The Future of Education: Ethical Literacy For Handling Global Complexity

By Linda Fisher Thornton

We are not preparing students for success in the world where they will have to live and work. Some of the ways we currently think about “teaching” need to be scrapped and replaced.

It will be increasingly important that teachers and other learning guides dig into complexity in order to help prepare students who need to handle increasing complexity in their lives and work. A focus on ‘knowing’ must be replaced with a focus on ‘how to think, problem solve and successfully navigate global complexity using ethical values’.

The risk in not quickly making the change to a much more current and engaging way of preparing learners is that every outdated textbook used by schools to save money will contain at best inaccurate information and at worst morally offensive content. Every smart phone will have access to more current and relevant information than is being taught in the classroom. 

Understanding The Challenge, Visualizing the Future

Students need to be able to think successfully at high levels of complexity in order to be effective workers, leaders and problem-solvers. Memorization of facts will definitely not help them be ready. In the old way of thinking, the more people are “taught,” the more they “know.” This thinking does not work because it ignores the important variables of motivation, relevance, learner engagement and the need to improve thinking capability. It ignores the importance of basing choices on ethical values, and focuses only on historical context. 

Learning has become highly self-directed and traditional approaches to teaching (“telling,” “sharing knowledge” and “testing knowledge”) do not support learner success in a complex global context. 

For example, does knowing the complete history of politics prepare learners to handle the current divisive political arena? No, but learning how to think about and act on ethical values will. Does knowing how to write catchy headlines that sell prepare learners for rapidly increasing expectations about appropriate social media posts? No, but learning how to think about and act on ethical values will. 

“Learning Future” Includes

  • A higher level of complexity in thinking (exploring shades of grey, not “right” and “wrong” answers with an answer key)
  • Technology-enabled, just-in-time, user-friendly learning
  • More individualized feedback based on skills needed for future job success 
  • More practicing and evaluating individual and group problem-solving
  • Less memorizing and testing facts (which are easily accessed)
  • More practice time spent learning how to think and act responsibly in the world
  • More awareness of how we fit into the global community
  • More engaging, self-directed work and less homework

A New Role for Leaders in Education

Today’s students are tomorrow’s professionals and leaders. Employers are not easily impressed by book knowledge – they want to know what you can do, for them, in their context, accurately, at high speed, while avoiding ethical mistakes. Adapting to this high employer expectation will turn our current public education practices upside down. 

Ethical literacy is more important than memorization and good test scores. It will define the success of tomorrow’s leaders. We need to make it our top education priority. To respond rapidly to changes in the skills and abilities they will need for tomorrow’s jobs, school administrators will need to adapt quickly to new leadership and learning research and engage everyone in making the change. Only then will we prepare students for success in an exciting, forward-thinking and competitive global arena.  

Masters of Complexity: Leading Effectively in Public Education will help leaders visualize challenges and opportunities for change and decide where to start. 

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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