The past 20 years have given us staggering changes in modern life. The internet, which was an unparalleled breakthrough in dial-up form, is now in the pocket of every AARP member and middle-schooler alike. “Google” and “uber” are now verbs, landlines have been replaced by mobile phones, radio by Spotify, cable by streaming, grocery shopping with grocery pickup, and boredom with social media.
Some institutions have seamlessly integrated these changes into their infrastructure, guided by a marketplace that rewards innovation, productivity, and efficiency. They automate data entry, eliminate the clutter of insignificant choices, and use new tools for streamlining their processes, thus freeing minds for great work.
Others have been far clumsier to adapt and interpret what this technological possibility means. Technology can either make us more, by working in concert with our humanity to scaffold us to greater heights, or technology can dumb us down by creating learned helplessness and dependency. Sometimes, the smarter the tool, the inepter the user becomes: consider how your sense of direction has fared since you started to use GPS on your daily commute.
Schools Are Slow Learners of Tech
While the disparity between the tech-savvy and those pining for the days of rotary phones highlights the evolutionary ebb and flow that has characterized all of history, it’s discouraging that youth developmental paths have overwhelmingly fallen in the latter camp. The future is here, but rather than adapting the way we prepare kids for that future, we’ve maintained the industrial conveyer belt model, and just added technology on top.
The tragic irony of our current approach is that we get the worst of both worlds. We build lessons to match five-minute attention spans, rather than developing the skills required to digest and dissect larger works. Writing is becoming a lost art, which is devastating to our youth’s ability to reason and communicate at a high level. Most disturbingly, physical education, health, nutrition, recess, and movement in general is becoming extinct.
Our outmoded educational model creates kids almost guaranteed to suffer degradation of their physical and mental health, stripping them of the most vital resource for their future success.
Many schools have deified the use of technology without accounting for its unintended consequences. Depth, analytical skills, and preparation for life have become casualties of app-driven lessons and initiatives to keep a device in our children’s hands throughout the school day. Technology just for technology’s sake is a sure route to a less adept population that is out of touch with movement, deep human connection, and focus necessary for their fulfillment.
How to Shoot at a Moving Target
To better prepare our kids for their technology-driven future, we must do more than teach them how to use or code devices. Let’s face it, they’re doing a fine job of learning that on their own. Instead, we need to create a new operating system for their minds that prepares them for the ones behind their screens. We must give them the tools to resist dependency, while promoting enhanced capability.
This will require more than our current superficial efforts to integrate technology into the classroom. What we have now is a sort of digital busyness, organized around online classes that are easily gamed to provide a fast track to course credit, without the inconvenience of having to learn anything.
The fast-changing nature of the modern world means that we’ll have to start from scratch with our new system. We must go back to education’s fundamental principles: optimal human fulfillment, citizenship, and preparation for life.
Preparing any generation for the future is a hazy proposition; all the more so in this rapidly changing world. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, says that “it is likely that most of what you currently learn at school will be irrelevant by the time you are 40.” The average baby boomer switched jobs 11.9 times from ages 18-50, and that number is only poised to grow. Millennials average 2.85 jobs in just their first five years of post-college work.
Furthermore, the entire structure of employment is poised to change with the growth of technology and automation. Businesses are far more likely to contract work out, rather than commit to the traditional employer-employee relationship. In effect, a huge portion of the labor market has become freelancers; independent contractors piecemealing together a paycheck each month. While this is liberating and conducive to passionate work, it is also fraught with risk. Gone is the old life path: education, work retirement. Today, the ability to constantly learn, adapt, and reinvent is essential. Our standard model of education must transform accordingly.
So how do we approach education in this environment? How do we prepare a population to drive their own lives, in a world that pulls them in a million directions at once? How do we create an autonomous, empowered citizenry with the skills to thrive in a dynamic world?
Harari’s advice is “to focus on personal resilience and emotional intelligence.” Education must create the ability and desire to learn. It should create clarity in purpose, empower persistence, and promote the optimistic interpretation of adversity. More than ever, we have to develop the person. We must develop their core values and their understanding of what yields fulfillment. We should give them practice in how to have a constructive dialogue. Most of all, we must teach them how to be mentally and physically strong and healthy.
