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Education's Achilles Heel

Dee Dickinson
Margaret Gayle
Rick Smyre
Bob Stott

In 2008, it will have been twenty-five years since the Carnegie Foundation report, A Nation at Risk, first brought attention to the concern that our educational system in the U.S. was not preparing students for a future much different from the past.

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."
As a result, a multitude of teachers, concerned citizens, elected officials and think tanks all over the country have spent millions of hours in their attempt to "reform" education. From individual projects of local school boards to the current national effort called No Child Left Behind, the educational community has struggled to deal with the challenge of creating a 21st century system of learning aligned with the needs of a different kind of society that is in constant change. What is becoming more and more apparent after a quarter of a century is that the task is much more difficult than expected.

The proposition in this paper is that we are faced with a dilemma just beginning to be understood. It is nothing less than our emerging realization that improving traditional educational methods, looking for "the model," and raising standard test scores are ideas suited to the needs of an industrial society, and not for the future. The reality is that the challenge to our education system is to react to a world that we haven't as yet begun to understand and articulate, one that will require revolutionary ideas and methods, not evolutionary ones. We have to connect education theory with the ideas of uncertainty and faith that are the pathway to creativity and innovation and all our futures.

A key problem on both sides of the Atlantic is that the millions of hours and dollar/pounds spent have utilized simplistic change mechanisms that totally underestimated and quite frankly failed to understand the enormous difficulties involved in bringing about dramatic and systemic change in the Education system. What is needed are new ideas that are able to create a citizenry and workforce with skills and knowledge important to a new age where capacities for creativity, innovation and deeper collaboration exist. It is our premise that creating an effective system of 21st century learning will be much more difficult than expected, and that very fact is a key reason for the dilemma we presently face in industrialized countries . . . especially the U.S.

There is a need to identify a new vocabulary and conceptual framework that enables uncertain images to become coherent ideas and thoughts and ultimately change programs. Individuals and nations cannot make sense of their dilemma if they are ignorant of the factors having a negative impact on performance and at the same time 'shaping behavior.' Once these factors are identified, we will need to synthesize strategy, behavior and methodology based on an entirely new concept of what our education system is and does.

I ) Understanding the Dilemma

We propose that there are three core assumptions that need to be accepted as a starting point in understanding what will be required to adapt the present approach to education to one designed to meet the needs of a different type of society:

a) That most of what has occurred in the last twenty-five years has been an attempt to modify, refine and reform traditional educational practices.

b) That educational theory and practice will need to be "transformed" from a focus on existing core knowledge to a family of capacities and skills able to 1) identify weak signals and trends, 2) ask appropriate questions, and 3) see connections among totally disparate ideas.

c) That any credible change process must be reflexive-- it must involve the leaders of the process-- too often leaders ask everyone else to change but fail to involve himself or herself in the change process. Our leaders must look unflinchingly and honestly at the realities of the 21st century and what it means for 'education.' The 'honesty' is that in order to be competitive in a global economy we require a revolution in the culture and practice of our leaders not just in education but also throughout the system.

II ) A Future of Transformation-- Difficult by Nature

History is a chronicle of humanity's drive for progress to overcome adversity and to find meaning. New forms of learning practices have been central to the concept of shifting and transforming from one type of society to another.

The scientific method emerged as a new learning concept in the 18th century as learning needs shifted from a speculation about the metaphysics of God to observation and analysis of nature's reality. Reducing complex reality to its most elemental parts had become the basis for learning as the secrets of nature were revealed in the new natural sciences of physics, chemistry and biology.

For two hundred years, learning has occurred through the struggle of thousands of scientists, geologists, psychologists, managers and technologists. Every story of discovery, invention and new business methods has been the result of the persistence and dedication of individuals who revealed a passion to advance knowledge and human progress. Whether it was Edison's artificial light, Pavlov's dog who showed how animals and humans can be conditioned, or Mendeleev's early study of genetic characteristics of plants, all significant advancements of knowledge have not come easily.

Today is no different, even with the advent of technologies that allow us to investigate more complex realities and plumb the depth of ideas that would have been considered magic a century ago. A search for excellence and discovery of new knowledge still takes a level of commitment that only those with a passion for learning have.

