This may sound odd, but I love calling for help when my computer decides to go rogue, not following the plan that I so carefully and naively laid out before class. I fumble a bit with the cursor and click the same icon a few times because, much like an elevator button, repeating the same action is somehow bound to jumpstart what refused to work instants before. After a final sigh, I end up regaining some sanity and call out “I need tech support!” Inevitably, two or three bodies rush to my table, quickly assess the situation, confer briefly, and take control of my keyboard. Generally, within a few minutes, the problem is resolved.
Did I mention the tech support crew was made up of 12-year-olds? I always ask for help from my students. They almost always know more than I do. They find their way around a computer (an app, a piece of equipment, so many things) better than I can.
My wife Charlotte can tell the same story several times over. She teaches third-graders, 8-year-olds.
Expertise knows no age. Experience yes, but not age. Interest doesn’t know age either. Curiosity shouldn’t, but it often does.
The difference between a novice and an expert is that a novice has to use thinking skills when tackling a problem, but an expert uses long-term memory (knowledge, in terms of skillful application of content) to solve problems that are (roughly) similar to countless others they’ve encountered in the past. Visualize something you consider yourself very good at. How much “thinking” do you need to do to carry it out? Or do you find that you go through the steps fairly quickly and can let your mind wander? Have you ever seen an IKEA employee put together a dresser? Let’s just say the last time I tried, I wasn’t quite as smooth following the process. The great thing is, even if they don’t need to “think,” experts need to hone skills continuously, perfect their craft.
In a world where content is free or commoditized, we have to re-think what it means to be educated. It used to be that you were considered educated when you had to read the canon of Western civilization or could recite passages of texts or work through an algorithm faster and more accurately than others. In the nineteenth century, if you wanted to become a lawyer, you didn’t have to go to a fancy school to get a fancy degree. You just had to work a while as a clerk before you made partner (like David Copperfield’s rival Uriah Heep).
Today, the ability to remember content is only useful on game shows. Not only can we access anything on our phones in seconds, but consider that we produce more data in just a few hours than we had in the entirety of human civilizations up to the year 2000. The amount of data in the world was estimated to be 44 zettabytes at the dawn of 2020 and by 2025, there will be 175 zettabytes of data in the global “datasphere” (a zettabyte is a byte with 21 zeros behind it). The ability to apply content remains critical. That requires skills.
Experts draw from content from their memories more or less easily and then apply it, whereas novices still need to absorb and store content in their memories. In 2021, the value of content has changed because it is accessible anytime, anywhere. We still need to know how to apply content, but it derives its value, not in itself, but rather from the process by which it is extracted, sorted, scrutinized, manipulated, and disseminated using transversal skills—including critical thinking, resilience, curiosity, teamwork, creativity, kindness, and many others. Content is therefore subsumed in transversal skills (it’s only as good as what you do with it). What matters is how you find ways to solve problems, contribute to the common good, and improve yourself, using transversal skills, guided by purpose to make an impact. Impact is therefore a function of transversal skills and the purpose toward which they are applied.
If expertise is determined not by what you know, but how and why you apply what you know, then expertise is age-independent. Of course, some skills take longer to hone than others, but that is the point; you can be an expert at something at any age. That’s why I call on my students for tech support. That’s why they can solve some puzzles faster than I can even get a grip of what the puzzle entails. At the same time, you remain a novice in something at every age. Now that content is accessible anytime, anywhere with a broadband connection and you can learn to do anything by typing a few keywords, “to be educated” loses its traditional meaning and becomes about how you apply transversal skills.
If we accept this—and if we don’t now, we will soon — schools themselves lose their meaning and require we write a new narrative.
What if we thought of schools not as buildings with classrooms and playgrounds and an auditorium but rather as spaces that exist anywhere there is a learning guide to orchestrate learning, which consists not (just) acquiring content, but applying content by honing skills? We could have central hubs of learning where people gathered when it made sense, but the learning space would extend anywhere we stepped away from our regular activities to hone skills, which could be transversal or technical. We always talk about “life-long learning,” but what if we made that a reality?
What if schools became inter-generational learning spaces?
