Futurist Thomas Frey: When we think about Benjamin Franklin, we instantly think of the author, scientist, inventor, diplomat who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence and has his face on the one-hundred dollar bill. Ben Franklin was a truly remarkable person, yet he had less than two years of formal education.
I recently came across a study that examined the lives of 755 famous people who either dropped out of grade school or high school. The list included 25 billionaires, 8 U.S. Presidents, 10 Nobel Prize winners, 8 Olympic medal winners, 63 Oscar winners, 55 best-selling authors, and 31 who had been Knighted.
With names like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Will Rogers, and Joseph Pulitzer, being an academic failure still left you in the company of some incredible luminaries.
Going one step further, adding the names of well-known college dropouts to the list, names like Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bill Gates, Buckminster Fuller, Larry Ellison, Howard Hughes, Michael Dell, Ted Turner, Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, and virtually every famous actor, actress, and director in Hollywood, and the dropout list becomes a venerable Who’s Who of American culture.
So what are we missing here? On one hand we are being told that the path to success is through academia. Yet, we have literally thousands of examples of wealthy, successful, business leaders, industry icons, and some of our greatest heroes that took a different route.
Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones
A while back I came across the term “self-licking ice cream cones.” It caught my attention because it conjures up a rather comical image in my head.
A “self-licking ice cream cone” is a term used to describe organizations that serve no purpose in life other than to sustain themselves. One of the telltale signs for spotting this type of organization is the prominent display of academic credentials by its leaders.
These organizations have the right look and feel of something legitimate, but tend to go over the top as a way to convince the world they’re doing something legitimate. And somewhere in the mix is a sense of entitlement that comes from all their credentialing.
Certainly this is not to say there is anything wrong with people who are proud of their university degrees. But the true trailblazers are far more focused on their next accomplishment rather than the trappings of where they’ve come from.
Four Fundamental Myths
The pace of change is demanding that we produce a faster, smarter, better grade of human being. Our current education systems are preventing that from happening.
Education today is far too slow and far too expensive.
Information is growing at exponential rates, and our ability to convert that information into useful knowledge and skills is being hampered by some fundamental myths about the parts and processes students need to learn.
In the future, learning will become hyper-individualized with students learning what they want, when they want to learn it. That’s not possible with the clunky systems currently in place.
Those learning impediments will eventually go away, but not until we can overcome the following four myths.
1.) Students cannot learn without teachers
Education has traditionally consisted of two fundamental elements: teaching and learning. From an operational standpoint, the greatest emphasis has always been on improving the quality of the teaching, figuring the learning will take care of itself.
While lecture-style teaching has been used for centuries to build today’s literate and competent society, it ends up being a highly inefficient system ill-suited for the coming hyper-individualized, on-demand learning systems of the future.
Over the coming decade we will begin to see a marked shift from teaching to learning, with online instruction taking the place of most teachers. The primary goal will be to bridge the gulf between experts and students, making this “learning from the experts” as seamless and timely as possible.
The critical point to understand is that teaching requires experts, but learning only requires coaches.
Coaches don’t need to be the topical expert on every subject. Rather, they need to be process experts with a great penchant for finding answers whenever a student gets stuck.
Not all teachers will go away, but many will. Tasks and duties will shift over time.
In general, the number of coaches needed for future schools will be less than the number of teachers currently employed, but we won’t know exactly how many fewer until future experimentation is done.
Some coaches will operate virtually, appearing when needed. Others will be resident advisors to help in situations where only a physical person makes sense.
2.) Learning does not happen outside of the classroom
In 2008, Roger Bohn and James Short, two researchers at the University of California in San Diego, decided to do a study to determine how much information people have entering their brains on a daily basis.
Everyone today is being exposed to vast amounts of information, and their study was intended to quantify the amount of information we are all being immersed in.
But they added a rather interesting twist to the study. Because of the varying forms of information, and the difficulty in comparing video to magazines and newspapers, they decided to convert all information into one standard form of measurement – words.