III ) Thriving on Difficulty

The Industrial Age is ending with the realization that we are in a third transformation of history, equally as important and difficult as was the shift from the Agricultural Society to that which became known as the Commercial Society.

There are three significant differences that slowly are becoming apparent that must be recognized and resolved if we are to thrive and collaborate with others to maintain a sustainable and vital society:

1) The concepts of independence, linear thinking and self- interest are transforming into organizing principles of interdependence, non-linear thinking and helping each other succeed.

2) Work has been shifting from physical to mental.

3) Western Society finds its core goals no longer centered on experimentation, risk and the joy of discovery and creative innovation, but on that of being conservative, finding identify through materialism and looking to meet individual needs in the cheapest and easiest ways.

It is this third significant difference that potentially will create the most challenging change to the future of our society. Attaining material affluence and supporting individual rights emerged as the result of people who were committed to making a better world for their grandchildren, often as a result of religious beliefs. A key value was to do whatever was necessary to give life more meaning for those who were to come after, no matter how difficult.

Today, the concept of thriving on difficulty has been lost as an undergirding idea for the future as we focus on meeting consumer needs and maximizing short-term gains. It is within this contradictory environment of self-indulgence and increasing societal complexity that the issue of facing difficulty must be readdressed.

IV ) Resurrecting Difficulty In a Knowledge Society

What is not understood in this age that searches for the easy way is that only challenge, struggle and difficulty are on the horizon. For the first time during humanity's reign, we are watching the health of nature recede before our eyes as Greenland's ice sheets plummet into the ocean and as global warming expects to raise the average world temperature between 1.6 C and 8.4 C over the next century. The nature of a 21st century economy and society will require new skills and new ways of thinking….and it will require commitment and struggle to learn and apply new approaches that are aligned with new institutional structures which are in the process of emerging. Only those that learn how to thrive on difficulty will be able to anticipate and respond to a constantly changing environment.

V ) Announcing a Transformational Learning Meta-Network

A new type of learning will be required to respond to and build capacities for a new type of society . . . and it will be anything but easy. It not only will require whole new ways of thinking, it will also require an emotional rebirth that is based on immense patience, concern for others, and an ability to collaborate at a deeper level.

With this in mind, we are pleased to announce a new idea. Over the next year, we plan to recruit up to twenty cutting edge educational leaders in the U.S. and other countries who want to collaborate to help develop a network of networks ( a meta-network) composed solely of people who thrive on the emerging educational challenges of shifting from a traditional learning paradigm to that which is transformational.

The Meta network will help build extraordinary relationships through ordinary people in their communities. As leaders and thinkers we must be adept at infusing anachronistic institutions with energy and purpose as our countries reinvent education. Leaders committed to breakthrough thinking will be willing to suspend their attachment to their own ideas and open up their minds to new possibilities.

Through the Meta Network we will attempt to create and model honest identification, methodology and implications of transformative change that we believe will be necessary for any 21st century educational system to be effective in the future.

We will have three goals: 1) to work in collaboration to connect the best ideas of each into a framework of transformative learning appropriate to this difficult and constantly changing age that is presently emerging, 2) to promote an integrated approach to Transformational Learning so that it gains a "tipping point" of perception and understanding in diverse areas throughout the world, and 3) to develop and network "master capacity builders."

As futurists we understand that any enquiry into the nature of and reasons for transformation will progress through a number of levels of complexity. We invite you to join our collaborative journey with those who thrive on the difficult so that our grandchildren may be able to live and learn utilizing new ways appropriate to a constantly changing world.

About the Authors

Dee Dickinson is Chief Learning Officer of New Horizons for Learning. She has taught on all levels from elementary through university, has produced nine international conferences on education and several series for educational television. You can contact her at

Margaret Gayle is executive director of The American Association for Gifted Children at Duke University. She was one of the Bright IDEA principal designers. Margaret is co-author of Educational Renaissance and Schools of the Future. You may contact her via email:

Rick Smyre is a futurist and President of the Center for Communities of the Future specializing in helping local communities develop capacities for transformation. He presently is focused on introducing the concept and methods of Transformational Learning. You may contact him at

Bob Stott is an internationally known consultant who works with organizations in all sectors in the UK, the US and Canada to bring about radical cultural change. His work in England with Creative Partnerships and Schools of the Future is well known. You may contact him via email:

©July 2006

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