Perkins, D. (2014). Future wise: Educating our children for a changing world. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
It is an interesting time in the world of teaching and learning. The digital age has catapulted us into an era we were not quite ready for and many educators are holding on by the ‘skin of their teeth’, struggling to achieve pedagogical practices and curriculum worthy of twenty-first century learning (Burgess, 2012, loc. 103; Marzano, 2007, loc. 33; Price, 2013, p. 20). The relevance and currency of our traditional teaching and learning methods have been debated in numerous spheres and countless movements in education are recognising the need for transformation in the ways we teach and learn to cope with the ubiquitous connectivity and information overload of our students (Costa & Kallick, 2009; Crockett, Jukes & Churches, 2011; Gardner, 2006; Hattie & Yates, 2014). What constitutes our learning ecology has become incredibly difficult to articulate and, with information available at the click of a button, anywhere and everywhere, we are beginning to see our learning frameworks and pedagogies transform into those that boast twenty-first century skills, future-proof learning and technological integration (Seely Brown, 2010, p.12). It seems however, that while there is much literature to support the betterment of teaching and learning in the world of continuous transformation, we often overlook what is perhaps the most important consideration, that is, the question raised by David Perkins in Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World (2014), what is actually worth knowing, learning and understanding for a student of the digital age? Consideration of this question, while incredibly broad in scope, provides an important starting point in our quest as educators to reimagine education in contemporary society. While we can transform the way we teach and reconsider how we learn in the twenty-first century, if we do not stop to determine the relevancy of what is worth learning, we could be missing the point of learning completely. It is this factor that makes Perkins’ discussion in Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World pertinent for all educators of the digital age. This review will provide an overview of the key themes of Perkin’s dialogue around what is worth learning and analyse and compare this discussion to relevant scholarly literature in the field. Limited in that Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World does not answer its overarching question of ‘what is worth learning’, what it does provide is an essential toolkit of ideas for all educators to contemplate as we work to revolutionise perhaps one of the most fundamental yet often marginalised considerations of education in the twenty-first century; is what students are learning in school likely to matter in the lives they are likely to live?
Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World is founded in the research and work of David Perkins, Research Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A founding member of Harvard’s Project Zero, a research and development institute at Harvard, Perkins boasts an extensive body of work focused on teaching and learning over his lifetime, including collaborations with notable contemporaries such as Howard Gardner and Veronica Boix Mansilla. Traditionally, David Perkins adopts a social constructivist epistemology in his work, and this also underpins many of the themes in Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World. Qualitative in nature, the content of Perkins’ book is based around experiential narratives and analysis from his years as a teacher, lecturer and researcher, and compiles a body of ideas and discussion to support well-grounded prior research by Perkins and other experts in the field. While intended to inspire educators to take the first step towards reimaging the curriculum offered in our complex and ever-changing world, the style of this book makes it accessible not only to educators, but also other parties such as parents, students and policy-makers invested in thinking about the currency of what is learnt in schooling systems. As admitted by Perkins in his introduction, the scope of ‘what’s worth learning’ is incredibly broad and almost impossible to answer, thus, instead of attempting to answer the question, Perkins offers what he articulates are better ways of thinking about what’s worth learning for most people in school (2014, p.4). This is one of the strengths of the book, as readers are given the opportunity to embrace and reflect on the wisdom offered through the ‘try this’ activities scattered throughout and the comprehensive ‘reimagining education’ analysis located at the end of each chapter. Through his ‘reimaging education’ sections, Perkins assists learners to keep track of the ideas developed in each chapter as he provides analysis under four main quests: “identifying learning in contrast with not-so-lifeworthy learning”; “choosing what lifeworthy learning to teach from the many possibilities”; “teaching for lifeworthy learning in ways that make the most of it”; and “constructing a lifeworthy curriculum” (2014, p.25). Cleverly, these sections allow the readers to transfer their newfound knowledge into understandings through examination of practical and relevant examples, a concept discussed by Perkins as essential for learning that is future-proof.
Debate over what constitutes learning has been historically concerned with how knowledge is constructed and transferred to understandings in the mind of the learner (Dewey, 1910, p.44; Forman & Kuschner, 1977, p.84; von Glaserfeld, 1989, p.128). In Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World, Perkins emphasises the importance of knowledge construction and transference through his assertion that the learning we offer students must not only be ‘lifeworthy’- “likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live” (2014, p. 8), but also ‘lifeready’ – “ready to pop up on appropriate occasions and help make sense of the world” (2014, p. 24). This assertion echoes the work of academics such as Seely Brown, who suggests that knowledge is made up of a combination of explicit and tactic dimensions which, when applied together, constitute learning (2000, p. 15), and Bruner, who suggests that learning involves interconnection between both explicit and practical knowledge, leading to enculturation (1960, p.14). With this in mind, Perkins raises an issue worthy of consideration for educators when he asserts that the learning that has traditionally occurred in our school systems risks redundancy, as the knowledge students are attaining becomes increasingly irrelevant, and consequently, inapplicable to the lives they are likely to lead in the digital age (2014, p.7). Interestingly this notion furthers the work of early educational theorist John Dewey, who warned that, “only in education, never in the life of farmer, sailor, merchant, physician, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing” (1916, p.185). Nearly a century later, this notion forms the foundation of Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World, as Perkins acknowledges the growing trend in teachers wanting to push the boundaries of what is taught in their classroom to make learning more relevant to the lives their students are likely to lead (2014, p.2). In response to this Perkins identifies ‘six beyonds’ that he proposes collectively represent the growing concerns among educators when considering how to prepare learners for our contemporary world. The beyonds cover going beyond: basic skills – twenty-first century skills and dispositions; the traditional disciplines – renewed, hybrid, and less familiar disciplines; discrete disciplines – interdisciplinary topics and problems; regional perspectives – global perspectives, problems, and studies; mastering content – learning to think about the world with the content; and prescribed content – much more choice of what to learn (2014, p.2). It is contemplation and adoption of these beyonds that Perkins alleges will force educators and their systems to revise the knowledge necessary for lifeworthy and lifeready learning and successfully prepare learners for their unknown future (2014, p.8).
