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SOESD / Learning Matters / Newsletter Archive / December 2006 / January 2007 / Schools in a Flat World

Schools in a Flat World

I have been reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.  The book chronicles how globalization not only involves relocating manufacturing plants to China, but how information technology is relocating services to English-speaking populations in India and Ireland.

One story summarizes the message of the book; Friedman is talking to his daughters:

"Girls, when I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, 'Tom, finish your dinner people in China are starving.' My advice to you is: Girls, finish your homework people in China and India are starving for your jobs." (p. 227)

The title of the book reinforces his thesis that technology has "leveled the playing field" and that countries halfway around the world are no longer disadvantaged by their distances and differences.  India has a very stratified society, but by 2010 this country will have more English-speaking citizens than the United States.  The upper strata of India are very well educated and technologically trained.

Friedman believes the United States possesses the prerequisites to adapt to a flat world.  He discusses the U.S.s nimble nature of business and its level of research universities that is unmatched in the world.  He is not so enamored of the K-12 system which he feels is under-funded (compared to other assertive developing nations); locked into a model that worked 100 years ago; and doesn't prepare enough students for a "world that is flat."

Four characteristics are identified to be successful in a "flat world."  Friedman claims that the most important ability that can be developed in a "flat world" is the ability to "learn how to learn."  His advice, when asked how you can "learn how to learn," is to ask your friends, 'Who are your favorite teachers?'  Then go and take courses from these teachers, irrespective of what subject they are teaching.  He claims that the excitement these teachers create is perhaps more important than what they are teaching. 

The second theme is that passion and curiosity for a job, for success, for a subject or even a hobby are more important in a flat world.  He claims that intelligence quotient is important, but curiosity and passion matter even more. 

Friedman's third theme focuses on people skills.  According to Friedman, "you need to be good at managing or interacting with other people." 

Lastly, his fourth theme is to learn how to nurture your right or creative brain, as well as your left or logical brain.  To survive and thrive in a flat world, individuals need to perform work that a computer or robot can't complete faster or some talented foreigner cannot do cheaper.

In the last century, machines were invented that replaced human muscle in the work environment.  In the next century, computer technology will outperform human left brain functions.  Computers can execute repetitive sequential work faster and more accurately than humans with even the highest IQs.

If Friedman and others are correct about the future, the United States will have to adapt to a flat world to be economically competitive.  He suggests that schools will have to guide individuals who:

  • Can collaborate and work well with others.
  • Know how to learn.
  • Have curiosity and passion.
  • Have developed creative components as well as logical elements.

The above skills are much different than the direction education has been moving with No Child Left Behind and the standards movement.  Standards and assessment dominate the classroom curriculum.  In the current age of accountability, we tend to teach what we can measure.  Talented teachers can address these traits while teaching rigorous content.   Professional development and demonstrable models will be required to address teaching these skills.  The World is Flat challenges educators to consider what critical skills will be required for success in the future.




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