Education and accelerated change: The imperative for design learning

Education in the era of continuous technological disruption

Discussions on the impact of “technological disruption” writ large are now so common as to seem almost banal. According to research at Gartner, for example, one-third of all jobs will be converted into software, robots, and smart machines by as early as 2025. Meanwhile, some 65 percent of children in grade school today are predicted to work in jobs that have yet to be invented. In fact, all of these changes are converging toward what some are now describing as a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Given this technological revolution, how should educators respond to accelerating change? The short answer is that we need to give up on creating specialists or hyper-specialists. Educators and education leaders would do well to focus less on translating knowledge—notably transferring existing knowledge to students— and more on the processes of entrepreneurial learning and creativity.

Learning and accelerated change
We stand at an inflection point in history. Fifty years ago, a company’s tenure on the S&P 500 lasted 60 years. Today that time span is less than 15 years. At this rate, by 2027, 75 percent of companies on the index  will be companies that have yet to be created. Across a hyper-connected global economy, cycles of innovation are accelerating and becoming shorter and steeper. As this creative destruction expands across industries, cultural frameworks and contextual references are shifting and morphing. Examples of this shift include: banking (which may no longer require a physical bank), personal mobility (which may no longer include the act of driving), and money (which may no longer include physical currency).

Navigating this terrain requires adaptation and re-orientation. It requires the capacity to explore new needs, and the ability to turn a discovered need into new value. According to John Hagel, we are moving from an era characterized by stocks of explicit knowledge to flows of tacit knowledge. When knowledge and information were scarce, professional degrees represented “stocks” of existing knowledge and served as a proxy for good middle class jobs. But as the global economy becomes increasingly digital, the value of a stock of knowledge is continually diminishing.

When anything mentally routine or predictable can be reduced to an algorithm, it signals the need for a shift in our learning systems around adapting to change. As we move from the Information Era into the Augmented Era, demand is growing for a profound shift of focus at all levels of formal education (i.e., K-12, higher education, and workforce development). In Hagel’s view, this is a move from scalable efficiency to scalable learning. It is also a shift in mindset from expertise or “knowing” to learning agility and learning as design thinking.

The shift to design learning
The truth is that we can no longer afford to focus on graduating learners armed only with predetermined skills and (already existing) knowledge. The workforce is becoming far too global, too digital, and increasingly too self-employed. We must instead refocus on cultivating creativity, to include not only problem solving, but also problem finding and problem framing. Students and learners need experience with exploration, discovery, re-orientation, and most importantly, design thinking.

 It is obvious that accelerated rates of technological and social change will require more workers to focus on problem finding and problem framing, rather than simply problem solving— and certainly on solution execution. Design thinking introduces methods of problem finding and problem framing in the pursuit of emergent innovation. This front end of the design thinking process has broader implications across a greater number of domains with increasing importance as cycles of change accelerate.

Over the past ten years, design thinking has gained prominence as a means to target the discovery of unmet business opportunities in the formulation of consumer solutions. In the past five to six years design thinking has also been applied to education as a means to teach problem finding, solution building, and iteration. Some notable examples of institutions seeking to experiment with design learning include Becker College’s Agile Mindset and Philadelphia University’s Nexus Learning.

Building on design thinking, we believe that design learning will come to serve as a foundation to improving formal education. Design learning is a nascent field that should be codified and taught in schools as a capstone to learning—beginning as early as grade school. Rather than assuming that the purpose of education is simply the transfer of fixed knowledge, design learning facilitates the development of the entrepreneurial dispositions and skills necessary to adapt to rapid social and technological change. Indeed, it is our view that education has to pivot from professional training to preparing individuals to innovate within new and emerging fields.

Education has traditionally prepared individuals for work, but work is now changing too quickly for the latest professional skills to be easily translated into curriculum. The value of design learning is that it provides the right methodology for this changing reality. Most importantly it mirrors the iterative learning and solution building that characterizes the world of work after schooling.

In our view, this capacity for scalable learning through design is critical to the trajectory of education, now and into the future. Rather than transferring a fixed body of knowledge and practices from experts to amateurs, design learning focuses instead on developing a learner’s capacity to explore, make sense, and craft new innovation in the search for new opportunities. In this way, design learning is a core educational literacy that prepares individuals to creatively adapt to change.