Inspecting for Signs of Decay

I’ve come to read predictions about the future of work with a healthy skepticism. So much click bait. So much preying on fears. So much focused on the technologies instead of the choices we make about the technologies. So much…period.

Today more than ever we need to be careful consumers of what’s being written about change. That’s especially true when we consume it through the lens of being educators trying to figure out what our kids will need to navigate those changes. That’s why more and more I find myself drawn to longer form, narrative journalism that makes a real effort to mine some truth from a sea of uncertainty. And I have more trust in authors who freely admit that they don’t really know what the truth may end up being, but they’re willing to share the best evidence they can find in that search.

Which leads me to this Atlantic piece by Jerry Useem titled “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor.” If his well-researched, thoughtful conclusions are true, it’s even more evidence that we’re currently trying to do the “wrong thing righter” in schools.

The general thesis regarding the future of work here is this: the arc is toward problem-solving generalists rather than those with specialized expertise. To be succinct, that means we are going to need more and more people who are quick learners rather than those who are deeply learned. “Learning on the job” will take on a whole new meaning. While “specializations” like doctors and lawyers will still need a deep knowledge base, even they will be expected to learn at an accelerating pace. The most attractive employees will exhibit “mental agility,” the ability to “pivot,” “comfort with ambiguity,” and will be “open to new experiences.”

So, let me ask it right here: are those qualities ones we’re currently developing in our students?

“Career Readiness”

No doubt, school should be much more than about preparing kids for work. But let’s face it; most schools are all in on “college and career readiness,” though few ever take the time to clearly articulate what that last part means. (And even fewer actually live whatever they articulate in practice.) I mean, what if those qualities listed above were where we started when thinking about the school experience? Imagine the complexity of the environments we’d have to create that would get to those outcomes. (Interestingly, Useem suggests that “grit” and dogged perseverance (a la 10,000 hours) can leave us “ill-equipped” in situations with rapidly changing rules and roles. Imagine that.)

The larger suggestion here that expertise will increasingly become less and less attractive is a tough one accept on many levels. I’m sure college presidents read that with little joy. But even in the K-12 world where we “expose” our students to lots of different topics and subjects, the idea that we should focus more on learning than knowing is a huge challenge. We don’t have cultures and systems that privilege learning ahead of knowing. As much as we say we want “lifelong learners,” can anyone point me to a measurement of that? Anyone touting a “lifelong learning” assessment ahead of standardized test or AP scores?

It would be exciting to think that collectively as a profession we could reframe our work inside of schools as the world outside of school reframes its narrative. I find it hard to read a quote like “‘Employers are looking less at what you know and more and more at your hidden potential’ to learn new things” and not find more motivation to rethink things.

Expertise as an Obstacle

And that’s the meta piece to this that concerns me most: are we in schools looking for those qualities above in the people we ourselves are hiring for leadership or classroom positions? “Stop hiring people based on their work experience,” this article suggests. “Because in these environments, expertise can become an obstacle.” We’re still more attracted to people who will make ambiguity go away in schools, people who will maintain the status quo, not pivot.

Which leads me to the line in this piece that kinda stopped me cold. According to a Yale study, “All too often experts…fail to inspect their knowledge structure for signs of decay.” That resonates so deeply with me about education. It’s not that no one reflects or learns from the day to day of teaching. But most do that learning without “inspecting” the more existential questions that this moment demands. These aren’t new to this space, but they bear repeating:

What is the value of schools now that almost all of our curriculum, almost all of the knowledge we test for is ubiquitously available?

What is the role of the teacher at a moment where more and more, people (read: kids) teach themselves?

What systems and structures that currently drive the school experience are no longer relevant? And how do we modernize them?

In this moment, what do children need to be able to do to thrive in whatever world is ahead of them?

But don’t miss the more profound implication of that quote: if we’re not looking for “signs of decay,” we’re not learning. We’re not being the quick, agile, open learners that we need our students to become. And if we’re not in cultures that are supportive and expectant of that type of ongoing inspection, then we’ll continue to prepare our kids for a world that no longer exists.

No educator that I know at least wants that to be the reality in schools. But increasingly, this seems to be the case nonetheless. And if we’re not willing to “go there,” it’s only going to get worse.

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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