America’s Future in Global Education

03/31/2010  |  DAVID HOULE
global education

Those of you reading these words clearly know that we are living in the 21st century. The calendar clearly shows this to be the year 2010. What many of you may not know is that we are also in transition from one age to another. We are leaving the Information Age and entering the Shift Age. We are therefore in one of those times in human history when there is a coincidence of two major transitions. When these rare times of passage occur humanity is transformed. We therefore have, are, will and must enter a time of educational transformation in the United States.

In the last two millennia there have been three times where, in a matter of 50 to 75 years, humanity has been transformed. The first was the 75 year period following Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type press in 1455. Prior to that, knowledge in Europe was controlled by the church and the aristocracy. 

The moveable type press democratized knowledge, so that in the early 1500s, people such as Galileo, Copernicus and Machiavelli were writing books that thousands of people could read. This 75 year period not only began the disintermediation of knowledge, it was the high renaissance and the beginning of the age of science. Universities came into being following this time. From the viewpoint of 1450, the world of 1550 would be hard to fathom.

The second period of transformation was 1775 to 1825 when, in the short span of 50 years, democracy was invented, capitalism took root, the modern nation state was created and the Industrial Age began. If you had been alive in 1775, the world in 1850 would be almost completely unimaginable as the changes to society, education and the landscape were so great.

The third period was, and is 1975 to 2025. This time ushered in the Information Age and now the Shift Age. Technology, connectivity and globalization across all aspects of society took off. Again from the view point of 1975 the look into the future as it will be in 2025 would be almost incomprehensible. Just take a look at your own life, the technology in your life that didn’t exist in 1975 and the way that education has changed in the past 35 years. Computers, laptops, DVDs, fax machines, smart phones, the Internet, distance learning and the connected classroom have all occurred since 1975. There will be as much transformation in the world in the next 15 years as there has been in these last 35 years.

What does this mean for American education? Many things! The most important is that we live in a time of great transformation. Almost everything in education is undergoing great change, shift and alteration. We stand on a threshold of educational transformation not seen in centuries. This is an opportunity we must rise up to and embrace for the future of America

From the vantage point of 2010, the K-12 education space looks like a historical relic of past times. We still operate schools on a school year based on Agricultural Age time, when children could not go back to school until the harvest season was largely over and when they were needed in the afternoons to work on the family farm. We teach in buildings largely created in the Industrial Age based on the factory model. Different rooms for different subjects, student movement based upon bells, rigid rows facing forward, all overseen by a centralized hierarchy of administration reflecting the centralization and standardization of the Industrial Age. Then, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the Information Age triggered the layering of new technology into these schools; language labs, VCRs and computers.

This model increasingly no longer represents excellence, in terms of the quality of the students it produces and also in comparison to what is going on in other countries around the world.  There is a widely held view that the K-12 educational experience, structure and curriculum are no longer up to the demands of this new century, this new age and the new reality of an increasingly global human society.

As a futurist, it is my function to think more about the future than most people do. People tend to get caught up in their lives, are defined by their past experiences and see the world through filters of points of view. It is my job to be a catalyst to get people, the market and the world to think about the future in new ways and to then hopefully participate in a dialogue about this fast approaching future. This means that I can certainly suggest the macro trends and forces that are, and will, shape the future. What I cannot do is to always provide the specific answers to the issues facing us, particularly regarding specific fields of endeavor.

What I can say is this: if anyone reading these words thinks they know the answer to the question: “What will education look like in the United States in the next 30 years” then that answer will almost assuredly not be correct. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “Most of the people drive down the freeway of life looking in the rear view mirror.” 

The transformation just ahead will render any current plan obsolete, any blueprint out of date. Instead, let me offer some trends, disruptions and developing realities that clearly are ahead and then posit how they might change how we define the educational experience in the coming decades.


The accelerated electronic connectivity of the planet is one of the key forces of the Shift Age. We are becoming ever more connected. There are now four billion cell phone subscribers in the world.  That means that for the first time in human history there is no time or distance limiting human communication. It also means that, increasingly ‘place’ is less relevant. We can work, teach and learn from anywhere. We can communicate with anyone in the world at any time. There are no longer limitations of time, distance or place. What does that mean for educators? 

We must embrace connectivity. We must embrace the collaborative experiences this connectivity offers us both in and out of the classroom. The leaders and thought shapers of the next 50 years will develop using this connectivity. The mobile device is not an enemy of teaching; it is an amplification of human interaction and knowledge.

Connectivity is a major part of the new educational landscape. It is where the world of commerce, entertainment, journalism, knowledge, and therefore education, must increasingly exist. In the 20th century, even during most of the Information Age, teachers and students in classrooms were in isolation. The classroom was largely a captive space in which knowledge was imparted by one to many. Now every classroom can be connected to any other classroom or to almost any place at all. Classrooms can be connected to astronauts in space, to scientists on an archeological dig or to another classroom in a different country.  What this means for education is obvious: the world can be brought into the classroom.

This connectivity though must be thought of in the larger context of preparing students for their adult life in the Shift Age. They will find their way in life largely through connectivity, and we must prepare them for living intelligently in this connected world. Currently a disconnect exists between the education experience and the world experience of digital natives that are our students (see below). They already live in a connected world and we often insist on taking them out of that connectivity so they can be taught.  This reinforces the perception that what is being learned in the classroom is not relevant to life, that education is an ivory tower practice, that “learning” is separate from the world. 

Today’s educators must work with each other to develop curricula that integrate the new reality of global connectivity into the educational experience of every student. Some of the points below should help to point the way. Remember, we now live in an electronically connected world and that world must be brought into our teaching methods and our classrooms. Sure, there are times when connectivity must be dialed down so the imparting of concepts and knowledge can be achieved in a way that creates understanding and those precious and valuable “Aha moments” — when a student fully gets it. That said, there are other times when the use of electronic connectivity in the classroom will provide a learning experience of rapidity and relevance that must be embraced. When you think about it, “Search” is a fundamental aspect of education and the acquisition of knowledge and the attainment of understanding.

