Educating for an uncertain future

Do you know what the toughest job is? The pay is low if not non-existent. You’re always under pressure. You don’t call your own shots, at least until you’re vested after perhaps twelve years. You’re expected to do stuff you hate doing. Your life experiences haven’t been sufficient to draw on for guidance, which means you’re at the mercy of your superiors. And at some point, you will become over-qualified, so will get booted out.

Yep, it’s being a kid. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they do it. If I got to do it over again, I’d skip it. Would you?

But then, much of who an adult is stems from his/her childhood and student experiences. So, being a kid, for better or worse, is indispensable for maturation. Which presents a problem: How does one reconcile the two: I needed to go through it, yet I wouldn’t want to go back there?

While it was never easy being a kid, even for the ones who seemed to have it easy with diligent and supportive parents, a stable family, academic acumen, or athletic skills, today the challenges of youth have metastasized. They have been and continue to be compounded by a status-fixated culture focused on an endgame rather than the pursuit of a goal and the thrill of participation. We’ve become a society that measures success in terms of winners and losers. For adults, it’s wealth accumulation; for students, grades and another non-sensical measurement: standardized test.

With the passing of successive generations, the future becomes more uncertain. A century ago, long before IT, AI—artificial intelligence—and climate change¸ kids pretty much could predict their future job/career. That’s no longer the case.

Yuval Noah Harari points out in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” that during the Industrial Revolution humans simply had to make an accommodation, form a relationship with the machine. But now, the machine—computers and advanced robotics—is rapidly replacing humans. So, what is a kid looking at that uncertain future to do? How do schools prepare them for the unknown?

Superintendent Karen Quanbeck sees standardized tests as only “one data point,” one more akin to an autopsy than a relevant diagnosis since the information arrives months after the assessment. Plus, they measure content mastery relevant to when the test was created not to the real time of taking it and certainly not anticipating life experiences decades into the future.

“We need full profiles on our students,” said Quanbeck, “that tell us how they are progressing on communication, critical thinking, and creativity. We want our kids to be flexible thinkers able to adapt to complex situations and complex challenges.

“We also want to know how our kids are in terms of their social emotional state. Are they healthy, happy, and confident in their learning? Or have we created systems in which they are stressed, anxious, and feel like their learning is disconnected from their needs?”

Think back to your school days. If you’re “of an age” as I am or even a Gen-Xer, did you anticipate a smart phone with wireless technology that offers instant communication virtually worldwide? Now, try to imagine a future in which the smart phone is old-school technology, like rabbit ears, cassette tapes, and VCRs.

Now, picture a world beset by the ravages of climate change not only environmentally but also impacting humans that are already being told they might be extraneous. Brave new world? Potentially, but not necessarily if we become smart about how we prepare for it. And critical to that preparation is how we provide for and educate our kids.

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