Book Review: The Future of Learning

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

Book review by Timothy C. Mack

The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out by Katherine Prince, Andrea Saveri, and Jason Swanson. KnowledgeWorks, 2017.

The Future of Learning from KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit focused on advancing personalized learning and partnering with schools and communities, is impressive in a number of subtle ways. Subtle because the forecast format is also an effective teaching document, focused on policy persuasion. In contrast to the relatively academic approach taken by most forecasters, it avoids technical language and is aimed at a broad popular audience.

The basis of this report is an earlier 2015 forecast, The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code, authored by the same team, which focused on cultural, economic, and institutional shifts that look to the growth of wearable, connected, and smart technologies. These tools will allow users to navigate, make sense of, and contribute to the world around them.

As the next step, this present forecast describes how the K-12 sector will be moving away from postsecondary options that have not always adequately prepared students for the world of work. It strongly asserts that education at all levels of life will prepare learners to continuously resell and upskill and to learn how to partner cooperatively with machines.

The time horizon for the forecast is 2040, and it combines ethnographic research with short scenarios on the future of educational readiness in the rise of smart machines and the decline of full-time employees. The authors are candid enough to admit, “We do know that the rise of smart machines will impact work. We do not yet know the extent and nature of that impact.” In addition to the displacement of human workers, smart machines may also augment the contributions of people in the workplace, create new jobs, and refigure current work. Another outcome could be making current jobs safer, easier, and more interesting.

Economist James Bessen at Boston University points out that automation has historically created or redefined jobs, rather than destroying them, by increasing the demand for new skills. But globalization has increased the project orientation and fluid nature of employment through market-driven environments. Accordingly, work will become increasingly quantified, with quick feedback of performance measurement and requiring quick employee adaptation to changing conditions. Finally, the integration of social-emotional skills and cognitive and metacognitive (thinking about thinking) approaches will increase.

Specifically, this will mean the growth of inclusive communities of work, with increased diversity of approaches and problem-solving skills. As well, coaching, sharing responsibility, and building trust will be part of these collaborative approaches, as well as the ability to initiate and self-advocate.

As this report unfolds, it becomes clear that it is combining classic forecasting of trends in education and employment while suggesting new models for reaching the positive and desired outcomes. The accompanying scenarios address levels of potential displacement by technology and how society in 2040 might respond to these changes, with the poles being systematic and intentional problem solving versus laissez-faire, market-driven mechanics.

These scenarios profile various job situations—from social services to data science to health care to intelligent building design—and are accompanied by specific signals of change already being undertaken by companies, nonprofits, and local governments to underscore the effectiveness of potential adaptations to change. In addition, specific educational and employment trends are taken apart and discussed in detail, to better understand options for response. The report authors perceive the absence of a coordinated response to intensive automation, plus a shrinking tax base in the United States to improve infrastructure and services, and increasing quantification of specific tasks.

In contrast are the rise of work-life logs (and personal brands), task/worker matching programs, and application of innovative algorithms to reshape employment worldwide. In addition, the focus on mastering content, thinking, and doing will gradually shift to work around feeling (emotional intelligence) and relating with others. The need for adaptability and resilience as part of the 2040 curriculum is increasingly critical, along with the nurturing of aspirational visioning. As well, the acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty in one’s personal future, coupled with cognitive diversity and flexible thinking, will be required to renegotiate present definitions and markers of success.

Ideally, the result will be the development of reflective thinking in students and the ability to design their own lives (and their learning ecosystems). The report addresses secondary and postsecondary education, as well as listing a range of nonprofits that are already addressing these trends and pursuing the goals of this report. It concludes with outlined exercises for groups to co-design educational opportunities, build their own scenarios, and assess the implications of these forecasts on themselves and their organizations.

In summary, I believe this is a very effective approach to foresight. Simple graphics are a welcome change from massive bells and whistles multimedia and complex graphics, allowing readers the time to review and consider the forecast in their own contexts. It all works quite well.

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. Contact him at