Photo: scott smith

Going Critical

Anticipating and Adjusting to the Education Meltdown

At the end of this past school year, my wife and I had a sit-down meeting with our son’s high school guidance counselor. Having just completed a very rocky ninth grade year, we were trying to do the right thing: meet, discuss where our student had fallen short, identify the problem areas, get a handle on some possible solutions and move on to the summer with a little confidence that tenth grade—and the remainder of high school—might go better.

Facing the always tricky shift from middle to high school, with more classes, more students providing competition, and teachers spread more thinly across multiple course sections, he was a little stunned and a lot overwhelmed. And, as part of a very large student body and adrift in an underfunded system, I can say confidently he was not well supported—more of a single Lego brick in a giant box of parts that may or may not fit together.

After a few minutes of hearing our well intended offers to find a way to make the situation work for both the school and our own son, the guidance counselor put down the transcripts in his hand and looked all three of us. What he said then surprised us. With a deadpan face, he said that, while it was clear to him that our son would probably go on to be a billionaire founder of the next Microsoft or Google, the school basically could do nothing for him—processes are processes, and there appeared to be little flexibility to accommodate or otherwise engage with a very bright student with learning differences. High scores on final exams and standardized tests be damned, if he couldn’t manage the daily notebook checks and generation of endless flashcards, he just wasn’t this school’s kind of kid, a school that otherwise mouths hollow words like “excellence,” “world class,”and “future.” He told us we really should look at “other options,” by which I think he meant homeschooling, some other kind of alternative schooling, or just dropping out.

While it was clear to him that our son would probably go on to be a billionaire founder of the next Microsoft or Google, the school basically could do nothing for him.

Needless to say, these weren’t the words we were expecting from a guidance counselor to a rising tenth grader. Set against the previous week’s purchase of high school dropout David Karp’s Tumblr by Yahoo! for a cool $1.1 billion, and the backdrop of Silicon Valley investor Peter Theil’s entreaty to teen entrepreneurs to bail on college and create startups, I’d like to think the counselor was trying to be helpful, or at least pragmatic. It certainly didn’t help the case we as parents had been pleading, that our son try to work with the system, overcome some of the bumps, and make the best of what was on offer at school.

In one shot, an official voice of the institution knocked the legs out from under years of advice to “make it work as best you can,” to listen to his teachers, try to develop at least basic study and work skills. “After all,” we told him in the past, “you’ll need to learn to adapt and interact with difficult processes in life.” We know he’s an intelligent child, who can offer some amazing insights when given the right conditions. He gets the material. He’s learning, just not how the institution needs to see it. Whether or not the system was perfect (or in this case, even mediocre), we’d kept giving it a go as parents, and urging him to do so as well. We’d lost years of sleep, gone to different schools, applied pressure from many different angles. Yet, the result of this experience was that he’d switched off school years ago, and now school basically served notice that it was switching off from him. At fourteen.

I started teaching gifted high school students four summers ago as part of the prestigious Duke Talent Identification Program. Parents of high-achieving children from across America and increasingly the world have turned to this justifiably highly regarded program over the past three decades for an educational boost for their college-bound students. Across a range of summer studies courses and two-week institutes, these students, typically at the top of their class, are offered intensive, university-level experience in topics such as Genetics, Psychology, Law, and Architecture. For both students and instructors, it’s often a transformative experience.

I was tapped in 2010 to help start the Futures Institute for the TIP program. The Futures Institute takes cohorts of roughly two dozen students through a two-week intensive summer course covering the tools and methods used in strategic foresight. It teaches about innovation, exposes students to a myriad of timely social, technological, economic and environmental issues we face now and in the future, and asks them to research, design and develop simple prototypes that address critical issues we may face in coming years (and probably face now as well). Over the life of the course, student teams have designed and presented concepts as wide ranging as asteroid mining schemes, protective nanofabric domes for cities, radiation monitoring systems, urban information systems for city-dwellers, purified and nutrient-boosted water delivery for pregnant women in India, power generating bridges, sustainable mass transit systems, new forms of money, and so on.

The course is delivered by an extremely skilled and talented group of instructors, teaching assistants, guest speakers and TIP itself, and exposes these students who attend to an incredible breadth of topics, talks and activities that are meant to challenge their expectations about what the world may be like in the near future. A fair number sign up for the course with the expectation they will have us tell them what the future will be, and thereby they will get a leg up on fellow students back home, or gain knowledge that could give them competitive advantage on college admission. Perhaps an equal number come because of outright curiosity, saying things like, “it sounded cool, so I thought I’d give it a try.” That’s ok—it’s a start. We expose them to ideas and innovations they might not otherwise have encountered, or had the mental bandwidth to find out more about in their otherwise heavily scheduled and highly directed lives.

Most importantly, we don’t just give talks or show videos about fancy new technology, or difficult social problems, or economic conundrums. This is not a TED video marathon (it is in fact a nearly TED-free zone). We teach the course as a critical thinking curriculum, first and foremost. As I and other instructors make clear to the students when they arrive, we aren’t there to tell them what will happen in the future, but to give them the tools to think critically and constructively about what could happen at different points in their futures, given different conditions, trends, innovations and wildcards they may encounter on the way(s). We want them to learn the basics of strategic foresight—a structured approach to gathering insight into, thinking about and modeling possible futures. We want them to be intrigued and curious enough to go deeper, and to be creative in fusing the knowledge they gain into models of futures they might imagine or experience—obstacles and all—and shape strategies or interventions that create the best outcomes for them, their communities, and the world in which they may live. We want them to develop the mental agility to imagine differently, then plan around those differences.