Digital Natives

Digital natives are the current population in, and coming into, our schools.  The digital landscape is their native land. They cannot remember their parents not having cell phones, not having a computer in the home, not having access to the Internet or the dozens of channels coming into the home through the television set. Those of us who currently teach them were raised in the analog world and made the transition to digital. We are digital immigrants. Our students are the first wave of digital natives.

Our children, our students ARE different. They can concentrate on multiple things at once. We often take pride in our multi-tasking; they do it all the time.  We often misdiagnose ADD because we cannot possibly imagine the ability to concentrate on multiple inputs of information at the same time. We must face these digital natives as the first generation that will grow up with increased ability for rapid assimilation of information, data and concepts.

Digital Devices

What is the future of the library? What does a library mean when we are now in a world where a first grader could be handed an ebook reader that contains, in a progressive order, 2,500 books to get her through high school. That is probably five to10 times the number of books readers of this article read during their progress through K-12.

Touch and Voice Interface

This is where the human-technology interface is now moving. Our grandchildren will ask, “Grandpa, you actually used keyboards?”or more likely “Grandma, what was a keyboard?” Want a good example? Show your young child or grand child a rotary phone and ask them what it is.

Brain Wave Interface

This is where the human-technology interface is rapidly moving. In just the next couple of years, low cost computer programs will come to market that will allow, at base levels, us to interact with computers using just our brain waves. This technology comes from research with quadriplegics to enable them to move their wheel chairs with their thoughts.

How might we teach a middle school student in 2018 who spends hours at home interacting with her computer, and with web connectivity with others around the world, via her brainwaves? 

Global Village

We have entered the global village that McLuhan wrote about 50 years ago. Even he would be amazed at the degree to which we have become a global village as the Internet was non-existent when he wrote. This means that the students of today must be ready to compete, live and find happiness in a global place that is brand new. This points to two things:


There has been much hand wringing about the fact that our education system is “falling behind” those of say China or the EU; that many more engineers are being graduated in China than in the U.S. and that this will end in America losing its competitive edge and leadership. As more countries reach affluence, develop mature societies and seek to gain a new level of influence in the world, of course America must learn to share and be collaborative at the same time we seek to maintain our wealth, standard of living and influence. To accomplish this, we must look at the world today, gaze into the future and consider what is essential to teach our children. It is not about how many engineering graduates we have each year, but about how many graduates we have that are prepared for the realities of this new century. This points to a reevaluation of curriculum


What is the new curriculum? In addition to teaching the standard categories of science, history, language, art and math, we must teach our students new ways of thinking. The type of thinking that was needed in the Industrial Age was oriented toward production and productivity and the scientific method. The type of thinking that was needed in the Information Age was focused on innovation and the creation of content and knowledge. While both of these must continue to be a part of the new curriculum, we must make additions for the Shift Age. The Shift Age is about collaboration and context; about creativity and general, yet fast, problem solving. It is about creating intellectual property that has value. We must teach our students how to incorporate and assimilate information in ways that can lead to creative collaboration and decision making. We must teach the concept of innovation and foster innovation as a fundamental aspect and process of life. I leave that to you educators to refine that into course work, but it must be done if we want our children to thrive and find happiness in life.

Final Thoughts

Current ideas of change can only be the basic foundation for the implementation of the complete transformation of our schools and our education system. We do not yet have the answers, only the beginnings of a discourse.

We do know certain things as we look ahead. Technology innovations will continue to amaze us. Connectivity in the world will only increase. Other countries, whether they collaborate with us or choose to compete with us will also be focusing on improving their national education systems. 

The landscape of the 21st century will be more profoundly different from the 20th century than that century was from the 19th. We must shed our 20th century thinking as we face this new century as it demands a completely new way to think of education.

For information visit David Houle is a futurist, strategist and keynote speaker.

Comments & Ratings

  8/8/2012 10:02:01 PM
Moses Harris, Sr. 

Forward Ever Backwards Never 
I totally agree with the basic tenets of this article and see the need for a massive overhaul of our education system. I also see the many flaws and discriminatory practices prevalent in our present system of instructions within and throughout the whole of these United States. As an African American I'm a product of the Niggarized Jim Crow school system and have suffered for my being an excellent student in my elementary and postgraduate education. When I arrived at college, after being the valedictorian of high school graduation class and after receiving a full ride to a second tier university, I nearly flunk out because of the poor instructions I received in my high school education; being weak in both mathematics and English. I champion your clarion call for innovation in education. The connectivity that you speak of in your article is eye opening, stimulating and critical to the whole nation and the world. I don't ever want anyone else to go through what I've gone through in my life. It is hoped that this article get to the right people so that changes can be made in the not too distant future. I will post this article on my Face Book page in the hopes that other parents will read the article.

Peace and Love,

M. Harris, Sr.
  9/16/2011 7:39:44 AM
Ryan Cody 

Our Education Vision 
Great article! I'm from South Carolina and I too think that we are in the process of changing how education, can and should be viewed. Right now it seems in South Carolina that the scope of education is limited to the standards. Currently there is a push to change that.

York Road School has a class of 24, 5th graders that have traded their text books in for iPads, and only have a few text boox in the room. This gives them unlimited resources from the internet and actually saves money in the end for things like field trips. For example they went to River Walk last Thursday to do long division with side walk chalk, and then after went down to the lake to study biology. I think this is where the future of education lies.

Check into this website for more information what vision South Carolina is trying to help others see.