Preparing Future-Ready Learners
By: Dr. Olaf Jorgenson, ACDS Head of School
It's no surprise to those of us who live in Silicon Valley that we're riding an accelerating bullet train of change. Our relationship with technology exemplifies this; for example, Almaden Country Day School alums currently pursuing computer engineering degrees at college report it's common for the technology they study in the fall to be in the virtual display case by the end of the spring term.
This torrential pace of change makes the future less predictable than at perhaps any time in modern history. In 1982, entrepreneur and inventor Buckminster Fuller estimated the rate at which human knowledge doubles, determining that until 1900 this took 100 years. By 1945, it was 25 years, and when Fuller did his calculations, all that we know doubled about every year. Some futurists now estimate with the Internet as its turbocharger, human knowledge is currently doubling every 12 hours.
To put that in perspective, given a terabyte is a million million bytes of information, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently estimated the Internet consists of about five billion terabytes, the amount of the Internet indexed by Google is only .004% of its current capacity.
All of this is contextual for parents, as we together prepare children for a future we struggle to envision, featuring college majors and jobs that haven't been invented yet.
I recently attended a workshop given by an AI expert and computational neuropsychologist. She made the distinction between "well-posed" and "ill-posed" problems, and the ways in which schools are called to adapt their instructional models to help children solve both types. Simply put, well-posed problems adhere to a system, and a unique solution exists that depends on data. An ill-posed problem does not adhere to a system and may have multiple solutions.
It makes sense that training students to answer well-posed problems (in pursuit of a single correct answer, like a multiple-choice test), or to memorize and apply algorithms following a linear path to a solution, will not prepare them to address the ill-posed problems that proliferate in our 21st century society, economy, and workspace.
Ill-posed problems, like their cousins, dilemmas, require ingenuity, creativity, imagination, empathy, resilience, and interpersonal skills to contend with. Ill-posed problems may have multiple possible solutions, or none at all, in which case they need to be managed instead of "solved." And while children must be provided a foundation of core knowledge and information upon which creativity, imagination, and entrepreneurial mindsets build, a model of schooling that focuses overwhelmingly on content mastery and rote memorization is not in itself an adequate preparation for children today. Yet, this latter model is in fact the dominant paradigm in education now, especially in America's high schools.
At the center of our efforts, then – in addition to a firm grasp of key content matter – we must cultivate in our students the independence and agency necessary to confidently manage unfamiliarity and ambiguity, the curiosity and wonder to ask questions and question answers, and the resilience to thrive in uncertainty. These are vital skills that for many parents appear intangible and immeasurable, so they can struggle to assign them value in a school setting as we might with math facts and literary analysis, AP and SAT scores, and high school or college admissions placement.
Awash as we may be in our anxiety about how best to support children in the face of an unknown future, it's a good bet that if we empower and train them to take the unknown and transform it into generative, useful, hopeful ends, they will be both successful and happy in their lives. This entails expecting children to gradually take the lead in their own learning, to apply their innate curiosity (as we simultaneously limit unnecessary stress and competition that impair imagination) so they feel confident with risk-taking, making mistakes, and finding ways around obstacles. It is no longer enough for 21st century schools to cultivate "problem solvers"; we need problem explorers.
That's what we do, with parents as our partners, at Almaden Country Day School and others in our state and nation that recognize the need for a broader definition of future-ready learners.