The Counterintuitive Process of Preparing Students for the Future

By Jonathan Briggs, Director of Strategy, Technology & Innovation

Earlier this Fall, Eastside Prep was asked to give a presentation at the Global Innovation Exchange in Bellevue. The theme was innovation in schools. At Eastside Prep, we have had a pretty good record of theorizing about where the world was headed and integrating those ideas into our program. However, as I was preparing a presentation on how one tracks trends and chooses technologies to invest in, it became clear that we could never prepare students for what the future will look like. Nobody can, it is not possible.

The problem is the time horizon. As a school, of course, we continue to track trends and speculate on where technology will take us. We are constantly looking to what is emerging and maximize the use of our resources every year. Why can’t we teach our students the things that they will need to know? Consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine a student starts to realize that they want to be a web application developer in their 9th grade year. Also imagine that we had 100% accuracy in forecasting the technology landscape. If they would like to follow that path, we need to be thinking about the work they would do in about 10 years (a year to build the course, four years of Upper School and another four or so for college). It just so happens that we taught those things 10 years ago at Eastside Prep so we pulled up some real job listings from today and compared it to what we were teaching then. Would that class prepare a student for one of those jobs? It turns out, not even remotely. Two thirds of the requirements would not be met. This is not because we missed an opportunity to teach these technologies and the skills associated with them, but because they had simply not been invented yet! More accurately the question is, “How can we prepare students for jobs and technology that have not been invented yet?”

That is the task in today’s environment. We are preparing students to hit a target that is in the process of being built. There is, by definition, no way to do that. Yet we must. The solution to this conundrum is to do two things. First, we need to identify the ideas and concepts that are invariant in time. What will always be true? For example, problems will always need framing and problems will always need solving. Furthermore, people will always have to work together. We will always have to manage the complexity of systems. Art will always strive to connect with the viewer. The techniques of how to accomplish those elements are going to change over time but the ideas behind those techniques will continue to be true. That alone isn’t enough. Simultaneously, we need to equip students with the tools and ideas to understand the future when they get there. To teach this well, we counter-intuitively need to focus less on what’s coming and more on what’s happening right now in the world around them. By building the capacity to analyze the world as it is now, we teach them how to do it later as well. Part of that process is, of course, thinking about where the world is headed in various domains. In fact, you must engage in that process to validate your understanding. However, we must be careful to help our students determine what will always be true and what will change. Only then will students be able to process the future as it arrives.