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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
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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

Comments (43)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The gap between the rich and the poor , the haves and the havenots.. has increased. The places in which we live and work in the USA are more multicultural, and the schools are divided by economic apartheid. In addition we have a group of people , the businesses, who think we need more NCLB.

That lets us know that they don't really know us, know the schools, or the problems we have.
There was an incredible group of 900 at the Convocation for the Gathering Storm, and
the conclusion was that K-12 needs work, and that science should be tested.

What kind of science? Whose test , testing reading science or real science?What kind of test? Work , research? we need to find out why teachers leave the profession after a year or two, why people are teaching out of their areas of expertise, why testing alone is the mantra.

There are other ways of testing, but we have pretests, regular tests, school level tests, grade level prep tests, IQ tests, state standards tests and then oh yeah.. testing for NCLB. Where is the time for the turning over of an idea in the mind, and working to solve a problem , of exploration, examination, and innovative ways of thinking that create those aha moments with kids?

Teaching, toward the test and that's all does not require much of a teacher, more a parrot.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

MJ Allison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school division in Virginia has chosen this book as their focus for the school year. I agree with many of Friedman's ideas, but must agree with some other posters who pointed out that not everyone has access to the wonders of technology. Those places and people will only fall behind at a faster pace than ever before. How can a child who's never seen a computer compete in a world where my 5-year-old niece can surf the net? Mountains, indeed!

The bigger problem is the fact that the American education system is not designed with "learning how to learn" in mind. We teachers are imprisioned by NCLB and mandatory testing that usually only shows how much a student can memorize. It's far too costly to test what students really know and can do. A multiple choice bubble-sheet test is more economical, and the results are more concrete. Can Johnny memorize the dates of World War II? Maybe. Does that mean he can compete in a global economy where critical thinking and learning how to learn are essential? Probably not, since all we taught him to care about was the test that counted for AYP.

If the world is flattening out, we need to completely revise the way we teach and test. I don't know if that is even possible on a national scale. My fear is that we won't adapt now, and our children will regret it later.

Marlene Ryll's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are 3 critical aspects of education that fuel much of the difficulty America is having in preparing children of today for their world. The first of these is that we operate from a classics based curriculum that is outdated and irrelevant for today's students. The more we try to force this curriculum, which is geared to the abilities and "willingness" to learn of the 20% who complete a liberal arts absed college education, the more we will continue to lose the interest and willingness of the 80% whose "achievement gap" is being addressed. Secondly, the American education system was founded on the right, based on desire, of the masses to access the educational attainment and opportunities that were only offered to the upper classes. But that which is seen as a privilege is always desired by many and that which is forced upon children is always rejected. So we went from opportunity to mandates to cirminality for not being in school and the enjoyment of reading and the privilege of books has become a non-stop tested skill -- which has destroyed even the desire of the most capable among children to read and attend school. Lastly, our focus on the liberal arts and the classics and the "narrowing of the achievement gap" and increasing standards only serves to instill a sense of failure in the majority of children who are not best served by college but would make great car mechanics and plumbers and electricians -- by disrespecting the crafts and minimizing the value of the skilled trades, we create further disillusionment and despondency about education and career goals for the majority of our students. After all, I have 2 masters degrees, started 3 doctorates, and was always a straight A student --- yet at 53, my plumber and electrician are happily raking in more money than I earned throughout most of my life -- all without even completing high school -- when will we stop trying to fill seats to gain federal funds and focus on the interests, abilities and real needs of students???

John Vanderberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Throughout history, powerful nations and empires have fallen when the people became complacent and did not recognize the drastic changes that were occurring in the world. According to "The World is Flat", the world is once again going through such a change. We as educators have to step forward and impress on the populace the fact that it is no longer an advantage being a B- student from the United States compared to a high achiever from India or China.

The most difficult step in this process is to convince ourselves that this change is a reality and we need to change the way we think about teaching. If we do not know or understand how business is done in a flat world, we can not effectively change teaching methods and curriculum so that our students can succeed in this "flat world".

