Friday, March 22, 2013

Preparing for the Future

I love “survivalist” reality shows on television. The best ones focus on the need to simplify and make sure of two things in a survival situation. 1) Make sure to acquire basic needs (as opposed to wants) and supplies. 2) Value items that provide multiple uses. The main idea of these two points being that if you take care of the essentials, use a little creativity, and prepare to adapt your chances of surviving and perhaps even flourishing increase greatly.

We’re rarely confronted with the need to adopt a “survivalist” mentality because our world is relatively predictable from day-to-day. When it isn’t and disaster strikes, we face uncertainty and failing to prepare for and react to uncertainty is deadly.

My school district is beginning a process of creating a new strategic vision and plan for the future. At it’s root, that’s what education is about, preparing students for the future. That’s not an easy task when the future is an uncertain place.

All educators should be familiar with the “Shift Happens” videos and the Beloit College “Mindset Lists.” These resources describe the ways that our world has changed and is changing for current students. The lesson we should take from these resources is that predicting the future is futile. Twenty years ago, I lived in a dying analog world quickly being taken over by a digital revolution. Today I’m fully immersed in a digital world. When I consider twenty-years from now, it would be foolish to not consider that by then our world will be post-digital with a new set of challenges and opportunities that we’d never think of today.

As I sit playing a video game on my iPhone, I remember the first “Pong” system I played as a child. I carry a device in my pocket that connects me to the world, serving as my map, calendar, entertainment, reference source, a place to shop, do my banking, and communicate in ways that weren’t even possible twenty years ago. How did my education prepare me for this world?

Teaching students to adapt to an unpredictable future requires that we teach them enduring principles and ideas and give them the opportunity to apply those ideas in multiple ways.

I learned how to read and use a map in school. It doesn’t matter that I use it on my phone today, knowing how to locate yourself and others in the world is essential.

I learned personal and collective responsibility in school. Google calendar sends me text reminders every week so that I don’t forget to take out the trash, but I learned the importance of keeping up with my tasks because of the effect it has on me and others with paper and pencil.

I sometimes spend too much time watching videos and playing games on my mobile phone. I also remember wasting entire Sunday afternoons listening to the top 40 countdown on the radio waiting for the song I wanted to record on my cassette tape. Unfortunately I didn’t learn enough about not wasting time in school.
I learned that context matters in school and different levels of respect were required in different situations. I prefer texting to communicate today, but I still take the time to make sure my grammar is correct and the tone is evident to avoid miscommunication. I learned this because my teachers all had different expectations that I sometimes had to discover on my own through trial and error.

I recently read a book written by one of the stars of the above mentioned “survival” shows. It included an old cartoon of a couple in a fallout shelter, surrounded by stocks of canned food. The wife berated the husband for forgetting the can opener.

What a tragedy to starve to death in the midst of food for lack of a tool. The author followed up with a tedious but effective way of safely opening a canned good with nothing more than an abrasive surface.

That’s how you prepare for uncertainty. You don’t just learn to use the tool, you learn why, and how the tool is useful. Tools are extensions of humanity that facilitate our ability to accomplish a task. The knowledge of why and how gives us the ability to use it effectively, improve it if needed, discern if something new really is better, and to adapt when it is.

The idea of preparing students for an uncertain future can be scary. It’s tempting to buy into the next best thing in fear of being left behind. It’s easy to dismiss the value of technology in enhancing the experience of education.

Ultimately, the best we can do is to teach the lessons that endure to the adults of tomorrow using the most effective tools of today.

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