With so much chaos swirling in society, it is clear something is dying and something new is trying to be born. The entire world is being reshaped as we enter a dramatic moment of adaption as a species.

We are traveling through one of the largest inflection points in history. We are being called to adapt – simultaneously – to the rapidly accelerating forces of technology, globalization, and life-threatening climate change. No wonder it is easy to feel so overwhelmed today. 

Not in Kansas Anymore

We are departing from a world that has historically been organized and experienced in a comparatively straightforward, linear fashion.Thanks to technology, globalization, and climate change all accelerating at once, we are moving into a world of exponential change which is disorganized, chaotic and comes without an instruction manual. Such radical, thorough going change is generating dysfunction, fear of the “other”, concern for the future of our children, and unfortunately, all too often, hatred and anger. Evolution and innovation happen because of chaos, disruption, disorder, and diversity so if you think more structure is the answer, you are engaged in a fruitless effort to stand up against implacable, unstoppable change.

So how then does education, the institution responsible for preparing the next generation to lead society, evolve amidst such uncertainly and seismic change? How are we  able to evolve toward a new normal which consists of social equity, well being, racial harmony, and successful lives, well lived?

Obviously, this is not a simple question. Or a new question. But as our challenges to quality of life increase, we need to pay particular attention to the mental health concerns and preparation of our youth. Finding answers to equipping youth for this chaotic future is becoming a national emergency. Education has always been important, however, today it is critical and our current educational system is ill equipped to give students the tools necessary to cope and thrive.

Bye-bye Industrial Age Society

Until recently schools have provided a structure that is beneficial to a healthy society. Born out of the industrial age, the original structure of education, which was one-size-fits all, factory model approach to memorizing facts and figures, served  the purpose of educating the masses so they could become workers in an industrial economy and propel citizens from poverty into the middle class.   

Modern society is evolving from the industrial which depends upon uniformity and homogeneity to the knowledge economy which prizes technological know-how, innovation, communication skills and collaboration. This dramatic change leaves our schools struggling to  transition out of an industrial model teaching based on traditional ‘drill and kill’ methods of rote learning and “yes-no” binary testing. 

It is easy to blame the school system but designing a new paradigm (model) to develop skills to cope with complexity, uncertainty, and continual change is not simple.   

Succeeding in the Wellbeing Economy 

Just as the term ‘knowledge economy’ becomes mainstream, we believe it is time to prepare the next generation for the “wellbeing economy,” an economic system that accounts for true or total cost accounting by considering the human and planetary impacts of how resources are developed and used over time. As an example, single use plastics in the short space of 20 years have grown from a blip on the horizon to a phenomenon that threatens the viability of our oceans and the health of millions of people. Most assuredly, plastic is cheaper to manufacture than sustainable alternatives but that calculus does not encompass the deadly consequences which extend literally for hundreds of years. A total cost accounting mentality would incorporate consequences over time and lead to more socially beneficial decisions.

If the ultimate purpose of education is to produce a stable, well-functioning society, and the call of our time is to navigate the rapid, simultaneous accelerations of technology, globalization, and climate change, then teaching methods must emerge which focus on the  role of inquiry, uncertainty, reflection, and visioning. The clarity of Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics needs to be replaced with systems thinking and understanding the complex interrelationships between ourselves and our world.  

Flexible Thinking for a Better Future

Rote learning and memorization need to be replaced with practical skills for students that include critical thinking, cooperation and collaboration, thoughtfully managing feelings, and mindfulness. By working in groups, encouraging sharing, and learning by doing, students naturally develop the skills necessary to address a future that would otherwise appear foreboding. They begin future thinking and flexible interaction with others they may not agree with rather than rigid, monolithic, inflexible views of the world.  Such an educational system does not need to be more expensive (it might even be cheaper, more on that later) but it does require a radical rethink of our traditional educational structure. Fortunately we have models for that future in schools such as SouthTech, Conservatory School, and Sheridan Technical. These successful schools are preparing youngsters for the late 21st Century and show us the way to what will become a promising, healthful future.