In an engaging, thought-provoking, and often amusing keynote speech, futurist and author Andrew Zolli captured the attention of educators at the opening of the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta on June 24.
His speech had two parts. In the first half, he explained why it’s “imperative” for educators to encourage students’ innate creativity.
“You are shifting our whole civilization onto a new platform,” he told attendees, using a metaphor the audience was familiar with to describe the changes in society brought on by advancements in technology. “We’re watching an exponential curve … an amazing set of shifts.”
Two key ideas underlie these shifts, Zolli said: Everything that can be done by machine (eventually) will be, and many more things will be able to be done by machine than we now think.
“What happens when we’re successful?” he asked attendees. In other words, what would the world look like if everything we needed were easy, fast, and cheap? “What is left to humanity is the essence of the creative spirit,” he answered–and it’s that creative spirit that educators need to nurture in their students.
These capabilities are latent in all of us, Zolli said. He illustrated his point with an example from science. Scientists, he said, now have the ability to “shut off” various parts of the brain temporarily, and in one research experiment, scientists turned off various inhibitors and had subjects draw a picture of a dog. In almost all cases, he noted, the subjects’ drawings were much more rich in details than they were capable of before the experiment.
“We all have to find our own creative center,” Zolli concluded. “The good news is, science tells us it’s there.”
He discussed five strategies that organizations–including schools–can use to inspire creativity and innovation: thinking, observing, playing, imagining, and networking. Organizations that are going to be hiring today’s students need to master all five of these strategies, he said. And it’s the latter of these strategies–thinking in terms of networks–that organizations, and especially schools, need new training in.
In the second half of his speech, drawing on fields as diverse as demographics and psychology, Zolli outlined five key trends that are shaping education’s future. And it’s clear from these trends that creativity and innovation aren’t just necessary for students: Educators, too, will need these traits to cultivate new approaches to teaching and learning.
The first of these trends is what Zolli called “demographic transformation.” The world and U.S. populations are changing in ways that will have profound effects on education by the year 2025, he noted.
For example, the world is becoming increasingly urban, and many of the largest cities in the world soon will be in east Asia. Women now make up 56 percent of college graduates in the United States, and this figure is rising. The population in the western part of the U.S. is rising at a much faster rate than in the east, and whites will be a minority in the United States within a generation.
“The next generation is going to be more multiethnic and female than ever,” Zolli said–and schools, too, will need to evolve to address these changes.
The second trend Zolli described is a shift in the way we think about our relationship with the natural world–or, as he put it, a growing awareness of “the need to navigate our moment in human civilization in relationship to our ecosystem.” These social forces are going to meet new technological forces, he said–and as a result, “we’re going to see hundreds of examples” of so-called “eco-innovation,” or efforts to “rethink the world.”
As examples of this phenomenon, Zolli cited a plant that scientists have engineered to turn red when its roots come into contact with the chemicals associated with landmines–and “ecotiles” that use the kinetic pressure of your stepping as you walk to power the lights around the town square.
“Someone that you educate,” he said, “… is going to win the Nobel Prize in this century for having solved a problem like this that also makes them a trillionaire.” He added: “That’s the opportunity in front of us.”
The third trend, Zolli said, is a change in our perception of ideal “learning places.”
“We are animals,” he said, and as such, “we have preferred habitats.” These are places that are rich in resources, multisensory and vibrant, adaptable and reusable, and that mix public and private spaces. Zolli then showed a slide of a typical school building, with rows of bland lockers all looking the same.
“We send [students] to a place almost guaranteed to elicit psychosis to a social primate,” he joked. His message: Educators must rethink their learning environments to elicit innovation from students.
The fourth trend is the need to cope with choice and complexity. In our “surplus society,” Zolli said, we’re now awash in choices. A key skill for educators to impart to their students will be the ability to manage these choices.
The final trend is the redefining of what “literacy” means. In our post-Sputnik model of intelligence, Zolli said, you’re smart if you either know more facts than the average person, or you know unique facts that most others don’t know. But as technology evolves and puts knowledge at the fingertips of students, that definition must change.
“Today, when students take the [SAT], they can take a programmable calculator into the test with them–and that’s a bridge to a day when that device contains access to all the world’s present information,” he said. “The question is, what are we testing when we enable people to come in with the cloud of human knowledge behind them?”
It is inevitable that students will bring those tools with them to future tests, he said, and when they do, “we will have changed the nature of what we test to something a lot more like our ability to find, build, and use complex information tools in real time.”
We have nowhere near the metrics we need to measure these skills as of now, Zolli said, implying this is a challenge for educators going forward. But “when you build these [information] tools, you need to be cognizant of the following biases,” he warned, rattling off four: personal issue trump impersonal ones; tangible issues trump intangible ones; the present trumps the past and the future; and desirability trumps responsibility.
“We have to take these [biases] and bake them into metrics that hold us all accountable” for learning in the 21st century, he concluded.