In the shift from the industrial age, through the knowledge age and into the constantly evolving digital age, the world that students are exposed to has become considerably larger. Where learning has conventionally involved knowledge attainment, Perkins asserts that this no longer aligns with the connected and networked environment of today’s world (2014, p.40). The traditional educational goals of knowledge and content attainment have become ineffective in preparing students for life outside of school as our globalised, networked world has quickly devalued much remembered information (2014, p.43). This has created what Perkins deems the ‘small world paradox’, that is, as our ability to connect and interact with worlds beyond the classroom becomes a norm in learning, our collective worlds become smaller, making the worlds we engage with individually more numerous and complex (2014, p.46). This is reiterated by scholars such as Trilling and Fadel who fear that, “the potential for information overload, distraction, and analysis paralysis when facing demands for attention from too many sources – ranging from well-informed and reliable to woefully uninformed and even deliberately misleading – is high” (2009, p.17). Hence, Perkins’ recommendation that instead of foregrounding specialised disciplinary knowledge, education should value building expert amateurism in its learners, that is, learners who are able to understand and apply basics from individual disciplines across and outwards to other areas (2014, p.38). This is not to diminish the more quantified knowledge needed for further study in specialised areas, however, Perkins suggests that, particularly at a middle school level, “the expertise agenda in basic education skews learning toward advanced technical content not helpful to most learners in the lives they are likely to live” (2014, p.47). Perkins is not lessening the importance of discipline specific knowledge, however in building on the ideas of educational evangelists such as Sir Ken Robinson, he is challenging educators to reevaluate whether this knowledge is relevant to the lives all learners in school are likely to live (Robinson, 2001). Perkins suggests that through ‘smart sampling’ of curriculum we needed to provide learning and knowledge that promotes big questions and big understandings, allowing students to use their expert amateur knowledge to connect with the ever-changing world around them as needed. His following discussion on the relevance of hybrid curriculum, cross topics and analysis of twenty-first century frameworks (or ‘big know-how’), makes Perkins’ book particularly pertinent, as it becomes apparent that focusing on what is worth learning needs to come before faddish innovations in technology, pedagogy and processes of learning (2014, p.220).
While providing a toolkit of important considerations for learning in the twenty-first century, refreshingly, Future wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World does not make the assertion that there is one right answer in transforming the education offered to students. Rather, Perkins’ motivations in this book are best articulated through his request that we as educators think about what application the learning in our first twelve years of education has had on our lives today. More often than not, Perkins avows, it was the knowledge and skills we acquired that allowed us to create big understandings across topics and disciplines and provided relevance along the way to greater wisdom in the lives we have and will continue to lead. David Perkins has authored a book grounded in relevant research that collates, analyses and discusses current educational debates about what is worth learning in the digital age, delivering better ways for us to think about how to answer this question. While readers may find Perkins’ content and ideas unsettling, this is what makes his work so efficacious; if we as educators are not thinking about the relevance of content, knowledge and curricula offered in our teaching and learning, we are not providing the best possible learning for our students.
Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Burgess, D. (2012). Teach like a pirate: Increase student engagement, boost your creativity and transform your life as an educator [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Teach-Like-PIRATE-Engagement-Creativity-ebook/dp/B009V9RQNU/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=
Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2009). Habits of mind across the curriculum: Practical and creative strategies for teachers. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011). Literacy is not enough: 21st century fluencies for the digital age. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston: DC Heath.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan.
Forman, G., & Kuschner, D. (1977). The child’s construction of knowledge. Belmont, Calif: Wadworth Co.
Gardner, H. (2006). Five minds for the future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.
Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Art-Science-Teaching-Comprehensive-Professional-ebook/dp/B00ARIH166/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1429145584&sr=1-1&keywords=the+art+and+science+of+teaching
Perkins, D. (2014). Future wise: Educating our children for a changing world. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Price, D. (2013). OPEN: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future. Crux Publishing Ltd.
Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Oxford: Capstone.
Seeley Brown, J. (2000). Growing up: Digital: How the web changes work, education, and the ways people learn. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 32(2), 11-20. doi: 10.1080/00091380009601719
Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st century skills: learning for life in our times. John Wiley & Sons.
von Glaserfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80 (1), 121-140. doi: 10.1007/BF00869951.