Why Are We Doing This?
This morning, as we move through the final hours of 2018, Seth Godin (we’re big fans) posted a forward looking piece that included a list of problems we might solve in the coming decades — that is, within the lifetimes of the young children we teach. Though I recommend you read the full article, I’ll repost the list here for your consideration:
1. High efficiency, sustainable method for growing sufficient food, including market-shifting replacements for animals as food
2. High efficiency, renewable energy sources and useful batteries (cost, weight, efficiency)
3. Effective approaches to human trafficking
4. Carbon sequestration at scale
5. Breakthrough form for democracy in a digital age
6. Scalable, profitable, sustainable methods for small-scale creators of intellectual property
7. Replacement for the University
8. Useful methods for enhancing, scaling or replacing primary education, particularly literacy
9. Beneficial man/machine interface (post Xerox Parc)
10. Cost efficient housing at scale
11. Useful response to urban congestion
12. Gene therapies for obesity, cancer and chronic degenerative diseases
13. Dramatic leaps of AI interactions with humans
14. Alternatives to paid labor for most humans
15. Successful interactions with intelligent species off Earth
16. Self-cloning of organs for replacement
17. Cultural and nation-state conflict resolution and de-escalation
18. Dramatically new artistic methods for expression
19. Useful enhancements to intellect and mind for individuals
20. Shift in approach to end-of-life suffering and solutions for pain
21. Enhanced peer-to-peer communication technologies approaching the feeling of telepathy
22. Transmutation of matter to different elements and structures
23. Off-planet outposts
Recently, my colleague, Matt Karlsen, wrote about the future of jobs report published this year by the World Economic Forum. Godin’s post prompted me to return to Matt’s for a re-read. He writes, “I’m curious about the lack of any explicit call for collaboration on the list. Coordinating with Others – #2 in 2015 and #5 in 2020 – has disappeared in 2022. The new addition of ‘Leadership and social influence’ might be seen as taking its place, but it connotes more manipulation than responsiveness; the authors seem to imagine a lonely work world. That may be where we’re going – and if that’s the case, I think that’s one of those spots where schools offer possibilities for developing capacities beyond our role in the economy.”
Concurrent to these pieces, a recent report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest has found (unsurprisingly) that skills associated with collaborative problem solving are sorely lacking in our citizenry and the schools responsible for graduating citizens. The authors of the study focus on this set of cognitive and social skills to support core aspects of collaborative problem solving:
- Shared understanding: Group members share common goals when solving a new problem.
- Accountability: The contributions that each member makes are visible to the rest of the group.
- Differentiated roles: Group members draw on their specific expertise to complete different tasks.
- Interdependency: Group members depend on the contributions of others to solve the problem.
As I read through these lists side by side, I’m left wondering about the relationship between the future of jobs (as defined by current world economic leaders), the value of collaboration, and good examples of real problems that need real solutions. Based on the fact that we invented all the things that we perceive to be the world as we know it now, these are solutions we’re capable of developing if … well … under what conditions? And what does school have to do with it?
Maybe we need to figure out why we’re doing what we’re doing before we try and agree on what we’re doing.
Perhaps a focus on jobs is premature when we haven’t yet agreed on the problems we’re trying solve. Who’s interests are served when we skip over that part? Who’s interests are served by keeping schools focused on job skills rather than supporting them to develop as places of practice in what shared understanding looks like and feels like — where interdepencies are seen as strengths to be explored rather than conflict-prone complexities to get under control?
Will developing solutions to problems such as Godin poses require collaboration? Who will decide what gets solved? Who will decide who participates in developing those solutions? Will the solutions produce new jobs that require collaboration? As teachers, where should we place our focus? Will we prepare citizens for a world in which they expect to participate using their own expertise and interests with accountability to everyone else and a commitment to common goals that are good for everyone? Or will we prepare workers for the jobs of the future that economic leaders see coming based on their own current expertise, perspective, and vision? And what’s the difference?
Even if it is likely that the skills listed by the World Economic Forum will be necessary as new jobs are created, given the rapid expansion of information and new technologies that are erasing the world of work we maybe thought we could rely on — don’t we first need to be equipped to decide together what problems we care enough about to try and solve — together? The world is big enough to support myriad efforts focused on all kids of problems. It is strong enough to withstand mistakes and failure. It turns out, however, that what it may not be able to withstand is the inability of human beings to navigate complexity with compassion and the atrophy of imagination.
In his book, The Things We Don’t Know, Tarun Betala reminds us that the “telephone did not come into existence from the persistent improvement of the postcard.” If we are to solve the kinds of problems Godin identifies on his list — if we are to be able to expand the list through processes based in empathy and efforts to address common good — we need to be preparing children to imagine telephones when most people can see only postcards. As Henry Ford understood, we need to be preparing children to imagine the automobile even when everyone around them is suggesting we focus on skills that make faster horses. That, I think, is the biggest problem we have to solve. And the only place it will be solved is in the schools we create for our youngest citizens. As teachers, we need to take charge of the school equivalent process of bringing into existence the telephone and the automobile — in spite of the limits on vision and imagination held by so many others — most of whom are not teachers of young children. Their perspective matters — the expertise of economists and artists matters. They help us frame our why. But it is up to us to invent means towards those ends. We should be accountable to each other as we are to others, as we identify the role we can play in this interdependent system that is trying to be a democracy while trying to live on a sustainable planet while technology changes so fast and nobody knows what to do and everyone is scared.
We can do this. I know we can do this because we work with children — the people who can see things we’ve long forgotten how to see. We can do this by finding appropriate ways to work in solidarity with them, by getting out of the way of their imagination, and by helping them harness it in service of others — something they can do because we have given them ample opportunity to strengthen their curiosity and their empathy. We’ll do well to remember that the invention of the automobile and the telephone only opened the door to more possibilities for transportation and communication. No one of us is going to create the final solution to the problem of school. The best we can hope for — what is, in fact, central to our ability to move forward — is only that. Moving forward. We’ll do that most effectively by sharing with each other our experiences, our reflections, and the new questions that keep us focused on why we’re doing what we do. It is my greatest hope you’ll join us in this effort in the new year and beyond. This will take courage, and so we need each other.
With love, hope, and gratitude as we welcome 2019…