Rob Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Karen Stockton Wallace's comments about the onus being on young people in the USA becoming more world literate (including more than just geography). As the developing world gains greater access to technology and communication, their instinctive world-mindedness will definitely give them an advantage as societies moves toward world citizenship. If we continue to teach the social studies classes to our kids the way we (those over 50) learned it, then we are condemming them to a backward looking view toward their future. As the world becomes more and more interconnected (see F. Capra's the Web of Life and others such as Toffler) and interdependent, if our lens remains channeled by tunnel vision, we are doing our future generation a dis-service. It has been exhilirating developing a new framework for the social sciences K-8 that is based on the oneness of humankind. What a concept!

Tristan Hays's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and taught economics and marketing to students of the former Soviet Union. Their learning style was to memorize and retell but the main difference I saw between our two countries was the way students and parents respect the teacher. In the US, teachers are not respected and teaching is mainly supported by politicians looking for reelection. I do not support the memorization technique but it is important for students to learn terminology. I teach business and marketing to high school students in Las Vegas, Nevada and the students here do not think outside of the city, let alone the State of Nevada. The parents do not reinforce the learning at home but expect results and support the idea of keeping schools accountable. I have read Mr. Friedman's book and listened to him speak at UNLV, he even signed my book, and I completely buy into his thoughts on the global workplace and the transmission of data but a major point he makes is that the Federal Government does not fund initiatives. They potificate but never fund the mandate and that will ultimately lead to our demise as the sole superpower. There are many places to put the blame of our educational system and why our students are more reluctant to learn then ever before but the real challenge before educators is making our individual classes interesting and relevant.

Stephen Kennedy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The flat world offers a great opportunity for educators to transform how children and young people learn at school. But schooling itself can work against such transformation. Formal schooling tends toward convergent thinking, while the flat world challenges us to think divergently. Education conserves the past, while the flat world presents exciting options for the future. Hopefully there will be a growing number of educators who want to propel our students forward. We just have to turn the classroom paradigm around: the student and the learning have to be the focal point, not the teacher and the traditional curriculum.

Barry Golden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The World is Flat should be a wake up call to the entire nation. It should specifically be a wake up call to our national and state leaders who must create the public policies that establish our long term priorities that will keep us economically competitive in the global markets. Our history for visionary politicians has been significantly lacking in the past 40 years or more so it will require significant dialogue and effort on everyone's part to educate ourselves about how education must change to create the problem solvers, collaborators, researchers, technically skilled, civically rounded, financially astute, globally awary of other countries and their cultures just to mention a few of the 21st century skills that will be required for successful American citizens of this century.

We have not been asked to sacrifice much in the past 40 years but it may be time to begin preparing ourselves to meet the challenges of radically changing the face of education while also having to address such crises as Medicare, Social Security, the environment, health care costs etc. Our greatest challenge over the next 25 years will relate to our ability to sacrifice many of our materialistic comforts and invest them in our children's future and the long term economic and social health of the nation while also spending resources on the other issues that will require massive investments.

If we are to maximize our techology and educate kids for the new economy, then billions and billions of dollars must be invested in the areas of retraing all eductors along the line of project base learning, thinking/problem solving skills and the ability to collaborate. Early childhood interventions in poverty and minority areas will be required at very young ages if we are to truly "close the achievement gap." In the absence of such an effort and the related sacrifices, our chilren's success and that of the nation will be in doubt. Now is the time to begin challenging our leadership to address these issues. Wemust seek out business people who recognize that without skilled workers their businesses will not flourish. This is a great opportunity to create coalitions that have never worked together in the past. We can't wait for our leadership to solve the problems when many of them don't want to recognize them after ignoring them for so long. Education is the foundation for all human progress and it is now time that we reinvent or commitment to it and what it means for our future generations.

austyn pell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would rather be the b+ student in India because he can actually use the enternet and can probably call more people.

I think this "flat" world effects me personally because that means i can fall off the edge of the world ha!ha!, and it's harder to get across the world.

I think the jobs types he lists are jobs that will end up becoming exstinct so to say. yes i agrre that the jobs are changing because of technology because all the jobs today are getting easier because of technology.

Ben Hill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would rather be a B+ student. I would want to be a B+ student rather then a genius in Bangalore, India. I would want to be a B+ student then a genius because I would have more street smarts. Alos I wouldn't like to be well known because people would judge me. I dont like that.
I think it effects me by causing Christopher Columbus took all his time just to sail around the world to prove it is not flat which he did but now they are saying that it is flat again.
Yup technology keeps on advancing that it causes or jobs to use this new technology causing us to get different jobs.

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