Like many educators thinking about 21st Century Learning and 21st Century Skills, the publication of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind back in 2006 played a critical role in opening my eyes and making the case for change. It was Pink who first caused me to think hard about whether our educational systems were preparing our kids for their future or for our past.
That reflection ultimately led me to look beyond the sphere of "technology integration" and enter the global conversation about the skills, mindsets, and competencies necessary for success in our rapidly changing world. Like so many others, the desire to implement and actualize those new educational objectives led me to learning about Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning, Inquiry Driven Instruction and Maker Spaces, Visible Thinking and Gamification, along with a host of other techniques and approaches that seem to be gaining in popularity by the day.
Most recently, though, my personal interest has been in better understanding the threads which tie all of these various methods together; the foundations in cognitive science which they all seem to share. That, in turn, led me to the world of constructivism and an ironic immersion back into the work of some of the 20th century's premier educational minds.
The other day I hit upon a passage in the work of Jerome Bruner, one of the more recent fathers of constructivism, that seemed to bring my journey full circle. It was, after all, Daniel Pink's assertion that the skills of yesterday would not be the skills of tomorrow that piqued my curiosity in where it was the world was going and how best to prepare our kids for their new realities. Here's how he puts it in his introduction:
This book describes a seismic - though as yet undetected - shift now under way in much of the advanced world. We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what's rising in its place, the Conceptual Age. A Whole New Mind is for anyone who wants to survive and thrive in this emerging world - people uneasy in their careers or dissatisfied with their lives, entrepreneurs and business leaders eager to stay ahead of the next wave, parents who want to equip their children for the future, and the legions of emotionally astute and creatively adroit people whose distinctive abilities the Information Age as often overlooked and undervalued.
In this book, you will learn the six essential aptitudes - what I call "the six senses" - on which professional success and personal satisfaction increasingly will depend. Design, Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. These are fundamentally human abilities everyone can master - and helping you do that is my goal.
I still believe the "seismic"shift he describes is real and requires our utmost attention. I leave it you, however, after reading the following passage from Jerome Bruner's The Relevance of Education - published some 35 years before Pink's work - as to whether the shift was "as yet undetected" in 2006 or whether we just weren't looking in the right places.
EDUCATING FOR THE FUTURE
I suspect that there are three forms of activity that no device is ever going to be able to do as well as our brain with its 5 x 109 cortical connections, and I would suggest that these three represent what will be special about education for the future.
The first is that we shall probably want to train individuals not for the performance of routine activities that can be done with great skill and precision by devices, but rather to train their individual talents for research and development, which is one of the kinds of activities for which you cannot easily program computers. Here I mean research and development in the sense of problem finding rather than problem solving. If we want to look ahead to what is special about a school, we should ask how to train generations of children to find problems, to look for them. I recall that wonderful prescription of the English Platonist, Weldon, to the effect that there are three kinds of things in the world: There are troubles which we do not know quite how to handle; then there are puzzles with their clear conditions and unique solutions, marvelously elegant; and then there are problems—and these we invent by finding an appropriate puzzle form to impose upon a trouble.
What this entails for education is necessarily somewhat obscure although its outlines may be plain. For one thing, it places a certain emphasis on the teaching of interesting puzzle forms: ways of thinking that are particularly useful for converting troubles into problems. These are familiar enough in any given field of knowledge: they are the useful abstractions. What is needed is a sense of how to teach their use in converting chaotic messes into manageable problems. Much of the attraction of the use of discovery in teaching comes, I suspect, from the realization of the need to equip students in this way.
A second special requirement for education in the future is that it provides training in the performance of “unpredictable services.” By unpredictable services, I mean performing acts that are contingent on a response made by somebody or something to your prior act. Again, this falls in the category of tasks that we shall do better than automata for many years to come. I include here the role of the teacher, the parent, the assistant, the stimulator, the rehabilitator, the physician in the great sense of that term, the friend, the range of things that increase the richness of individual response to other individuals. I propose this as a critical task, for as the society becomes more interdependent, more geared to technological requirements, it is crucial that it not become alienated internally, flat emotionally, and gray. Those who fret and argue that we are bound to go dead personally as we become proficient technically have no more basis for their assertion than traditional romanticism. Recall that the nineteenth century that witnessed the brunt of the Industrial Revolution also produced that most intimate form, the modern novel.
Third, what human beings can produce and no device can is art—in every form: visual art, the art of cooking, the art of love, the art of walking, the art of address, going beyond adaptive necessity to find expression for human flair.
These three—research and development, unpredictable services, and the arts—represent what surely will be the challenge to a society which has our capacity to provide technical routine. I assume we shall teach the technical routines, for that is built into our evolving system. Will we be daring enough to go beyond to the cultivation of the uniquely
More on Bruner, constructivism, and its relevance for the future of education in posts to come.