The right one-billionth? Or the right conditions?

In “The Threat and Opportunity of Lifelong Learning,” John Hagel from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge says, “In a more rapidly changing world, existing knowledge becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate. (1) The key to success in that kind of world is to focus on a very different form of learning – creating new knowledge through action by addressing unseen problems and opportunities as they emerge.”

To be clear, school helps students to learn some important stuff. The challenge, to paraphrase Seymour Papert, is that curriculum reflects 0.0000000001 of human knowledge (2), and surely some of that one-billionth isn’t essential.

What if we devoted less time to polishing that one-billionth and more time to enabling students to “create new knowledge through action by addressing unseen problems and opportunities as they emerge”? (3)

To form lifelong learners in this age of accelerating change, schools have two choices:

  1. Excel at feeding students the precise one-billionth of human knowledge that we think they need.

  2. Excel at creating conditions for learners to explore: Who am I? Who are we? What matters to us? What can we do about that?

As the volume of human knowledge grows exponentially, these two pathways are diverging faster and faster.

Which pathway will your school choose?


(1) For a different, excellent long read on this, check out The Half-Life of Facts (2012) by complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman.

(2) From Papert’s The Children’s Machine (pp. 191-192):

“The extreme position on the conservative side is to follow what is already in the school curriculum: There is already more there than children seem to be able to learn; reformers will do better to improve teaching what is there than aggravating the situation by quixotically proposing new subjects. But on my reckoning, the fraction of human knowledge that is in the curriculum is well under a millionth and diminishing fast. I simply cannot escape from the question: Why that millionth in particular? In any case, plenty of people are busy polishing the established millionth (or billionth or whatever it actually is), so the few of us who seem willing to explore elsewhere will not be missed. […]

“One criterion shouts for attention: Is there a billionth that will be especially effective in opening doors to much larger areas and giving people more freedom to make personal choices?”

H/T to Will Richardson for flagging this.

(3) This challenge is more cultural than technical: typical teachers feel uneasy when they don’t know most of the questions and the answers. The good news is that we all improve at journeying into the unknown with practice and feedback.

Perhaps part of the cultural shift involves moving away from the word “teacher” (which clearly denotes the locus of control). What if we started to call ourselves “coaches,” “facilitators,” or “lead learners”?


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Christian Talbot