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Future-Focused Education

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,
Don’t stop it’ll soon be here…
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

Christine McVie

Over the summer I wrote about the importance of having an ecosystem that would enable the poor and disadvantaged to succeed – to rise out of poverty. I used a quote from Bobby Unser to identify the key attributes of that ecosystem – preparation and opportunity – and went into some detail about what opportunity is, and isn’t. But opportunity by itself isn’t enough – our enabling ecosystem must help the poor and disadvantaged recognize opportunities and provide them with the tools to seize them.

And that’s where education comes in. A strong educational system is a hallmark of a resilient community. In these communities everyone has a good chance to succeed. Even the poor and disadvantaged are prepared to seize the opportunities that are there for them. While there are already too many voices screaming out what an education should be, let me softly come at it from a slightly different direction.

Obviously, I’m not an educational expert (I’m sure some of you sometimes wonder if I’m even educated, or an expert in anything). But what I think we all need to focus on is education for what. That’s why the song lyrics from Fleetwood Mac – the what is to be ready for whatever tomorrow brings. I want our kids – all of them – to be ready to be able to survive and thrive in the world to come. And I want them – all of them – focused on their futures, and not dwelling on their parents’ past. After all, yesterday’s gone…

A farmer in 1800 would be doing things much the same as his forefathers in the 16 and 1700’s. By 1900, he would be very uncomfortable with the mechanization of farming, but would still recognize many of the basics he knew. That same farmer really would be lost in the world of precision farming based on information technology we have today. Further, he would not be able to cope with the accelerating pace of change in our world; that didn’t happen in his.

So, to me, a future-focused education has to provide the following:

An accurate understanding of the path to the present and possible futures. As I’ve often said before, trajectory doesn’t have to be destiny, but it takes action to set a different course. To be future-focused means knowing how we got where we are, where the world is heading and what its drivers are. This means our education system has to provide an accurate picture of what we know about our past and our present and where the world may be going. That picture can’t be black and white; whether we like it or not, we’re awash in a world of grey. And the picture shouldn’t be just shades of red or blue.

To be more concrete, let me use climate change as an example. The global climate is changing; it is getting warmer on average, and has been (by fits and starts) since the 1700s. Sea levels are rising on average. But the sea level at some locations is actually falling; some locations are actually seeing a long-term cooling trend. Students need to understand what is happening to their local climate. Coastal development coupled with poor land use decisions has resulted in greater devastation due to storms, i.e., the number and intensity of the storms we’re having has stayed about the same but the damage is greater. Students need to be taught the facts not just about climate but about the drivers that have put so many people and so much property in harm’s way.

The ability to learn. The amount of new knowledge is growing exponentially; there is no sign that this is abating. No one can expect to grasp all of it. But being future-focused requires that we are able to restock our mental shelves with new information and cast aside what’s no longer useful. Many have talked about the skills and sources that are necessary for continued learning; often overlooked is the personal element that has to underlie their use. Our education has to help us to find our place in the global kaleidoscope. If we know that and understand the world around us and how it might change we can begin to apply the general lessons of how to learn to gain the knowledge we will need for future success.

Opportunities to form networks. We humans are social animals. For most of us, the networks we form are important components of our success. Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate to have lots of chances to network. As a kid I played football and baseball and soccer in school; I acted in plays; I worked on the high school yearbook. Throughout my life, the networks I’ve formed have provided social and emotional support when I needed it, and helped me to what’s been a great career (or three). Very importantly, my networks have been great indicators of future trends for me.

Our educational system needs to help students form their own networks. These are formed naturally through participation in sports teams, special interest clubs (e.g., chess, 4H, computers, gardening), music or drama groups, or junior ROTC. Not all kids will form lifelong networks (you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink) but we need to make sure they have the chance.

Confidence. Confidence is probably the most overlooked component of success (this applies to communities as well). If you have the confidence of accomplishment you’re more likely to take steps to better yourself. No matter how benevolent our governments, the poor ultimately have to take the steps to lift themselves out of poverty. That means they need to have accomplished something or have developed some special skills (forming networks is one of those skills) to give them the confidence to act to better themselves. Participation in network-forming activities can provide this confidence, but there are other ways – sports, academics, home ec (for women and men), shop (ditto) – where accomplishment can lead to confidence.

