From factory to garden: Changing the 21st century educational narrative

Text Aubrey Yee
Thread School of the Future

In the year 2030, my oldest child will graduate high school. In 2050, she will be approximately the age I am in 2017. I can remember vividly when the year 2000, let alone the year 2030, felt like a far-off dream: something from science fiction. Between now and 2030, my daughter, along with countless other children, will transit through an educational system deeply in flux; a system that is struggling to emerge from the industrial era when public school as a state-mandated concept was invented to ensure a steady supply of well prepared factory workers. Prior to the industrial era, school was not a guaranteed right of all citizens. Beyond basic education, Universities were not the ubiquitous, big businesses that they are today, and it was not expected that a majority of people would ever attain education at that level.

As the second decade of the 21st century winds to a close, we face an entirely new and emerging situation in which the prevailing educational system, based as it is in standardized testing, rote memorization, bell schedules and curved grading, is no longer serving our young people. The world is in the midst of a massive evolution, from an industrialized economy to something post-industrialized, though what exactly it will become is yet to be fully understood.

Massive shifts in technology are creating huge ripples of change. The automation of the workforce through robotics and artificial intelligence, technologies like 3-D and 4-D printing, synthetic biology and quantum computing are changing the way that we do and make almost everything. These technologies are so new and so rapidly changing that we cannot accurately begin to predict what the jobs of the future will be, or if there will be many traditional jobs left at all. And we have a host of other uncertaintiesto consider like climate change, population and demographic shifts, growing income inequality and political instabilities.

What to do in a deeply uncertain and rapidly changing world like ours? What do our kids need to know and what is the purpose of their education? Rather than thinking of education as a way to impart knowledge in a world where virtually anything can be Googled, what if we viewed the educational experience as a process for developing children’s ability to better know themselves, to better interpret and critique the world around them, and to endow them with skills that enable them to understand, investigate and address the challenges and opportunities that will continue to evolve throughout their lifetime? In this sort of education, we would put a much greater emphasis on teaching certain “soft skills” as we simultaneously expose children to the foundations of reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science and the arts. In this educational paradigm, we would make sure to weave in the skills that will help our children navigate an unknown and uncertain future:

Empathy – to work with others in constant and shifting collaborations.

Ethics – to think beyond themselves and see their work in the world as service to others.

Critical thinking – to take in information from a variety of sources and senses and ask deeper questions that help uncover the root source of an issue as well as the diverse perspectives at play.

Self-Awareness – not to find a job and fit into it, but to build a life vocation that best fits you. To know what brings you the most joy and how you will be able to serve others.

Confidence – to land in the midst of uncertainty and navigate change without fear.

Presence – to be in and appreciate the present moment for whatever it may be.

Genealogy & Foresight – to understand yourself, your place and your kuleana. To see both how we arrived at the present moment and where we may be collectively headed.

To meet the needs of our young people, the schools of the future will need to look very different than the schools of today. A big part of our challenge is the stuck-ness of our structures. We have inherited physical infrastructures that are tailored to an industrial era economy. The emerging post-industrial world doesn’t fit in our brick buildings with chairs and desks facing front.

We have public institutions managing education from the state to the national level that are enmeshed in systems of standardization and bureaucracy which are too entrenched and calcified to move with grace through this transition. Imagining our way through to a new paradigm while we face the concurrent reality of declining public budgets and scattered political will is going to take a great deal of ingenuity and courage, as well as a hearty dose of persistence.

And yet, everywhere we look we can see examples of brave visionaries creating new pathways for education. Some of the signs that education is shifting include widespread dissatisfaction with high-stakes testing, increase in home school or partial home school, apprenticeships, non-traditional college, online education, non-traditional charter schools, and ‘āina- or place-based education.

No matter how you look at it, one thing is very clear: education for the future will not be one-size-fits-all. The narrative of the factory is giving way to a narrative of the garden.

Our job as parents and educators today is to recognize, cultivate and support each child’s natural talent and passion so that they may positively add to the ecosystem of their community as that community continues to evolve and morph around them. Imagining a cycle of learning for resilience in an uncertain world, I can see a series of steps that are less content-driven and much more process-oriented. Teaching our children not what to know, but how to learn and how to evolve:


What might an educational system based on these principles look like, feel like, be like? How might we transform existing structures to meet the needs of the future rather than being stuck in a vision of the past? Imagining these new schools and getting to the root of what education is actually meant to do for our children and for our greater world is one the most fundamentally important tasks we have today. The future—our children’s future—literally depends on it.


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