The Future of Learning

by talkbackty on Aug 21, 2012

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." ~Alvin Toffler

Our knowledge and understanding of the world is increasing exponentially. Barely a week goes by without a new discovery being heralded by our best and brightest. The world, or rather our perception of it, is in a constant state of flux. Yet our systems do not reflect this fact. We live in a series of 19th and 20th century systems that try to handle our 21st century realities. Those systems will fail. Some by gradual transition, others by paradigm shifts that will immediately disintegrate their necessity. We must prepare for that reality.

The public education system was created as a direct response to industrialization. As industry grew, a large and educated workforce was needed to fuel the fires of our nation's largest factories. The mantra at the time, and one that still permeates modern education, was 'reading, writing and arithmetic' or the "three R's". If you went to any public school in the world, chances are you're familiar with the three R's.

As Toffler suggested, the 21st century will be one where the illiterates are those who can not learn, unlearn and relearn. The most dangerous thing that can happen to someone living in the 21st century is that they believe they can stop learning. The reasoning is simple, those who do not change will be left behind.

Let's use economics as an example. Both Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were titans of the home video market. While local stores existed, these two franchises were the go to for an entire country's rental entertainment. Today, they both have closed thousands of stores and limp around, practically begging for customers. Neither anticipated the power of the internet or of streaming technologies. They relied on their 20th century knowledge while trying to operate in a 21st century world. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were left behind, but the same thing can happen to an individual.

Quantum computing, personalized medicine, generation 4 nuclear power, 3D printing, robotics, nanotechnology, global intelligence. That's seven paradigm shifting, viewpoint-shattering developments that will happen within my lifetime. Those are the easy ones to predict. There's a host of things we do not know about that will rock our collective consciousness. What we do know is this: We must be prepared to change our minds.

The most important thing for us to do is change our approach to knowledge. It never ends. We can not stop learning. We can not believe that school is the only place where learning happens. Because of exponential growth it no longer takes a lifetime to feel out of touch, it takes a decade. In a few decades that time will shrink further, and those who can not adapt will be left behind in the span of a year. And it is those who are left behind we will deem illiterate. Too stubborn to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Let us not be left behind.