In a previous post I noted that kids need “the experience of working with their hands. We have too many who took on too much debt going for a college education that hasn’t prepared them for a career. We need people in the crafts and trades – especially when disaster strikes. Roofers, plumbers, electricians even at the bottom of their professional ladders make much more than the poverty level, giving them the chance to accumulate some wealth.” Becoming confident is arguably more important than simply acquiring academic skills; we’ve all seen examples of kids with high grades who had virtually no life skills or street smarts.

Communication skills. Whether you’re a plumber or a CEO, you have to acquire information if you’re to succeed, especially as the world changes around you. That means you have to be able to read. In a networked world, you have to rely on others sometimes; that means learning to write and to speak coherently. Public speaking is probably the most basic of these skills; it needs to have greater emphasis in education. And our globalized world increases the value of being able to speak a foreign language.

Financial literacy. In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of being able to handle money. All children need to become financially literate. Ignorance leads to bad decisions in handling money which leads to a lack of reserves when times get bad. This is especially important for the poor; they have less to manage and the greatest need to manage their money wisely.

Technological literacy. Information technology has been the greatest accelerant of change the world has ever seen. However, we are on the cusp of even greater change brought on by the intersection of information technology, psychology and the health sciences. The nature of work will change; life spans will potentially become much longer; how we learn will change. In other words, technology will continue to be a major change agent shaping our futures. Technological literacy thus has to be a key component of a future-focused education.

Ultimately, community resilience is predicated on people and institutions ready to take on the future. That’s why education is more important now than at any time in the past. But education cannot simply be a presentation of a panoply of facts; it has to be focused on preparing everyone – especially the poor and disadvantaged – for the future. Unless the young acquire the knowledge and skills I’ve listed, they will be ill-equipped to deal with future change. And thus our communities will be less resilient. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

The challenged and community resilience

Several years ago, CARRI embarked on a massive undertaking focused on developing – and then testing – a community resilience system.  During a meeting of its Community Leaders Working Group, I was asked why we had included “The community works to maximize the value of those with special challenges” as one of our important community functions.  In fact, two of the most in-my-face questioners (both former mayors of sizable cities) actually accused me of being politically correct (If this were true, it would come as a huge shock to anyone who has ever worked with me, not to mention my wife!).

I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about who are the challenged, and why it makes practical sense for communities to treat them as potential assets, not liabilities.

If we look at our communities today, 5-10 % of the population have some debilitating mental or physical condition.  One in eight Americans receive at least part of their food through food stamps; one in five of our children lives in poverty or extreme poverty.  Those with disabilities are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to live in poverty than those with no disabilities. Fully one-third of those who could be employed have exited the labor force.

After a community is hit by a disaster, recovery makes huge demands on the permanent personnel who actually keep the community running.  More people are needed to remove debris.  More people are needed to handle the flood of permits for rebuilding.  People are needed to reconnect families and to help get services to those who need them.  Many communities meet these needs by hiring “outsiders” to provide these services, but if they do so, they lose in at least two ways. 

  • These communities send the resources to pay for these services outside the community.  Since the federal government will pay for many kinds of temporary workers after a disaster, it makes good sense to hire these workers from within the community – to keep as many precious dollars within the community as possible.  The challenged – particularly the employable unemployed – should be the first resource tapped by a community (To their credit, BP agreed to do just that in southern Louisiana communities affected by the oil spill.).
  • These communities have to spend more of their resources helping the challenged recover from the disaster than they otherwise would. That means much less accomplished with limited resources and possibly a longer recovery period.

In other words, communities who don’t use the challenged to aid in the extraordinary challenges of recovery are turning potential assets into real liabilities.

Thus, by making use of its members who face significant challenges to meet the extraordinary demands of recovery from a disaster, a community can keep dollars in the community while maintaining a more productive and motivated permanent staff.  This isn’t political correctness but enlightened self-interest.