Do We Have the “Situational Awareness” to Navigate Into the Future?

In a recent podcast interview, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger said the main reason he was able to make his famous emergency landing of Flight 1549 into the Hudson River in 2009 was because he had “situational awareness,” meaning he was aware of what was happening, could understand the meaning, and project the potential outcomes into the future.


Sounds like what most educational leaders need right now.


In our work with leaders over the past six months, we’ve been deeply focused on one particular aspect of “situational awareness,” namely building the skill of “reading the signs” in this moment more effectively to make better decisions about the future for students and school communities. One of the “big questions” we’re asking is what are we seeing happening now that gives us strong clues as to what’s coming around the corner?


Obviously, we can’t predict the future with 100% certainty. And actually, as situations can change in a heartbeat, that shouldn’t be the goal. What we can do, however, is get a clearer sense of where we’re going by being more fully aware of where we are.


In an education context, many of the signs are pointing to some big changes that require a greater sense of awareness in this moment.


Awareness of the Big Changes


Iterations in the form and function of K-12 schools are no doubt being amplified by the current pandemic and other events that are disruption the normal flow of life. Now that many parents are being forced to choose between virtual, hybrid, or face to face learning, many are looking for new alternatives that may meet both the needs of their children and their own lifestyles. So it’s no surprise to see the impressive uptick of microschools happening everywhere from “Africa to Austin.” Some new all virtual learning opportunities are even focused on co-working collectives and the arts, not just a standard K-12 curriculum.


Similarly, it feels like higher education is at an inflection point as the combination of the pandemic and years of tuition inflation has priced out a large number of families and has promoted and worsened inequities in the larger educational system. When you hear that college presidents are suggesting students don’t attend their own schools if they have to take out loans to do it, that’s a signal. And COVID-19 is pushing many schools into highly uncomfortable territory, vulnerable financially and in terms of relevance for students.. Many students already questioning the supposed “preparation” offered by a four-year degree are now choosing to opt out of an online-only offering. As with K-12 education, more and more are asking the existential question of what, exactly, is school for, and what does this moment demand in terms of what it becomes.


AwarenessIn terms of work, more and more employers are losing their reverence for traditional education paths and, instead, either hiring based on an applicant’s ability to problem solve and think creatively or on their ability to learn on the job or in corporate sponsored training programs. Just last month, Google launched a $300 “career certificate” program that it will treat as “the equivalent of a four-year degree” in it’s hiring process. It’s becoming clearer that more routes to an “education” are opening up through alternative credentials, new certifications, and traditional and virtual apprenticeships. Focusing on making students “college and career ready” is no longer the work.


Similarly, some job recruiters are beginning to look to “hackathons” more than degree programs to determine who has the potential to become a valued employee. As technologies continue to infringe on and change the work of humans, more and more will be looking to figure out what people can actually do rather than what they currently know.


Importantly, these alternatives to traditional interviews, assessments, and career prep pipelines demonstrate how relevant learning around something that matters in real time can also serve to center and build equity. Too many brilliant students don’t have the opportunity for curated college prep programs, or they might confront myriad obstacles once admitted to elite universities. Hackathons and career academies at highly-desired employers show early signs of potentially narrowing the opportunity gap, and ultimately, of unleashing genius.


Another signal we see is the increasing concern over our general literacy in the midst of a growing “infodemic” of fakes, half-truths, and conspiracy theories on Facebook and other social media sites. Having a well developed “crap detector” is now not just a good thing to have but a requirement. Yet a recent study showed that only 9% of 15 year olds worldwide can tell the difference between fact and opinion. And arguably, adults, even educators, are struggling with the skills they need to “read the world” accurately even as the explosion of self-publishing and creation platforms continues on.


New Signals


Amidst so many signs of digital and tech dominance in every aspect of our lives, the quality of our human networks has become more important – and more valued – than ever. The accrual of social capital might be the secret sauce to fulfillment and success in a digital age. This goes beyond the old “who you know” to indicate the quality of relationships and networks, both online and off. In fact, measuring a student’s social capital is increasingly seen as an important indicator of the ability to self-determine and direct learning at a time when the expectation is that we’ll create our own education pathways to become skilled at the jobs we want to do.


Other signals such as the growing Black Lives Matter movement, the increasing signs of climate change (or “climate cancer” as author Simon Sinek suggests we call it,) and even the pandemic we’re currently living through suggest a more disruptive, “no normal” future ahead where many of the ways we currently interact with each other and the world are going to change in some dramatic ways. Rather than preparing three or five year plans, educational leaders need to be building resilient school cultures and communities that can respond to ongoing change and are ready to learn their way through whatever future evolves.


Our “situational awareness” right now suggests that we should no longer rely on traditional anchors or narratives as to how the world will act moving forward. That, as futurist Marina Gorbis writes, “we are all immigrants to the future; none of us are natives to that land.” She explains:

Margaret Mead famously wrote about the profound changes wrought by the Second World War, “All of us who grew up before the war are immigrants in time, immigrants from an earlier world, living in an age essentially different from anything we knew before.” Today we are again in the early stages of defining a new age. The very underpinnings of our society and institutions from how we work to how we create value, govern, trade, learn, and innovate are being profoundly reshaped by amplified individuals. We are indeed all migrating to a new land and should be looking at the new landscape emerging before us like immigrants: ready to learn a new language, a new way of doing things, anticipating new beginnings with a sense of excitement, if also with a bit of understandable trepidation.

The last six months have thrown so many of our mental models about learning in schools into flux that if we’re not willing to learn, to gain a greater awareness of what’s happening and the consequences, we will have real trouble landing this metaphoric plane called “education” in ways that don’t disrupt all of our lives even further.


Homa and Will

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