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Jim Wynn and Riel Miller tell us a story about a leap in education productivity

to $290 and perhaps even more striking is the time required to construct a car was just 93 minutes. We all know what happened next. The leap in


productivity opened up new choices and new ways of looking and acting. Higher productivity also brought higher wages in many industries that adopted the new methods and tools. However the conditions that made this leap in

productivity doable did not happen all of a sudden. Standard parts, sequencing the production processes for speed, time-motion studies of work, and a workforce ready to take this approach all took decades to develop. Only then, with all of the different elements in place,

could Henry Ford seize the moment. Today a similar breakthrough is in the making – only

this time it about a leap in the productivity of learning. For decades now, different pieces of the puzzle have been falling into place. Obviously the internet, but also how we use education, the way we understand interactive learning processes and cognition, brain science and evolution, assessment systems and work organisation, each of these elements are important. Taken together we can imagine a leap in education

productivity as transformative as the turning point moment of Ford’s Model T. Imagine the coming together of a whole set of new

ways to: organise learning, share information, produce knowledge, assess achievement, provide feedback, design learning voyages. What if all of these factors allowed the number of months spent by a young person in school to be reduced from the current average of 120 to 100? This is a major leap in productivity. In 2025, to reach the same level of achievement

(quality), as measured for instance by a high school diploma, the average student only needs to spend 10 years instead of 12 in school. What is it like in this new context? How does it work?

First of all, in 2025 teachers are paid more but the

overall cost to taxpayers is less. That is what happens when productivity increases. Given the investment in new tools and new production methods schools now need fewer teachers. But just like in Henry Ford’s factory, each teacher adds more value and so they can be paid more while the reduction in the total number of teachers allows overall salary costs to be reduced. Savings have been further reinforced by the fact

that school facilities, new fully interactive learning spaces, buildings and equipment, are distributed across a smaller student population. Another important change is that teachers are now,

on average, more qualified. With higher wages came a greater willingness by both prospective teachers and school management to invest in skill development. Maybe the most surprising impact of the

breakthrough to higher productivity in education was how it created unanticipated new sources of value- added in the world outside the school system. In particular, no-one expected the magnitude of the economic and social changes that accompanied

reducing compulsory schooling by two years. Indeed initially expectations were just the opposite. Expectations were wrong, once again. Similar to the

Model T, it was not the leap in learning productivity alone that made massive social and economic change happen. What mattered even more were the changes in the way people worked and played, creating both economic value and the social fabric. Here the breakthroughs were legion and what mattered was precisely that throughout society, for everything that happens in everyday life, learning in general became much easier because learning processes were much more productive. In other words, reducing the cost of this critical

input – learning – was similar to what happened when the advent of the Model T’s assembly line reduced the cost of transportation and consumer goods while increasing the wages of assembly line workers. This leap in the productivity of learning processes

enabled what we now call the Learning Society. Of course the newly out-of-school youngsters, charged up with the energy and dissidence of adolescence,

HEN HENRY Ford started selling the Model T no-one believed that it could be a mass-market product. Cars were luxury goods that few could afford. However, by 1925 the price had dropped

Learning in 2025

are leading the way. We call them the “you-do” generation. They are the pioneers of a fluid, project- based organisation of economic and social life. This activity is at one and the same time much more local, rooted in the narrow specificity of places, groups and tasks, but also highly global, linked to worldwide communities that are deeply engaging. What amazes older generations is the fluidity,

openness, verifiability and responsibility of these often short-lived communities of action. Somehow almost overnight a whole new set of “digital native” capabilities appeared. This jump in the general capacity to create new networks reflects a combination of the more interactive and more productive ways that learning is taking place in schools along with the “reality” of intensive play, from an early age, in many different virtual worlds. But it is not just that higher learning productivity has big knock-on effects, a critical aspect is how the learning takes place. Initial fears that constant interactivity would

undermine young people’s capacity to concentrate and get things done turned out to be all wrong. Certainly on the surface, the gaming and texting and video-surfing seem frivolous, distracting and inimical to focusing on serious tasks. But beneath the surface, deeper things were happening. Like with the literate children of illiterate parents it is hard to understand fully how new skills allow exploration and navigation, not just by reading the street signs in the city, but through access to whole new worlds of ideas and stories. So too with the real “digital natives”. What matters when we use tools is the motivation.

So it is true that if the goal is to escape boredom, rebel against what is being imposed, and test the waters of human socialising, the “digital native” does nothing but zap from one channel to the next. What is missing from this picture is the question of why the tool is being used. Digital natives yoke digital tools to the tasks of

building identities, communities, knowledge and habitat. They are motivated and engaged by an immense variety of economic and social activities. Today’s “you- do” generation has transformed tools for zapping across a million information feeds into highly productive means to concentrate on what they want to do, when and where they want to do it. They are learning all the time.


• Jim Wynn is chief education officer at Promethean and a board member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. Riel Miller is a consultant in strategic foresight for XperidoX: Futures Consulting. Visit

Reading this whole page aloud would probably take you about 20 seconds.

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SecEd • February 3 2011


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