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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What Does "The World Is Flat" Mean for Education?: A Closer Look at Our Educational Globe

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger

So, you've heard that the world is now "flat," according to New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman. What does this mean for education? Let's take a brief look at Friedman's bestseller, The World Is Flat.

Friedman speaks about drastic changes that have occurred in the last fifteen years or so -- events that have leveled the global playing field. He refers to ten "flatteners": things that have enabled us to connect with the rest of the world much more easily than ever before. Events such as the fall of the Berlin wall, Netscape going public, and the new world of "technologies on steroids" -- cell phones, wireless devices, always being connected, and so on -- have made our world a new place.

Key players, thanks to new tools, can play new roles in new ways. A leveled playing field has been created. Employees from one organization are no longer working side-by-side inside the same building. Individuals from anywhere can compete with others from around the world. This convergence gives a new feel to how successful twenty-first-century businesses operate and how twenty-first-century learners can learn.

Friedman has some interesting points I think are worthy of consideration. For example, he states that thirty-five years ago, if you had the choice between being born a B+ student in Brooklyn or a genius in Bangalore, India, you'd rather be born the B+ student in Brooklyn, because your life opportunities would be so much greater in Brooklyn, even as a B+ student. Today, you'd much rather be born a genius in Bangalore, because when the world is flat, and you can plug and play, collaborate and connect, just like you can from Brooklyn, your life chances and opportunities hold more potential than ever before.

Friedman talks about the "untouchables" -- those people whose job won't be outsourced or merged. Those are entertainers, authors, great motivators, specialists, and so on. Another group of untouchables are our locals: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.

Besides the untouchables, Friedman suggests there will be eight types of jobs for the middle class that will be in demand for a long time to come. They include the great corroborators, the great leveragers, the great synthesizers, the passionate personalizers, the great localizers, the "green ones," the great explainers, and the great adapters. Those with these skills are less affected by changes in careers, new job requirements, and so on, because these are lifelong skills that don't become obsolete.

Friedman's suggestion that we should be "learning to learn" is nothing new to those of us in education, but it does give it new weight, as he warns that "what we learn today in school will be outdated by tomorrow, and therefore, the most successful people in the 'flat world' will be those who can adapt and learn quickly. The greater our curiosity and passion for learning, the greater chances we will have for success later in life."

The book paints a remarkable picture for twenty-first-century living and learning, whether you agree with all his points or not. In recent years, many political and socioeconomic barriers have slowly been removed, and huge technological advances have been made. The book explores what that means in regard to changing how we do business, and how we operate in a globally competitive society.

In a recent talk about this book, I asked a school principal what the book meant to her, and she replied, "I'm exhilarated by what this means for me, the teachers in my building, and the students we teach. We have the power to make great strides with what we're given. The challenge will be how to take advantage of all this in the educational setting, and try to make sure our classrooms are flat."

