School of the Future: Phase Changers

When H2O is really cold, it crystallizes into a solid state.

When it warms up, it returns to a liquid state.

When that liquid is further heated, it shifts from liquid to gas in the form of steam.

We call these movements “phase changes.”

How might we use phase changes as a metaphor for learning?

  • Crystallized intelligence: In ice, H20 molecules move so slowly that they crystallize in place. Is it a coincidence that cognitive scientists refer to foundational facts and literacies as “crystallized intelligence”?

  • Fluid intelligence: Liquid water molecules are warm enough to move around. And, as we know, liquid water adapts to the shape of its container. Is it a coincidence that cognitive scientists refer to adaptive and creative problem solving as “fluid intelligence”?

In our VUCA world, maybe students need a third form of intelligence:

  • Vapor intelligence: Super-heated molecules move rapidly and unpredictably. Maybe “vapor intelligence” means:

    • knowing how to form teams rapidly

    • engage in energetic and unpredictable sensemaking

    • act on that sensemaking; then

    • disassemble just as rapidly

Admittedly, “vapor intelligence” is inelegant (the word vapor evokes “fake” or “substanceless,” like “vaporware”). Whatever name (1) we give it, this third kind of intelligence is of a piece with the first two.

The essential thing is that students realize that different kinds of problems will require them to act like “phase changers,” shifting their reliance on crystallized, fluid, and vapor intelligences.

The School of the Future will empower its learners to act as phase changers.


(1) If you can think of another name for this third kind of intelligence that is consistent with the “phase change” metaphor, please let us know. We will emend this post and happily give you credit.


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Christian Talbot