Selling the problem (not just the solution)

For many of us, the transformation of our schools cannot happen fast enough.

We look o51ocKpe-XdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ut a world where we can find out what caused the War of 1812 or why adding salt to water makes it boil hotter with a 10-second Google search, where we can teach ourselves to knit or program computers via YouTube, where we can make conference calls from a wrist watch. And then we wonder why we keep giving kids multiple choice tests that encourage them to think of their world as a closed set of vocabulary terms to be memorized.

It doesn’t add up, and we feel an urgency to make it add up.

I’ve just started reading Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who describe themselves as, among other things, “futurists.” And the book reminds me of some advice I once received: be sure to sell the problem, not just the solution.

Check out chapter 1 from the Tofflers here, and an excerpt below. It’s not the “solution” we need for our schools, but it’s an energizing conceptualization of the “problem.” I’m daunted, but also inspired, by the 21st century we want to help our kids navigate.

History records endless examples of “revolutions” that replaced old technologies and even governments without significantly altering society itself and the people in it. By contrast, real revolutions replace institutions as well as technologies. And they do more: they break down and re-organize what social psychologists call the “role structure” of society.

Today traditional roles are changing at high speed in many countries transitioning to knowledge economies. The roles of husbands and wives… parents and children… professors and students… bosses and workers… of in-laws and activists, executives and team leaders all have psychological as well as economic implications. At issue are not merely a person’s tasks or functions, but the social expectations that come with them.

On and off the job, the result is rising ambiguity, high uncertainty, complexity and conflict as tasks and titles are continuously renegotiated. We see stress and burnout as the roles of doctors and nurse practitioners, lawyers and paralegals, police and community workers, are challenged and redefined to a degree not seen since the advent of the industrial revolution.

Revolutions also smash boundaries. Industrial society set a clear border between life at home and life on the job. Today, for the growing millions who work from home, the line is blurred. Even “who works for whom” is becoming unclear. Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, points out that a significant part of the labor force consists of independent contractors, free agents and others who work in Company A, but are actually employees of Company B.

“In a few years,” says Reich, “a company may be best defined by who has access to what data and who gets what portion of a particular stream of revenues over what period of time. There may be no ’employees’ at all, strictly speaking.”

Academic boundaries are eroding, too. Against enormous resistance, more and more work on the campus is becoming “trans-disciplinary”.

In pop music, border lines between rock, Eastern, hip-hop, techno, retro, disco, big band, tejano and a variety of other genres disappear in “fusion” and “hybridization”. Consumers turn into producers by re-mixing or “sampling” sounds from different bands, different instruments, and different vocals into “mash-ups” — the musical equivalent of collages.

On TV in the U.S., the once-clear line between news and entertainment is being erased as “giggle anchors” joke with each other between headlines and studio audiences applaud. Advertisers insert their messages and products into the story lines of dramas or sitcoms, thus vaporizing the border between entertainment and marketing.

Even sexual boundaries are no longer fixed, as homosexuality and bisexuality blast out of the “closet” and the small population of transsexuals grows. Just ask Riki Anne Wilchins, a Wall Street computer expert who also happens to be what the New York Times described as a “post-operative male-to-female transsexual”. Wilchin heads Gender PAC, a group that lobbies Washington on issues pertaining to gender rights and argues that categorizing people as “he” or “she” is itself oppressive, force-fitting into one of those two roles all those who more accurately fit into neither.

Not all the new roles and rights will survive, as still more economic, technological and social changes avalanche toward us. But anyone who underestimates the revolutionary character of today’s changes is living an illusion.

The world, and not just the U.S., is different.

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Categories: News and Trends, Stage 5: Students as World Changers

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