The Fourth Industrial Revolution: We Stand On The Brink

NAIS Great disruptionThe summer 2013 issue of Independent School magazine was about technology and schools and posed the  question The Great Disruption?

Just then retiring NAIS president Pat Bassett article’s The Third Great American Revolution outlined what should by now be the familiar big shifts in education.

And he delivered this stirring  call to action and imagination.

Within your ken 2

4th-industrial-revolution1Fast forward two and a half years to the World Economic Forum in Davos this past January. There the talk was not just of three American revolutions but of four industrial revolutions.

In dramatic terms the reports, infographics and blog posts from the event outlined what the future holds.

Predicting the future is always hazardous but in well defined ways the outline of what is to come is shown as already emerging, making the predictions not so much imaginative leaps but rather likely projections.

“You cannot wait until a house burns down to buy fire insurance on it. We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” – Robert J. Shiller, 2013 Nobel laureate in economics, Professor of Economics, Yale University

Where the imagination comes into play is around the issues of how we will cope with the changes and disruptions of this magnitude. Here’s how the WEF describes the fourth revolution:

The overly dramatic picture is my addition.


OK. So now what? Are we ready? No, of course not. But what would be the best way to start thinking about that express train of change bearing down upon us? Well first – we have to start talking about it, exploring what we see, what we can know and what can be imagined. We have to identify the challenges and starting developing the capacities to take them on.

And we have to start talking about it at every level and especially in schools and with those concerned with education (i.e. all of us) and of course with our students. Here are a few questions for starters:


And thinking about all that we are going to have to examine some pretty fundamental assumptions about learning. If we come to grips with that new world of the fourth revolutionwe will need to think about some of these questions that have a direct bearing on how we educate.

  • For what roles are we preparing our students?
  • What skills will they need to thrive and how have we determined what they are?
  • How will they learn them, from whom and where?
  • What experiences should they have now that will have the best chance of providing those skill-sets and mind-sets?
  • And if the future world is to be one of rising social tensions and inequity – what ethical compass will they need to help them navigate the changed ethical and moral boundaries?


Work to be done indeed. We have it within our ken – but do we have it within our will? Our collective will will have to emerge from a strengthened democracy and depends on a civil society for any wisdom and direction to emerge. Not seeing an excess of that this election season.

The current obsession with education as test scores and standardized achievement marches apace. We don’t have the understanding nor the will while they remain the measure of success.

Fortunately we do have an abundance of voices to help us through this challenge of shaping and embracing the future with optimism and courage.

For a quick list of some of those voices I turn to Mike Crowley’s always interesting blog Maelstrom. His post Learning About Learning: Inspiring Voices on Modern Schools is a crash course in getting up to speed. Reading the books he mentions would be one one to get started. And making Educating Modern Learners a habit would help too.

All that would have to be followed by getting connected with others doing this work. We have to delve deep into just what must become the moral and ethical drivers of the decisions with which our society is, and will continue to be, confronted. And a  sense of urgency – we need that too!

And that’s just for starters. So many more. But of course – trading quotes and writing blog posts is not the work we need to do. But it doesn’t hurt!


  1. An excellent post, Josie! I remember being amazed that Pat, all chose Cathy Davidson and Alexis Madrigal as keynote talks his last year — (Philadelphia also the year of the EdcampIS and when I met you face to face for the first time).

    Cathy’s talk would be interesting to revisit — and if you recall, Alexis invoked Illich! I remember talking with him later in the day about his interest in education and encouraged reading Tools of Conviviality as a companion to Deschooling Society….have to admit a crazy NAISAC experience. You post brings up so much and your mention of democracy resonates. Walter Parker wrote:

    “Democratic Living is not given in nature, like gold or water. It is a social construct, like a skyscraper, school playground, or new idea. Accordingly there can be no democracy without its builders, caretakers, and change agents….”(2003)

    What are schools, what can schools be, what are the central human conditions we assemble to deliberate about, what culture is emerging from our actions — what are we building and caretaking and changing…..

    I wrote this post on Design Fiction: — as you know I am ever thinking about how do we co-design in our own spaces and schools that fit our communities using our tacit abilities…. How might we leverage DF locally to suspend disbelief in change.

    I completely agree that the work being done at EML is incisive and salient.

    To add:

    Apple, Beane and Parker: on democracy in education?

    Illich: on Learning Webs and the power of “schooling”

    Roberts: Beyond Learning By Doing…. on experience in education?

    Stilgoe: Outside Lies Magic…. on seeing?

    Zuboff and Guldi on the landscape of power in WEF’s current revolution?

    Thank you for this post. A fine way to start my morning.

    Thomas Steele-Maley´s last blog post ..Speculative Futures in Education

  2. Brilliant comments Thomas. Thanks for engaging.

    NAISac13 was indeed memorable.And for all the reasons you mention. I was just reading “Is the international liberal order dying? These five countries will decide” by Ted Piccone in the Brookings Brief.

    Democracy is indeed a social construct and while it is endangered there is hope. And that’s where schools can help. But of course, most schools are as far away from teaching democracy by doing as you can get.

    Thanks too for the additional references. Aargh! Too much to learn! So much more to understand. Too much to try and grapple with! Aren’t we lucky.

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