The world is changing too rapidly and often in chaotic ways.

The idea that education is preparation for work is grounded in the belief that national economic performance is connected to the skill level of the work force. As such, all educational institutions play a role in work force development.

In the current global economy, however, educational institutions change more slowly than economic markets. It can take several decades to change a national education system; the landscape for global employment can change in less than one.

Shift Happens

Life has shifted into high gear. Our Information Age world moves so quickly that our Industrial Age education system can’t keep up. If education in the present must be synchronized with vocation in the future, our kids must be future-enabled—and that means our education system must be future-enabled, too.

Consider these challenges:

  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learners will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. Which of these jobs should they be trained for in school?
  • It is estimated, that half of what students learn in their first year of college is outdated by the time they enter their third year. How can curriculum be planned in advance?
  • Where students a generation or two ago might have expected to hold a few jobs within a single career, future generations can expect to hold many jobs across many careers. Which jobs and careers should we design our educational system to favor?

The logical answer is all of them—even the ones we don't know about yet. Many of the best jobs and careers are currently unknown to us, so we must focus on educating kids to deal with the unknown.

Stability is Old School

For good of ill, we have decided that the primary function of education is work force preparedness. At the same time, an increasingly chaotic global economy renders suspect curricular predictions made 20-30 years in advance. Long-term education planning—especially the planning of new curriculum and tests—seems anachronistic.

An Industrial Age factory model education system utilizing an assembly line method of delivery, and predicated on the goal of achieving standardized minimum competence, will leave many of our kids unprepared for adult life in the future even if they are academically successful. Getting good grades in school, being accepted to a good university, and completing a popular degree is no longer a guarantee of economic prosperity and social stability.

Agility is New School

So what should we teach our children to prepare them for a changing future? The ability to respond to change. We must teach our children to be agile learners.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, business leaders began using the term “learning agility” to describe a person’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances by mastering new domains quickly. Learning agility is not just a set of intellectual competencies across a traditional liberal arts curriculum; it’s a set of meta-competencies, encompassing social and emotional skills as well.

If one the strongest predictions we can make about the future is that it will be different from the past, we have to teach kids to identify and respond to those differences. If what we know for sure right now is that we won’t know for sure what our kids will need when they leave school, we have to teach kids how to figure out what that is and learning it on their own. If the only thing constant is change, our highest responsibility is to teach kids how to thrive in a changing world.

Information Age schooling cannot be based on grades achieved, credits accrued, standards met, or tests passed. These things may be a part of school but they must not be the point of school.

Information Age schooling must be based instead on learning agility. Rather than merely teaching kids how to operate technology, or which technologies exist to be operated, we need to teach them how to use technology to master the uncertainty of the future.

Mastering Uncertainty

To prepare children for an uncertain future we must teach them to master uncertainty. This means thriving on change, developing a high tolerance for ambiguity, and master new areas of knowledge quickly and without explicit instruction.

The basic skills of the Industrial Age are still valid. Kids still need the three R’s and much of the content of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. But they need to master them much earlier in life and use them with greater fluency. They must also know how to apply this knowledge in varying domains whether they have studied these domains or not.

Because each child is unique, each faces a unique experience of life. Current schooling seeks to manufacture the same learner over and over; Industrial Age education is an act of replication. But the manufacturing metaphor of schooling is inappropriate for the Information Age.

Educating a child must be less like product manufacturing and more like product development. In Information Age schooling, optimization, not replication, is the goal. Each student is a new and unique entity to which we contribute our time, effort, and resources, as engineers of a modern education system that matches the modern world.

The Promise of Information Age Education

By running schools with Information Age practices, we can create networked cultures of continuous learning. By running classrooms with Information Age practices, we can undo the restrictive and harmful assumptions of factory model schooling and provide an optimal learning experience to every student.

By facilitating how children learn through Information Age practices—by providing them with the same skills in school they will need when they leave—we can prepare them for success in the Information Age regardless of how uncertain that age may be.

Borrowing From Business

Mastering uncertainty has been a focus of study in the business world for decades, especially in technology; few industries change as rapidly. The process of creation is highly improvisational. New products and services often arise unpredicted. Some cannot even be understood until people begin using them. Market adoption is even less predictable than product development.

Not surprisingly, the people who delivered us into the Information Age have developed practices to account for the uncertainty of the world in which they work. By bringing these practices into school we can bring them into the lives of our children and transform an Industrial Age education system into an Information Age education system in the process.


Add your feedback below. To keep track of who is saying what, use an H1 tag (a plus sign "+" in the edit window) to identify yourself. For example:

Steve Peha

The notion of borrowing ideas from another sector that solved a similar problem shouldn't be a problem in education but it is. Outside of education there are numerous organizational methodologies people have used to solve large and complex problems. But inside of education, we're still winging it.

School turnarounds are probably the most obvious aspect of reform where the lack of methodology really hurts. The latest study from the Fordham Institute showed that barely 1% of school turnarounds are successful. Yet turning around our nation's 5000 worst performing schools is one of Secretary Duncan's most important initiatives—and hundreds of schools receive millions of dollars each year under the federal School Improvement Grants.

If we were going to start a known type of business, there would be many known ways to do it. If we were going to re-organize a struggling organization, there would be proven approaches. If we wanted to open a rural medical center in a sparsely populated area, a little research would tell us how to go about it.

But when it comes to starting or restarting a school, we have little to go by. And often, we don't even elect to use what we have.

Education is not a business; it's a cultural institution. But that doesn't mean we can't take ideas from the business world that in the past have solved many of the same problems we're struggling with now.

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