I was recently chatting with a professor in India about the curriculum and teaching at his (unnamed here to protect the guilty) Institution. Transforming their curriculum and teaching methods was happening very slowly. I discussed this with him for a while and then realized what is really takes. It comes down to the furniture.

One of the more imaginative thought experiments I have given my students in recent years was to imagine how self-driving cars might change the furniture in your living room. Lots of blank stares. Quizzical looks.

Lower cost transportation, fewer sunken costs, higher taxes for carbon, less car ownership, no need for a garage driveway = more room for rooms. Expanded houses, different room, different furniture. I thought of this assignment as an extension of the one I thought of when flat screen TVs really became ubiquitous. Every other day I saw a huge CRT screen TV on the curb. (You’re supposed to take them to electronics recycling centers, duh). Flat screens changed living rooms too. Ok, so maybe I’m obsessed with furniture. Maybe not. What does this have to do with 21st century skills?

It has everything to do with it.

If you’re reading this (and obviously, you are), you get the answer already. You’re on a blog. You use a computer. You’re reading about education. You can just about imagine a product manager salivating over a prospective hire that can connect self driving cars with living room furniture.

So we’re not there yet. Ok, in entrepreneur class at business school, maybe. But last i heard and saw, they still have their unicorn checklist. Good luck. The criteria for what makes a unicorn will be different, uh, tomorrow. The software that students sometime struggle to learn in CS101 can be disappeared in the blink of an ARM processor.

I’m not going to be original here in saying that as long as classrooms look like lines of desks and chairs paying more attention than the students, there’s not going to be enough change. (more furniture? It might be an unhealthy obsession). You can go back in time to some schools that were built in the 70’s and 80’s and see their ‘learning spaces’ ‘commons’ and ‘spaces’ that were supposed to be devoted to individualized learning. Now, with desks and chairs. or nothing, as the population of many areas of the country has gone down and the schools have closed or shrunk.

Don’t Look a Gift Pandemic In the Mouth

It’s a terrible thing, on a global scale, the pandemic that is killing people, changing lifestyles, destroying businesses and livelihoods. It has been mismanaged on a scale of criminal that has never been perpetrated before.

At the same time, it is opening up the world for some changes that may in the long run be highly beneficial. There’s no doubt that if there no pandemic Trump would have had a high likelihood of being re-elected, schools would be going along a usual, office buildings would be full, air conditioning pumping all day and night and the slow shrinking of college age students in the US being supplemented by students from overseas bringing their full-tuition money and suitcases of cash for living expenses. No need to adjust, change, re-imagine here – keep walking.

Instead we are questioning whether we even want to back to ‘normal.’ It really wasn’t working that well for everyone:

  • working at home seems to be okay for a lot of people
  • two parents working full time wasn’t that great anyway
  • schools created a lot of anxieties and problems along with the fun, sports, peer pressure, etc..
  • college has been a successful stepladder to higher incomes, but should a social experience and gaining ‘non educational benefits’ be that expensive?
  • essential workers are really essential. Why don’t we pay them more?
  • systemic racism kills and reaches into everyday life for everyone. (Bill Barr says it doesn’t exist – I hope his family doesn’t talk to him for a week) (Nevermind, she works for the justice department too.)
  • colleges have terrible graduation rates averaging 65 % in 6 years, 33% in four years. Ouch.

Going back to normal makes about as much sense as keeping your Klondike bars in an unplugged freezer on the porch. Well, it’s dark. And I don’t actually know they’re melting if I don’t see them. And it’s only 90 out. It could be hotter.

Taking steps to change is going to be hard.

It’s going to painful but it could be fun. Ok, probably not fun, but it should be serious. Like the rooms full of men, (mostly) who figure out how to award giant performance bonuses to executives before declaring bankruptcy. I’m not making this up – see here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2020/07/21/ceos-and-executives-of-companies-filing-for-bankruptcy-make-millions/#6623f032645e

I’d love to know what goes through their minds but no I don’t. Because it’s not venal, evil or mercenary; it’s average. It’s what people in their position do. You’re not going to give up your lifestyle (change) just because the company went broke. It may be not what everyone would do, but it fits the ethos of our times and our country. The President is in the middle of figuring out how to make more money as his properties through his policies, probably right now. Get what you can, get yours and get it now Consequences for others are unimportant The fracking pads in Texas spewing methane through the company’s bankruptcy is a nice example except in gives me clenched fist and heart palpitations.

Change is going to come.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Phil Ochs – Changes (ok, that’s obscure, but highly recommended). Change has been a theme of poets, writers, philosophers, psychologists and scientists of all kinds. Now is the time. A new president, new economy, new socks and shoes and hit the road. Make it a moonshot, a new deal, a green burrito, I don’t care. But make it big and bold and a challenge.

Oh, and by the way, young people? This is your job. We oldsters just won’t do it. Look for support, backup and huzzahs and how do you dos, but you’re the point on this. Keep going and make something happen. And make it global and make it smart. I’m here for you.