• 03.28.11

Education: Uncertainty Isn’t the Only Risk

Following a talk Snoqualmie Valley School District Foundation fundraising luncheon, Rasmus explores how uncertain we are about education, ranging from skills we can’t anticipate to how we measure success.

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Snoqualmie Valley School District Foundation
fundraising luncheon. My role was to help them envision the future of education.
Some of the comments I made yesterday will be relevant to the scenarios we build
on this blog. As an avid anti-futurist, I said I didn’t know what education
would look like, but that I was tracking how many of its attributes might play


That said, there are some things I feel very strongly about, regardless of
the future. These are considered robust implications in a scenario planning
exercise. I will discuss a few of those, and then discuss some of the

Learning How to Learn With technology evolving at an exponential rate,
and with it the rise of new industries; and with ever more of the planet’s human
population bumping into each other in cyberspace, if not directly connecting to
one another through social media, the ability to learn new things will be
important. Successful people will learn this regardless of their formal
education experience, but there will be tremendous missed opportunity if we
don’t use the 19-years of education afforded most students (yes, less in
developing countries, but increasing) to teach students how to learn, and
through that, how to accept and embrace change.

Horizon Scanning and Scenario Planning It may seem a bit self-serving
to say that scenario planning is a robust implication for education, but if we
accept that the future is uncertain and that we need to embrace change, then
teaching people how to use techniques for navigating that change by anticipating
possible outcomes is an important skill and mindset. If we continue to teach
history as a series of dates and timelines rather than contingencies–if we only
teach writing as linear narratives that start with outlining–and if confiscate
cell phones rather than helping learners understand the risks and leverage the
opportunities–then we teach a future of constraint rather than a future of
possibility. One of my comments yesterday followed a geocaching GPS
presentation. The GPS systems were procured through a local grant. I said that
in the future, we wouldn’t need the grant because we would ask the students to
just use their phones rather than confiscate them.

Transliteracy People will need to know how to effectively communicate
in various media. Today it is e-mail, text, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. With
apps like FourSquare and Color, location
is becoming a component of communication. How does location change the way we
write and communicate? Who knows what channels will become popular tomorrow.
What we do know is that people should learn how to effectively and safely
transverse these channels, and ideally, add value–and garner value–when they

Culture Awareness and Sensitivity With so much work becoming
non-local, people will need to understand how to communicate and work with those
from other parts of the world. Start this early. The new Avenues school experiment attempts to
transforms schools from local entities into global institutions. Some futures
suggest that globalization could fracture under the influence of strong
nationalism or based on natural disasters, like a global epidemic or massive
solar storm. This implication for education, however, is not irrelevant even in
that future, as a disruption in globalization would not result in the immediate
repatriation of foreign national or immigrants from their current places of
residence. In other words, there is little downside to investing in cultural
awareness and sensitivity, and plenty of utility in it, no matter which future

Dropping the Industrial Age Framework This is perhaps the most
controversial of the robust implications, and one that appears here and on the
list of uncertainties (as Measurement Approach below). We think of
schools as factories and tests scores as key performance indicators. Current
approaches to testing do not serve learning. Some educators take large chunks of
their year to “teach to the test.” Some school districts, when faced with
enormous post-Great Recession budget pressures, choose to invest mainly in
programs that drive better standardized tests results. The rewards structure of
public and private funding reinforces this industrial age mentality. This
appears justified when studies, such as the one conducted by Kuncel and Nezlett
Tests Predict Graduate Student’s Success
,) suggest that standardized
admissions test are valid predictors of “valid predictors of many aspects of
student success across academic and applied fields.” If we take a factory view
of education, then we should be able to see that the elimination of variability
and the use of standard approaches to problem solving would result in better
performance because the people entering the institution were pre-selected to
conform to the institution’s learning approach. You can’t make rubber balls in a
ball bearing factory any more than you can make radical inventors in an
institution dedicated to cookie cutter MBAs. In the Kuncel and Nezlett study
they recognize that many of the soft skills, including networking,
professionalism, leadership and administrative performance were not captured–or
good graduate student may not make a great leader.

If we strip away the industrial age patina and replace it with a knowledge
economy approach, we might find a more holistic framework for measuring the
performance of institutions, educators and learners. The problem is, that
nations (see OECD
Education Rankings
) continue to be so focused on industrial age
reinforcement (like rewarding improvements in standard test results) that they
have not pursued the creation of an economic framework that understands
performance against a knowledge economy, perhaps even sustainable knowledge
economy, backdrop.