Let's hear what you all have to say. How does a flat world affect us personally? What do you think this means for our classrooms? How do we ensure that our children have the twenty-first-century skills to succeed in the new flat world?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Carol Wahl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As a teacher, a "flat" world affects both me and my students. In the classroom, there is increasing emphasis on students developing skills to help them succeed in the workplace, in addition to the development of an extensive knowledge base. What they know is critically compared to what is known by students in other countries. In order to not just compete, but survive in a global economy, there will need to be an increased focus on high quality education for all students. Today's students have a world of information available to them, via the internet. The challenge is sorting out the information overload, and determining what is valid, and valuable to their need or situation; what is fact or opinion, and how can it be used to their benefit. This morning, our Life Skills teacher shared a web site with me that she was not happy with. Her classes are doing a unit on nutrition. Her criticism of the site has to do with the sharing of the details of how to become anorexic. How as parents and educators do we prepare children for the harmful side of the information age? The same information is available to teachers. If we are committed to do whatever it takes to provide a high quality education, then we should be using technology and the information available to us to enhance our lessons, and their delivery. If not, we will eventually be replaced by someone who can do so.
Trevor Owens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I really do not think the world is flat. Or at least that it is flat in any way which is ultimately ‘good' or beneficial for the majority of individuals in the world. Consider the US example, what have the powerful leveling forces done for urban education… Not much. For example, in the city of Milwaukee, in the urban schools there are still not enough qualified teachers, students wander the halls, in one situation a teacher I knew graded her students on who brought a pen and paper to class and sixty percent of the class failed. Meanwhile, on the other side of town digital technologies are giving well trained teachers of wealthy student's cutting edge skills, skills that will help them compete in a global marketplace in a variety of careers. Don't get me wrong, I am by no means a luddite. Digital technologies, along with other trends which come out of The World is Flat have, (or had), the potential to be a leveling force. However, technology doesn't teach people, people teach people… and when you follow the way we have poorly invested in teachers, and in education in general it becomes quite clear where we failed. Of course we could turn things around, pay teachers well, offer them our respect for what they do, and in particular give the highest honors to the teachers who go into the most difficult teaching environments. But, Sadly I just don't see that happening.
Jacqueline Oliver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The "World Is Flat" confirms a realization that communications are what will either improve peace or cause destruction. The old adage, Knowledge is Power, suggests that the more that we know about ourselves and our world, the more we can share with those who seek knowledge. We as educators must teach our students about the power of conation (the will to succeed). Those who want to limit the potentials for our young people, really want to maintain the status quo which suggests that power conceeds to no one. Our students must acquire and maintain their technological skills and the university is the place to perfect them. Students must have the will to succeed and acquire whatever it takes for success.
Linda Sweeney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Thank you for starting an education-related blog on this book. It has intrigued me ever since I read the first edition, so much so that I just bought the updated version. I have been searching for a way to get its point across to high school students without success. I tried out some of the data on my "high-need" economics students last year, but I couldn't motivate them to change their educational strategies based on this new competition that they hadn't yet experienced. When I was in high school, the Russians were beating the US in the space race, so we were given this patriotic charge to beef up our math and science knowledge. Of course, in those days, we absorbed this challenge less critically than today's students. These days, our politically-obsessed government officials want us to think they have handled it. No President has felt safe exhorting us to better behavior since Jimmy Carter lost. Does anyone know of a lesson plan online or have some suggestions on how teachers, social studies or otherwise, could put the message of Friedman's theory into teenage-accessible form?
sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Thank you for starting an education-related blog on this book. It has intrigued me ever since I read the first edition, so much so that I just bought the updated version. I have been searching for a way to get its point across to high school students without success. I tried out some of the data on my "high-need" economics students last year, but I couldn't motivate them to change their educational strategies based on this new competition that they hadn't yet experienced. When I was in high school, the Russians were beating the US in the space race, so we were given this patriotic charge to beef up our math and science knowledge. Of course, in those days, we absorbed this challenge less critically than today's students. These days, our politically-obsessed government officials want us to think they have handled it. No President has felt safe exhorting us to better behavior since Jimmy Carter lost. Does anyone know of a lesson plan online or have some suggestions on how teachers, social studies or otherwise, could put the message of Friedman's theory into teenage-accessible form?
Marge Brink's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As an educator for over 30 years, recently working in alternative education, I am concerned that the current educational processes that devalues skills and abilities off all students. I could name many students with communication, reflective and/ or creative skills that, because they do not fit the institution of school, are placed elsewhere. For example, a bright student wrote in the school newspaper questioning why his school celebrated athleticism over academics. Seen as a trouble maker, he was "punished: by his school and sent to an alternative program. The result was a bright, angry and vocal student. Luckly, the program he attended was able to address his needs and mollify his anger. he graduated and attends college. What was interesting and overlooked by everyone was that he had great empathy for children that were deaf. His younger brother was deaf, attended a state school for the deaf. Home from school, riding a bike, he was hit by a car and killed. The students from the state school attended the funeral. I did also. What I saw was my alternative school student signing and communicating with his brother's friends, attending to their tears and needs and being a very warm, caring individual. he had been my student for a year and a half and at his home school district for over 4. No one had this piece of the information. With the "flattening" of the world we can not look at any individual here or elsewhere only focusing on the B+s or acadmeic genius. We MUST look at each and every whole child and celebrate whatever their gifts are. By doing that we will be building efficacy and ingenuity in people so they have place and purpose in this flat world.
Sam Graves's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As far as education is concerned, Mr Friedman needed almost 500 pages to inform me that the following are critical issues for our future: 1. Education is important. 2. Students need to be good learners (constantly learning and re-educating ourselves). 3. Students need to have good people skills. 4. Students need to be adaptable. No duh!? We are 20th Century educators, using 19th Century methods, to educate 21st Century students.
sriram srirangam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Teaching has been a wonderful experience- full of relief, certainty and excitement since the world went flat! Gaps in availability of information have been in the process of disappearing. Kids from any where in the country- basically the urban part- can access the best information and insignhts which were reserved for the metropeople till a decade back. However, rural-urban, rich-poor and centr-periphery differences still persisit and hopefully will vanish as the world gets flatter and flatter. sriram srirangam, Sriram's IAS New Delhi
Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was first introduced to this book by another educator. Our conversation centered not around the "economic effects" that the U.S. would likely feel as the world became "flatter" but how this book would potentially influence today's educators.
We discussed our own "preparedness" in the classroom and how this translates to our students. We asked ourselves about technology usage in our teaching, promotion of second language development, encouraging more team-based problem solving and the further development of writing skills.
As we move forward into this "flatter" world of ours,recognition of how this will affect our future leaders is up to us to address right now. Are we doing enough? Will they have the skills to work at a more "global" level?
The "rate of change" is happening at a pace that's tough to keep up with. Educationally, it's no different.

Rob Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Further comments on technology available to all can be obtained from the OLPC initiative: www.olpc.org
This is further explored through 21st century skills and what is required to remove our schools from 20th century paradigms. See my website above (http://www.rob-siegel.com for the links and further information.

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