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The Fireflies of Change

by Rick Smyre

March 6,2007

“By 2050, there will be no reason to require young people to learn to read and write because writing - as we know it today - will have become an obsolete technology.”  - William Crossland

As I rode down the escalator at the Toronto Hyatt during the first day of the World Future Society Conference last July, I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder. Looking around I heard the voice ask, “Are you Rick Smyre?” As we stood at the bottom of the escalator introducing ourselves to each other, I did not realize that Bill Crossland was one of the nation’s leading authorities on Voice In/Voice Out software that will allow us to speak to our computers and to have them respond in a reasoned way.

As I was reading the section, “The New Media Age” in the latest edition of the Futurist magazine published by the World Future Society, there was Crossland’s quote in his article, “Voice-In/Voice-Out Computers and the Post-literate Era.” If I had been the person I was in 1970 when I first read Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, I would have been very threatened by Crossland’s thesis that reading and writing will become an obsolete technology by 2050. I am still thinking about what Crossland is saying and why. However, so many of Toffler’s 1970 apparently wacky ideas about the future have come to pass that I bend over backwards to maintain an open mind when exposed to some new idea that I find threatening to my previous thinking.

As I read the article, I came upon another paragraph that I believe is prescient about education and the future. “Instead of the three R’s – reading, ‘riting & ‘rithmatic – K-12 education will be based on the four C’s – critical thinking, creative thinking, computer skills and calculators.”

If we are moving at light speed into a different kind of society and economy that will require skills and knowledge totally different from the past Industrial Age, maybe we need to connect with Toffler’s and Crossland’s ideas and establish parallel pilot efforts to traditional methods to test their thinking.

For example, our workforce will need to understand how to innovate within a constantly changing economic framework. Students of all ages will need to know how to identify future trends and weak signals, ask appropriate questions, and connect different emerging areas of knowledge never before identified. If we don’t quickly move in this direction, we will leave our children behind. Maintaining an educational system that is based on providing knowledge to students in order to score highly on standardized tests misses the emerging needs of a new type of society.

In a time where knowledge is exploding and the half-life of a new idea is eight weeks (according to IDEO, the firm that designed the hardware for the iPOD), we need to create an educational system that teaches students to think quickly and differently, as if it were natural to see emerging ideas as fireflies that are in constant motion…figuring out which ideas need to be connected in a continuous dance of creating new knowledge….which is the basis for innovation in a changing world.

Recently, I read an interview of Alvin Toffler on the web journal, Edutopia ( The first question the interviewer asked Toffler was, “You've been writing about our educational system for decades. What's the most pressing need in public education right now?” Toffler answered, “shut down the public education system.” Toffler, Bill Gates, I and others are in accord with the idea that our educational system and high schools cannot be reformed and be successful….they need to be transformed.

I am a great supporter of public education and feel even more strongly about the need to insure its success for our democracy to survive and be vital. However, I feel just as strongly that we are going to continue to “rearrange the deck chairs” until we risk transforming what we are doing…until we get beyond systems focused on standardized testing only….and until we recognize the value of how to find appropriate connections to seed and test the radical thinking of people such as Bill Crossland and Alvin Toffler.

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