Based on their final 2009 report, the average person in the U.S. has 100,500 words flowing into their heads on a daily basis. And this number is increasing by 2.6% per year.
So where are all these words coming from? In rough terms, 41% comes from watching television, 27% – computers, 11% – radio, 9% – print media, 6% – telephone conversations, and smaller amounts from recorded music, movies, games, and other information sources.
As it turns out, the average American spends 11.8 hours every day consuming information. Many other countries are posting similar numbers. People today are being exposed to far more information than ever in the past.
Buried deep within the “other category,” constituting far less than 1% is our formal education. Even for students attending college, their classroom studies constitute a relatively small percentage of the information they are exposed to on a daily basis.
Most educational institutions haven’t found a good way to leverage the current data streams flowing into the minds of students, instead simply regarding it as irrelevant.
Somewhere in the middle of all these information streams is the next next next big thing waiting to be mined.
3.) Completion equals competency
Just because you’ve competed a course doesn’t mean you know how to apply the information.
The college process today has been designed around helping students transition from coddled family life to contributing members of society, self reliant and confident in the choices they will make.
They graduate with a complex set of experiences that have taken place against a backdrop of scholarly moments in a classroom.
This quest to achieve greater understanding cannot be achieved by simply reading books and taking courses. It can only be realized through the struggles involved in a personal journey – a journey that requires far more than cognitive reasoning and test-taking, but hands-on problem solving, working on real-life situations that matter, in moments of stress and dire urgency.
Without the struggle, the stress, and the urgency, people only surface knowledge to ply forward.
4.) When you graduate, you are done learning
Who is it that came up with the notion that someone’s education is ever finished? This is the single biggest flaw in our system today.
One of the core principals of business is to never sever ties with good customers. So why is it that colleges hand their graduates a diploma, dissolving all formal relations with them? Clearly educational needs do not end, and the student’s allegiance to the institution does not end, yet all income streams are broken.
The biggest failure point here is that colleges need to charge unreasonably high tuition rates for the short duration of their student-college relationship, when the learning and payments can more easily be spread out over a lifetime. The fact is that most students continue to pay off their student loans over their lifetime with only distant memories of what they learned.
In most cases, the value of the learning has become obsolete by the time the final bill has been paid. If it wasn’t for government guarantees, banks would be considered terrible collateral.
What will Tomorrow Bring?
Until now, students have been motivated to attend college for very selfish reasons. They are looking for prestige, status, and jobs that pay lots of money. It is my contention that the “good life” motivation is far too shallow for the world that lies ahead.
Rather than a world with people fighting people, the true battles that lie ahead will test us on every conceivable level. On the grandest of scales, we will find ourselves confronted with forces larger than our entire solar system, and on the tiniest of scales, nanotechnology and sub-atomic particles will confound us with challenges we never dreamed could exist. These battles will require far more than brilliant minds, personal tenacity, and military might.
The students of tomorrow will need to be prepared for a higher calling. This higher calling will be to pre-empt crisis before it occurs, anticipate disasters before they happen, and solve some of mankind’s greatest problems, starting with the problem of our own ignorance.
Much like a person walking through a dark forest with a flashlight that illuminates but a short distance ahead, each step forward gives a new perspective by adding light to what was previously dark. The students of tomorrow need to have a bigger flashlight.
Until now, ours has been a dance with the ordinary. History shows us that we are immersed in cycles, systems, and patterns that repeat again and again.
Tomorrow’s history books will show us that patterns are made to be broken, and our cycles are waiting to be transformed.
Colleges will need to position themselves on the bleeding edge of what comes next. We will always need one eye on the past to understand where we have come from, but a new breed of visionaries, equipped with unusual tools for preempting disasters, will become our most esteemed professionals.
If there were one phrase that best describes the mission of future colleges and universities, it would be this: “Preparing humanity for worlds unknown, preparing our minds for thoughts unthinkable, and preparing our resolve for struggles unimaginable.”
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything.