Education Opinion

Our New Global Educational Context

By Marc Prensky — September 22, 2014 3 min read
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People often ask me why it is so important that our education be different for the new millennium we are in — given that it has generally worked well in its current form in the past.

Why shouldn’t we just keep trying to educate more people with our current curriculum, while improving the teaching of that curriculum incrementally with technology, charters and other innovations, and adding a few missing pieces like “21st century skills” (innovation, entrepreneurship, etc.), more STEM (or STEAM), new approaches like Bill Gates’ “Big History”, and so forth. That’s, of course, exactly what almost all our “education reformers” are doing. It’s not wrong, but it’s not even close to being enough.

The reason it’s not enough is that our educational context has changed so radically.

What served us well in the past — the old literacy and numeracy, the “old core” of math, language, science and social studies content, plus a few underlying skills like critical thinking — is no longer what we should be offering today’s kids — even if we improve how we deliver that old curriculum.

What we need is not incremental improvement, it’s an alternative education that better fits the new educational context.

Here, and in other posts this week I will sketch out what I see as the key elements of the New Educational Context. Then, in future posts I will describe the kind of education that I think will work far better — for all kids — in that context.

Our New Educational Context

In addition to the world’s being much more crowded than when many of today’s adults were educated (3x the number of people on the planet than when I was growing up) I see four principal elements of the “new educational context.”

The first is VUCA, standing for greatly increased Variability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity in the world. (It’s a military and business acronym.)

The second is the accelerated time frame of change. What used to take decades, years or hours, now often take minutes and nanoseconds. Change is not just faster, it’s speeding up. Not only can we do more in less time — but, more often than not, we’re expected to.

These first two contextual changes often lead to the higher levels of anxiety and stress that many, young and old, are experiencing in the new context. However the next two elements of the new educational context, have, I believe, the potential to mitigate some of that stress. They are:

Extended Brains: Technology is extending our minds and mental capabilities, just as in the past it extended our physical capabilities. We are, with technology, different and much more capable people.

A networked world (i.e. the Internet). For the first time in human history, individuals — all individuals, potentially — are connected not only to the world’s knowledge, but to one another.

The possibilities offered by these second two factors are enormous, and we are still in the infancy of understanding them. Huge new opportunities for individual and collective action are afforded to our children.

Will an education designed for an earlier context — a time of far less VUCA, a slower pace of change, unextended brains and far fewer, and weaker, connections — work for our times and the times going forward, or will it hold us back?

My view is that our kids ARE being held back by today’s education — less by HOW we teach them, than by WHAT we teach them. We must, to best serve our children, fundamentally re-think what we offer as our education.

We must adapt our education’s content to the New Educational Context.

The good news is that adapting to a new context is something that we are all capable of and experienced in doing — as humans, we do it, to some extent, every day. Whenever something changes in our context (new job, new place, new family member) we know we must embrace the changes, and adapt to them as quickly as possible in order to be successful.

This is precisely what we all must now do to succeed in our new educational context. Upcoming posts will discuss the new context in more detail, and will offer both short-term and long-term suggestions for what we can do to adapt.

As always, your comments are welcome.


The opinions expressed in Prensky’s Provocative Ed-Tech Thinking are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.