The Tenets of a New Core Curriculum
These lessons have an established pedigree in historical curricula. Philosophy and physical mastery were inextricable from education from the time of the ancient Greeks until the industrial revolution. Math, science, political theory, and writing are no doubt essential, but they are secondary to the driving principles I listed earlier.
In the end, how many lessons on photosynthesis and Magellan have come in handy for you? How many can you even remember? If a lesson doesn’t change us or isn’t remembered, then what use is it? What is forgotten is never as important as what becomes a part of us.
Curricula should be ruthlessly refined through the lens of an essentialist mindset. Where subjects can be overlapped, they should be. This will pull us away from the outdated, reductionist approach, and into an applicable model of constant synthesizing.
Broad and superficial education must be replaced by deep and actionable understanding. We must remember that the tradeoff of a broader education is less depth in more subjects. Whatever we set as a requirement may preclude another, possibly more essential lesson.
Personal finance, logic, dialogue, physical and mental health, and an ethos of resiliency are the new core. They should infuse every lesson, and guide administrative decisions. Current areas of study should be treated as subjects to introduce at a fundamental level, and flagged for possible future specialization.
Research has shown that, ahead of any other quality, the greatest determinants of success are willpower and grit. Youth should be immersed in a philosophy that embraces and celebrates the transformation adversity offers. Rather than regurgitation of answers found on Google, we must create joy in the production of original works that require analytical thought.
Teaching in this curriculum will require a new system and style. Rather than specialists in a single topic area, primary and secondary school teachers must become experts in the mechanisms of learning, and the beliefs and habits that are essential to growth. They will empower their charges with the tools and inclinations to be largely self-driven.
Unhealthy Kids Become Sick Adults
The overarching priority of this new education system is to create inspired humans, and this cannot be done without an emphasis on physical and mental health. The neglect of these areas is at the root of a society that has never been more unhappy, anxious, and depressed.
As depression and suicides skyrocket, so have obesity, heart disease, and sales of Sock Sliders. A 2017 Harvard study concluded that if current trends continue, over 57% of today’s youth will be obese by the time they are 35. Our already unsustainable health care costs are set to become overwhelming. A 2012 study concluded that if obesity rates only stayed the same, rather than progressing as expected, “the combined savings in medical expenditures over the next 2 decades would be $549.5 billion.”
It is the duty of education to see these issues, interpret the ramifications, and implement solutions. Our negligence to train our youth in health and fitness is the greatest failing of our educational system.
Giving kids the tools for lifelong health must become our primary objective. Students must learn to cook, to grocery shop, and to plan meals. They should be enlisted on a rotating basis in the preparation of cafeteria food, and they should be instrumental in planning initiatives to educate the population at large about the consequences of current health trends and simple solutions.
We should see the student and the school day through a lens of nourishment and fostering a balanced inclination for lifelong health. Standing desks, physical projects, flexibility to take classes outside, and movement breaks should become school norms.
Physical Education Isn’t Extra
Most of all, students must be immersed in a challenging and motivating physical education program that makes them more likely to live active, healthy lives. Nothing accomplishes Harari’s suggested objectives of resiliency and emotional intelligence better than an inspired physical training curriculum. More than just creating the physical literacy for a healthy, dynamic life, a great PE curriculum teaches discipline, growth mindset, patience, humility, toughness, dealing with failure, and a joy in the amazing potential of the human body.
Our world makes it so easy to inflate every accomplishment, rationalize every misstep, and live in constant denial. Tapping back into the physical is tapping back into reality. It offers a path to mindfully experience the world around us and work towards tangible results.
La Sierra High School’s PE program from the 1950s and 60s is the model of an inspired, unifying experience. It utilized the best of classical physical education concepts dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. Tony Asaro, who went through this program, explained to me how all his classmates experienced a mind and body transformation in this program, and became bonded as supportive teammates. Nothing ties communities more than common physical experiences.
It’s Time for Radical, Tangible Change
What has induced human thriving throughout the ages? Connection, purpose, growth, and contribution to the greater good. At the root of these is the physical health that brings mental clarity and greater possibility of impact. More than ever, we need deliberate, intentional actions to help the next generation navigate the challenges ahead of them. We will only ever be able to use new technology to enhance our lives when we accept its tremendous risks, and find a core curriculum that prioritizes fulfillment over convenience and complacency.