Thus the robust implication is that we must break free of the industrial age
framework in order to see other possible ways to measure the success of
learning. This may lead not only to new education measurement frameworks, but to
new perspectives on innovation as well.


Jobs and Skills Many people talking about the future toss out a phrase
like “70% of tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented yet.” Interesting
observation, but not very helpful. I personally conduct research that looks at
scientific discoveries and business issues that hint at future commercial
implications and then imagine the kinds of jobs those potentially burgeoning
industries might require. Consider the following: computation artist,
authenticity engineer, neuromapping specialist, geriatric medial retrainer or
quarantine enforcer. Many of these jobs are combinations of computer science and
something else. A computational artist would need to know how to create works
with lasting aesthetic value while writing code. The neuromapping specialist
would create models of human synapses, eventually leading to brain implants that
mimic parts of the brain in ways that artificial hearts mimic muscles. An
authenticity engineer would be a social media-social scientist, ensuring that
one-to-one marketing appears authentic even when the “one” on the receiving side
of the equation is really a profile of “one” and not a real individual.
Uncertainty in skills is an important driver to the “learning how to learn”
implication above: if we don’t know what the future looks like, the best thing
we can do is learn how to learn.

Curiosity Will we end up with a world where people are so thirsty for
knowledge, and knowledge so accessible, that education becomes a way to guide
children through self-directed learning as they relish and wallow in the
immensity of knowledge? Will educators help learners become well-rounded
explorers, using the Internet, telecommunications and travel as the means to
enhance their far reaching curiosity? Will this exploration led to the discovery
of personal passions that help people frame, and perhaps momentary focus their
attention, to solve a particular problem, and having solved that, move on to
something else that interests them?

Or will people find so much information on their own passion or fetish that
curiously about that single topic consumes them? Will they be so focused that
they lose peripheral vision, so specialized what they find interesting that
learners becomes functionally illiterate outside of their specializations, be it
tennis or manga?

Measurement Approach Will standardized tests for language and
mathematics prevail as the way to determine success? Will the influx of models
and analytics from the software industry create an even greater hold on
standardization as sophisticated analytical outputs slice and dice even the most
mundane actions of learners and educators? Or will sustainability influence
learning, generating a “slow learning” movement that counteracts the overly
structured technological approach with a more humanistic, pluralistic and
unbound view of learning? Will a future evolve where learners, seeking
fulfillment and happiness, determine their own measures of success by how well
they can apply what they learned to their business and intellectual pursuits?

STEM Will the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and
mathematics create a world filled with complacent conformers focused on success
that was promised as one leg in an internationally competitive policy
platform–or will the industrial and political powers witness a rebellion against
rewarded career choices by refusing to accept that careers in art, literature,
international affairs and others are second-class futures. Or, will inspired
leaders find ways to inspire youth so that science and technology once again
captures the imaginations of learners in the same way that the success of sports
stars inspires young men and women to pursue careers in sports. Will science
clubs return to challenge attendance at soccer games? Will the arts incorporate
science and technology is a way that doesn’t demean, but rather celebrates the
synergy? Will educators find ways to provide students with science and math
competencies in ways that integrate with their motivations, rather than focusing
on changing their motivation?


Class warfare Will the United States experience class warfare as
economic disparities and access to technology create a deep divide, or will new
economic models evolve that redistribute wealth more evenly, either through
productivity increases that drive down price so disparities appear less
meaningful, or political action that restructures tax and incentive systems?
Will new industries over the coming decade emerge and “raise all boats,” perhaps
displacing some apparently entrenched wealthy with new moguls, demonstrating the
recycling nature of the global economy, fostering more hope, and providing more
perspective, among the previously disenfranchised.


Uncertainties may unfold in any of the ways suggested above. The paragraphs
above should not be considered exhaustive, but they should be considered proof
that each topic is uncertain because it can end up in so many different places
depending on the social, economic, technological and political context that
ultimately governs our future. These exercises are meant to unshackle the
assumptions readers make about these topics, help people plan for any
rather than the future they think will happen, or
the future they are told will happen.

These are just a few of the uncertainties facing education. You can find a
set of scenarios that incorporate these uncertainties, and others here. For this
ongoing Fast Company exercise, the future of state of education will be
one uncertainty among many. Later posts will explore other uncertainties, and
eventually, how those uncertainties may interact with each other.

About the author

Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist who helps clients put their future in context.