Beyond Future-Proofing: Re-Imagining School for a Connected World

The primary challenge facing educators today is not to teach “new literacies,” but rather, to find ways to prepare tomorrow’s citizens with adequate habits-of-mind for a connected world. They need to learn to make use of language, knowledge, and academic content within the context of new social, cultural, and economic paradigms. In this provocative keynote session, Jordan Shapiro will take us on a disruptive tour of past, present, and future—helping us discover what really matters as we re-imagine education paradigms for a world of predictive algorithms, block chains, and artificial intelligence.

Although we often think of “context” as if it were some sort of abstract cultural or historical zeitgeist, the reality is much simpler. For humans, context is all about how we use a specific set of tools to intellectually, emotionally, and materially fabricate our world. Digital, online, and blended tools are the new context.

The problem for educators is that it’s hard to design radically new schooling structures when we’re confused about what needs to be taught. We are now almost twenty percent of the way through a new century, and yet we’re still told that we must equip the next generation with flexibility skills—prepare them to adapt to an economy that the grownups can’t yet imagine. Of course, it’s true; we should make sure folks are ready for what’s to come. But it’s absurd to boil it all down to “flexibility.” For one thing, humans build tools. Tools don’t build us. And learning outcomes shouldn’t cater to an unstoppable cycle of planned obsolescence. Moreover, the future has always been uncertain. Even in 500 BC, living in a seemingly slower-paced world, Heraclitus of Ephesus recognized that “nothing is permanent except change.”

Unpredictability is not unique to our time. Nor is the current rate of progress exceptional. Flexibility and adaptability have always been the keys to future-proofing the next generation. These are the very reasons we send them to school in the first place. We know that the past is full of wisdom, ingenuity, and ideas that need to be transmitted from one generation to the next. We also know that values, skills, and concepts will need to be adjusted so that they remain meaningful and applicable even in ever-changing contexts.

Vannevar Bush put it nicely in his famous 1945 essay, “As We May Think”—a work that’s often called out as the conceptual inspiration for the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that drives the world wide web. As the first US Presidential science advisor, Bush initiated the Manhattan Project and lobbied Congress to establish the National Science Foundation. He knew, even decades before the internet existed, that information technologies are only useful to the extent that they ensure “knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.” (Bush) Even without seeing his vision of the future realized, Bush somehow understood exactly what twenty-first century grownups often forget: the internet is just a memory tool. One that allows us to build on the past in exciting new ways.

Jordan Shapiro, PhD is a world-renowned thought-leader on global policy and education. He’s currently senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, where he coordinates research and advocacy around digital technology and playful education. His Forbes’ column on global education, learning through digital play, kids and culture was read by over 5 million people around the world, also resulting in a Twitter following (@jordosh) of more than 116,000. He’s an internationally celebrated speaker and consultant whose fresh perspective combines psychology, philosophy, and economics in unexpected ways. 

Shapiro works as a consultant for the United States Air Force, helping to make sure Air University’s officer training and professional military education remains pedagogically and technologically relevant in a rapidly changing world. He has been a pioneer in new online adult education at Thomas Edison State University, where he developed their soon-to-be-released flagship course “Critical Thinking with Video Games.” He is also a member of Teach For All’s Global Advisory Council and has been an expert adviser to UNESCO and the World Economic Forum. 

He authored KQED’s popular “Mindshift Guide to Digital Games and Learning” and the soon-to-be-released “Guide to Digital Play for Global Citizens” created in partnership with Sesame Workshop and The Asia Society. During the week, you can find him in the classroom at Temple University, where he teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program and designed the online version of the university’s core curriculum.

Jordan lives in Philadelphia with his two sons. His forthcoming book, The New Childhood: How Kids Can Live, Learn, and Love in a Connected World, will be published by Little, Brown, and Company in early 2019.