Another Sunday Ritual Soon Gone

When I was a kid, Sundays in the summer were car washing days. The stores were closed. The roads were generally quiet. And we took out the hose and the pail, filled them with water and dishwashing soap then rubbed, scrubbed, and waxed the family car…or later our own car…beautiful again. Sundays have already substantially changed and now in an article a recent Economist magazine, one of the last of the great suburban Sunday rituals will soon be going away too. For a scientist has found a pattern made by an obscure but available laser that sheds water and dirt with it. One day in the not too distant future we should be able to buy a car that not only no longer needs waxing but will never get dirty and need washing. Perhaps, about the same time, we will no longer even own cars but instead will ask for one on our cell phone, and an Uber Self-Driving car will pull up to our house to pick us up and drop us off wherever we want to go.

Crazy ideas, great changes. Yes, this is just a tiny example of the new world our students need to be preparing for. We are all linear thinkers. We think the world will continue in much the same way it has been going, with changes that take place slowly and methodically, changes that we can get used to, changes we can plan and prepare for. But change is not linear at all. It is, like the word used by the wonderful writer and biologist Stephen Jay Gould to describe evolution, “punctuated”. Sometimes change accelerates quickly and sometimes it moves at a constant speed. This has always been the nature of change and it is evermore so true today. For things that shed water don’t get dirty and don’t need cleaning — cars, windows, even clothes. And cars that don’t need drivers don’t need parking spaces on streets, driveways, or shopping centers. Our world could, and likely will, change dramatically.

How do we prepare children for work and life in this future world? What should they learn in their school years to make them ready for a lifetime punctuated with change they cannot predict? We cannot base it on the Sunday rituals of our past like counting the cash my dad brought home from his dental practice so that he could put it into the bank on Monday morning. We cannot base it on the paper and pencil calculating rituals we spent innumerable hours on, the paper algorithms that define most of the math our students practice. We cannot base it on “What is____?” habits of thought of the past, when the answer can almost always be easily Googled. We must base it on “What if…” thinking, functional thinking, the basis of science, technology, engineering, and math, the heart of business planning and quantitative reasoning, the question the future depends on.

Sunday rituals will come and go. Technology will sometimes change rapidly and sometimes slowly. But we can prepare our children for their future by making their education about “What if…”, their practice and mastery not off paper-based algorithms but off open-ended problem solving, their focus not on facts in today’s data-rich world but on thinking, their vision directed not on finding the right answer but on seeing outside the box.