We aren’t there to tell them what will happen in the future, but to give them the tools to think critically and constructively about what could happen at different points in their futures.

This is an important distinction, from my perspective. When I first began teaching the course, I hadn’t fully processed this idea of integrating critical thinking into the models by which young people construct visions of their futures. I’d been working with adult professionals for years, helping them sort out strategic issues, make important decisions about how to face complicated, uncertain futures, and come to grips with the potential implications of major trends that could impact their businesses. In most cases, my role has been to tease out their own existing skills of anticipation and adaptation, but largely do so on the basis of already learned capabilities, and often around discrete problems.

In the case of the high achieving students, adding critical thinking to their future-thinking skills represented a different kind of intervention. From where I stand, the vast majority of curricula in modern education today are designed around imparting a body of knowledge the designers of the curricula and their sponsors and stakeholders—state, private or otherwise—believe will prepare them well to face a commonly agreed future and their place in it. We train for skills and roles the community thinks will be important. Through education we agree to make a particular bet on a particular future. We may hope that some of this education will generate a spark that takes things off in a different direction, through breakthrough research, novel new theories, or sheer brute force of emphasis on STEM education or whatever the current popular majors are. What we don’t do is explicitly ask students to assess, act, and even steer that future, much less create alternatives.

We certainly don’t invest in developing their skills toward unseen or unanticipated futures, even though that is where roughly one hundred percent of the students will end up. In the worse cases, such as in some US states, the community agrees to pick a comfortable stage of the past and aim for that, such as rolling back the years toward a highly stratified, low-wage manufacturing-based past (or future), or at best continuing to invest in a 1990s strategy of competing with a handful of high-scoring Asian economies through emphasis on math, science or engineering. Like the proverbial planners of the Pentagon, educational generals are largely fighting their favored last war.

Through education we agree to make a particular bet on a particular future.

The issue is exacerbated by the Darwinian nature of education today. In a market of scarce resources, those with the resources increasingly pour them into a linear future for their children, trying to supercharge their offspring’s progress toward assumed success. Advanced placement, extra testing, summer schools, online courses after school, extracurricular activities, internships, camps, the list goes on. All in a massive, often six-figure, bet on the certainty of circumstances into which their eventual graduate will emerge in a decade or more. Getting your costly degree in Finance with a Mandarin minor so you can go head to head with Chinese competitors? If you think for a moment, it’s entirely possible that neither modern finance, nor modern China, may be the same by the time you finish. In fact, in forty years, we may not recognize either. Then what?

So, where do these threads converge? While we talk (and talk and talk) in the US about “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top” with grand rhetorical flourishes, we are leaving them behind—worldwide. The US case is pronounced because we lack a national vision of our own future, which makes it that much more difficult to direct our children’s education toward even an imagined coherent destination. Other countries may have more structure to their educational cultures, or have a more captive future in mind for the next generation or two, but it can’t be argued any of us are doing a good job in preparing these generations to adapt to complexity, to reduce brittleness, and to engage them in designing and shaping their own collective futures. In the case of a child like mine, who has (as do all children) something of value to offer to the co-creation of his future, but who senses zero traction and support in this from his own educational surrounding, we lose them, or simply brush them aside to keep the machine running on its aimless path toward no particular destination.

We need to introduce the frame of strategic foresight to, if not primary education, at least early in secondary education. The core concepts of the malleability of futures, their interconnectedness, and of young people’s role in authorship and co-design of preferred futures would be critical to giving them both needed perspective and a sense of control at an age when they most need to feel ownership of both their education and what lies ahead of them.

We also need to bring elements such as critical thinking and understanding of complex systems, even at a simple level, into curricula so that students can better understand the interactions between forces in their worlds, the implications of altering parts of systems or introducing new elements to them (you know, consequences?). Students already drawn to complex systems such as computing (like mine), or biology may see their interests in wholly new dimensions, and find breakthroughs in their own thinking by looking at them anew. Those interested in social sciences, the arts, language and other such areas could also see new relations and connections, and have the tools to think more deeply about the impacts of change. Now we try primarily as students to absorb and repeat knowledge, recycling the old over and over again for the sake of it. Teaching them to think synthetically potentially produces something new, and allows students to add to, not just consume, the canon of knowledge.

As a third piece of the puzzle, we need to encourage students to create, to think dimensionally, and to prototype—ideas, designs, systems, concepts, what have you. The current vogue around introducing “maker” tools and activities into schools, including open hardware, 3D printing technologies and so on, are one direction, but this cannot be the only type of modeling and creation that goes on. The future isn’t won just because a few students can build a robot or print a simple plastic model, as exciting to school administrators as this achievement may be. Young people need to be able to communicate and socialize insights with each other. One student’s prototype of a future should be interrogated by others—this is an important way to reach a common understanding and questioning of new ideas.

Skills in researching, synthesizing, creating, communicating and critiquing new futures can engage many different kinds of students, stretch the minds of the more linear thinkers among them, and connect more deeply to those who don’t feel the current system speaks to, and therefore includes, them. Most importantly of all, it creates a kind of new engine—or millions of engines—of creation and innovation our national and global economies so desperately need. We can’t simply keep the next few generations of students captive in moribund education bureaucracies while we adults fight over a singular path forward. We actually need to have the faith to loosen our death grip on them, and give them the fundamental tools, some of which I list above but of which there are surely more, to constantly reassess, readjust and redesign their own pathways as they encounter the complexity ahead.

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