The Age of the Traditionalist Is Over

It used to be that meticulously prescribing a child’s life path produced the desired results. (Or so it seemed.) People would grow up and became proficient in a craft, learned a body of ideas (mostly static) or acquired a skill which was useful for the rest of their lives.

More and more, we can see how this approach is failing people. Recent graduates—many from the most prestigious institutions—can’t find employment. Others, with a long employment history, are coming to the realization that their jobs will never return, having been replaced by automation, algorithms, or offshored in an age of global markets. These are the victims of the traditional approach.

Tradition serves a purpose. It helps us make decisions about what paths to take. It prevents us from having to blaze our own untried trail every time we need to make a decision. It prevents some bumps as we journey through the school of hard knocks. It’s comforting. Tradition has, well, a strong tradition.

But what happens in an age of rapid change? Does being traditional work well in a rapidly changing world?

First, lets consider the rate of change. We so often hear that the rate of change today is faster than it has ever been before. Let’s look at this statement in more depth.

Author Kevin Kelly gives us some perspective on the historical rate of change in his latest book, What Technology Wants:

Newness is such an elemental part of our lives today that we forget how rare it was in ancient days. Most change in the past was cyclical: A forest was cleared for a field and then a farm was abandoned; an army came and then an army left. Droughts followed floods, and one king, either good or evil, succeeded another. For most humans, for most of time, real change was rarely experienced. What little change did happen occurred over centuries.

He continues,

Long ago there was not much evidence of progress, at least how we visualize it. Five hundred years ago technologies were not doubling in power and halving in price every 18 months. Waterwheels were not becoming cheaper every year. A hammer was not easier to use from one decade to the next. Iron was not increasing in strength. The yield of corn seed varied by the season’s climate, instead of improving each year. Every 12 months you could not upgrade your oxen’s yoke to anything much better than what you already had.

The rate of change is such today that, even within a fraction of a lifespan, we notice it. A twelve year old has upgraded her cell phone three times. A twenty-something has witnessed the evolution of new industries like photovoltaics, genomics and kitesurfing.

Importantly, the rate of change is not linear; it doesn’t represent steady growth. It continually accelerates. Technologies–especially when they are layered on top of each other and combined (as they always are; think of electricity and subsequently radio) create change at Cambrian rates. Adding a new technology to the tool set does not simply increase it by one. It is not simply additive. Instead, it is multiplicative, creating new ecosystems for new technologies to evolve thereafter. This process is continual, always ramping up its ability to diversify and expand. Nature works similarly. The creation of a new “technology” (lungs, for example) allows for a whole new variety of life to take hold. Hundreds of thousands of new “technologies” spring forth from this one new “invention”.

Today, in a recombinatorial tour-de-force, our immense technological tool set is being joined in a rapidly-growing neural network that surrounds our planet: The World Wide Web. It is combining the power of many of our most important technologies like language, science, mathematics, finance… with the power of networks, creating explosive change that is taking many by surprise. Of all the technologies developed, our connective technology may be the most powerful and most possibility-affirming yet.

The World Wide Web is creating immense opportunity for some while at the same time creating tremendous disruption and pressure for others. It’s a perilous time for the traditionalist. Yet still, many are holding fast to tradition, either too afraid to let go of what has worked in the past or too blind to the trends that will shape the future. Organizations that took a hundred years to grow and became symbols of power and success are disappearing overnight. Car companies, banks, newspapers, and many others, are finding themselves fighting for their existence, having clung to tradition for too long, incapable of changing when they needed to.

When asked what they need most in today’s employees, CEOs mention things like the ability to ask good questions, the ability to solve problems while working with others (from anywhere), and the ability to engage others in thoughtful communication.1 These all have one factor in common: they relate to how well people can adapt. And adaptation requires learning. The agile and continuous learners will be the ones who will thrive in rapidly changing times. CEOs are starting to see that companies which are composed of the most adaptive individuals will be the ones that thrive.

Yet interestingly, schools, which are understood as being adaptation-enhancing service providers, are some of the most traditional, static institutions out there. They haven’t changed significantly since their inception in a time when “real change was rarely experienced”. The most sought after schools–the most prestigious–proudly market their “tradition of excellence”. (Interpret “excellence” as you may.) Parents, it must be said, are an important part of the feedback mechanism that keeps schools from evolving. Most of them continue to choose tradition over innovation when it comes to selecting schools for their children. They value the school’s reputation (usually based on the percentage of applicants it excludes) more than the school’s ability to create adaptive minds.

The price of being traditional

Certainly, learning does happen in traditional institutions. It happens in any. But is it the kind of learning that is needed today? Does it leverage connectivity? Does it help people become more adaptive in a rapidly changing world? Does it encourage agile thinking, just-in-time, efficient information gathering? Does it promote access to knowledge flows in order to solve problems, predict trends, access new markets…? Or is it based on the idea of learning large bodies of knowledge, which later, might be useful? (But only if the system its designed to dovetail into hasn’t changed.)

The concerned parent today pushes back, expressing concern of having their child become a “guinea pig” in a non-traditional setting. The reality is, many young people have already let themselves into the lab unbeknownst to their parents and are becoming adept at using today’s connectivity to learn about what interests them. They are doing this within online multiplayer games, communities of practice, media sharing sites, etc. They are asking for help (and getting it) from non-traditional sources like peers and uncredentialed experts. On their own, they are learning how to navigate these environments to meet their social and cognitive needs. Scientists who study new media have been impressed by the depth and breadth of learning taking place outside of schools.2

What also needs to be said though, is that many young people are unaware of these new learning possibilities, never having had the chance to experience their true potential in school or in any other setting.