Imagine a space where learners of all ages gathered to develop transversal skills and applied these skills to solve problems or produce innovations. They could learn what they need when they need it (just in time) through curated content that was appropriate (read not age-related) and work with others who share their interests and can tackle problems of similar levels of complexity. Imagine if they could go in and out of the learning space as needed and when needed, and further develop, practice, and apply skills and knowledge in other settings.
This is more than a flipped classroom. It’s the idea that we come together around interests and skillsets, regardless of age to develop transversal skills. It’s the idea that we can learn from each other, with each other. It’s the idea that we really are lifelong learners. Schools should be spaces where we meet physically, to promote relationships. There is no reason we can’t reimagine the way we organize these relationships.
Everyone, no matter the age, would be assigned a learning guide who got to know you and who could ensure you receive the highest-quality learning experience possible. They wouldn’t be teachers in the way we think about them now—not entirely. If we can acquire knowledge online now without a permanent human interface, the learning guides might show you how to find online resources to acquire the knowledge you need to meet your goals, but they would also do things like create peer groups with whom you would learn and open channels that allowed you to develop skills while applying content. This can happen at any age.
Imagine learners coming in and out of what is a central hub—that is, physical spaces of gathering specifically designed for instruction and application of knowledge — as needed and when appropriate. If you’re 10 years old, you may need to be in the central hub more often than if you’re 32. You’re still learning literacy skills and finding out your place in the world. You would spend time outside and you’d go work on cool projects outside of the central hub, but, unlike the 32-year-old who has outside employment, it’s your home base. It’s your anchor. Practitioners (professionals who aren’t full-time educators) would work alongside learning guides (who are full-time educators) to provide specific expertise. For instance, if you’re learning about the electoral process, you could bring in a journalist to help you understand the ways campaigns are covered by the media. Do you want to learn about teeth? Let’s bring in your local dentist, or better yet, go to her clinic. School as we know it would open to the outside.
Now say you are that 32-year-old employee. You may also want to develop literacy skills and may still be finding your place in the world. This isn’t so rare and many of us have taken that creative writing course or wanted to change careers. What if adults were also assigned a learning guide to facilitate learning? The model would look very similar to the one described above, but instead of opening school to the outside, we bring what is out there inside. Adult learners would acquire knowledge (not necessarily from a human) and work with others to apply content and hone skills. This already happens in workplaces, community centers, and so forth, but having a learning guide work with you to facilitate these experiences would add a richer dimension.
In both cases, the learning spaces would be less physical and more conceptual. Sure there would be a central hub, but like the song goes, where I lay my head is home.
Here is the key: Since expertise knows no age, these learning spaces would bring together learners of all ages, depending solely on skill level, interests, and socio-emotional compatibility, supported by a learning guide. This would create a learning community based on a culture of reciprocity, where you went to learn when you wanted, but you also gave back when you could. (Rather than suggest the second coming of Marx, I’d suggest tax incentives coupled with a rigorous system for ensuring quality and authenticity.)
Think of schools and the professional community interacting through both centripetal and centrifugal forces.
If we no longer need school to acquire content, school becomes a place where we apply content using transversal skills, something that became apparent during the pandemic. When school becomes about developing transversal skills, it becomes a space where we grow continuously. Can you ever learn transversal skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, curiosity, or resilience completely? Schools become spaces to which we can always come back to work with others, to develop ourselves. I could take an online course to learn cost accounting, but I go to school to apply cost accounting with students of all ages to build a business. This would require a change of mindset where adults recognize they can learn from children (and that’s the point!). Changing our perception of children and how they contribute to society is probably key. Their potential as contributing citizens. Adults have to change their thinking.
School becomes a space where we meet, learn, think, and act, spaces where we can come back to again and again. We spend most of our time in school when we’re young because it makes sense as we grow more independent and acquire the foundational skills we need to be successful outside school. They are inter-generational not just in terms of the ages of people we see there, but also in terms of the different generations of careers, interests, skills, and learning we have amongst ourselves and within each of us.
We would have to put in systems to ensure child safety and other measures of protection. Yet with these measures in place, we would create an environment where school as we know it changes its meaning not because we have willed it so, but because we have understood that their content derives its value from how skillfully we apply it and we constantly need to acquire new knowledge and hone our skills, making lifelong learning an imperative part of professional and personal development.