And it’s not just the poor who are being left behind. Advantaged youth attending very well equipped schools are also missing out. Unfortunately, (and parents rarely understand this) having access to SmartBoards, fast networks, and Powerbooks does not necessarily mean students have access to adults who understand how to use these tools effectively. Providing someone with a gold pen does not guaranty their writing will improve.

Staying on a rigidly constructed, preordained path (the traditional approach) seems less and less like the best path to take in rapidly changing times. Traditional schools, roughly speaking, are based on learning a finite set of knowledge and a specific skill set (eg. finance, chemical engineering, political science…) during a predetermined amount of time. While this knowledge is still very useful, alone, it won’t provide learners with the tools and skills they’ll need in a globalized, connected, flat world.

CEOs are looking for people who are continuous learners. The traditional school though, sells learning as something that happens exclusively within its walls and ends at graduation. When more learning is needed, it recommends further formal study within The Academy. Largely, it ignores the literacies that will allow for continual learning once outside the school’s walled garden. It downplays (understandably) the type of skills that makes tuition payments less necessary. Consequently, there’s some real financial dissonance happening in institutions today as they proclaim their desire to create independent thinkers who can learn on their own yet on the other hand, they hold steady to the idea that the best way to “succeed” is to maintain dependence on the institution (in the form of tuition-paying membership).

While certain bodies of knowledge and specific skillsets are still very useful and will be for a long time, they should be complemented with approaches that make learning more dynamic, less reliant on a single institution, more connected, less expensive, simpler, and faster. Consider how different it is having an employee who can deftly connect with others and quickly learn what is needed in order to solve a problem compared to the employee who asks the company to enroll him in a semester-long course in order to accomplish the same. That scenario may sound unlikely but it’s not. Much of what’s taught in classrooms today, the agile learner can find online—in a fraction of the time and for pennies on the dollar.

Highly effective learners are demonstrating many of the following understandings. (Too many of which unfortunately, are not being taught in traditional institutions.)

-People learn more when connected to others and their ideas.

-Most of the smart people are outside of any institution. It makes sense to be able to connect with them often and efficiently.

-Learning happens in conversations.

-Sharing can be very useful. It gets you noticed and it attracts the kind of people who can help you learn. It’s a prerequisite for collaboration.

-Media is no longer something that we just passively consume. It is two way; we can produce it and interact with it.

-Large amounts of freely-available information requires new literacies. We need to be able to separate noise from signal; evaluate the quality of information, and efficiently find what we need.

-The best learning is active, not passive.

-The best learning happens when people can subscribe to what interests them. Today’s networked world allows for “long tail” learning supported by a plethora of communities of practice, communication tools and collaboration tools.

Concerned parents need to consider at what point will the bigger gamble be in staying in a traditional setting? At what point will following the safe route, stop being safe? I would argue that we are closer to that point than many would like to think. Maybe the real risk today is in placing more value in a credential than in experimenting with change. This question, and how it’s answered by parents, will ultimately be what drives change at the institutional level.

The disparity between those who’ve learned to use connectivity to their advantage and those who haven’t, will continue to widen as the rate of change allows “those in the know” to enjoy ever-increasing performance levels. As agile learners continually improve their personal learning infrastructure, they will be able to cast wider nets, be better able to connect with what matters, and be better able to adapt to change.

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries…and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. Niccolo Machiavelli

1Tony Wagner, Podcast at Perseus Book Group

2Digital Youth Research

Posted on December 6, 2010 at 7:21 pm by admin · Permalink
In: Alternative Ed, Participatory Culture · Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Written by Joe Henderson
    on December 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Oh, I don't know. We also tend to fetishize the new and “the future”. So our kids are being surrounded by more and more at a greater and greater pace (a claim that is often absent of empirical evidence, by the way). I don't disagree with much of what you're saying here, but I do think we're often too quick to think that all of this information neessarily leads to wisdom. Quite the opposite, I think. I'd love to know what you make of this work:

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike West, Mike West. Mike West said: offers this : Education for Well-being » The Age of the Traditionalist Is Over: It used to be that meticulously … […]

  3. Written by wfarren
    on December 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Hi Joe: I agree that we tend to fetishize the future. What I'm looking at specifically is based on the power of network effects. I believe we've reached a critical mass in terms of what and who is connected. I believe people who are able to use this connectivity effectively have a great advantage over those who can't. I also agree that information does not alone lead to wisdom. I created a video about this. You can find it at the top right of this page.
    I have not read the book but I think I read his article in the NYTimes, if it's the same guy. Ultimately, working with your hands often requires information (and practice, of course.) The motorcycles he loves to work on only exists, because over the ages, we've been able to add information to materials that were once in the ground. Without connected ideas and information, the motorcycle would not exist. Being able to connect to the right information, ideas and people allowed me to use my hands to build this:… and then to do this: I've never met a person who is into this hobby, yet by connecting online, I'm able to learn enough to get going with it. I like building things and using my hands. Using connective technology gives me more opportunities to do so. I don't see them as being mutually exclusive.

  4. Written by charlie roy
    on December 11, 2010 at 8:36 am

    @ Bill
    A very interesting post. Change seems to be the constant in terms of our human existence. The current world of web 2.0 and the way information is no longer scare seems to be altering just about everything. The only other time such a change took place may be with the advent of the printing press. Good schools will start making shifts. It is though sad as you point out that our institutions devoted to learning are often the last places to embrace meaningful change. I write this as I watch my son work on his cursive hand writing…………..

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