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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

Tom Siembor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read Friedman's book this summer-it's scary but prophetic. More and more, I fear students who choose not to "make the grade" may well find that the American dream has gone elsewhere. Mediocrity is a useless appendage in the American workplace.

Marge Arnold's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have some great insights on Friedman's book. The world is indeed flat here in Franklin Parish, Louisiana, where I have access to your writing even through you've left us for Virginia. The ability to have instant access to scholarly publications affects me greatly. At one time when I was working on my masters degree, the only access I had to most publications was an hour's drive away at the university library. Now, in this "flat world" of ours, I can browse the Internet 24/7 from the comfort of my office or my home and find articles to feed my iinsatiable curiosity about educational technology. We are in the process of implementing an 8th grade handheld project in our district that keeps me searching for the latest research and updates from the worldwide handheld technology community. I find the blogs, podcasts, and other wonderful resources found on the Internet provide me with all the information I need. If I have a question, experts like Tony Vincent, Elliot Soloway, Mike Curtis, and Mark van 't Hooft are just an email away and willing to share answers.

Students in rural areas such as ours benefit greatly from the flatness of our world today. They can access up-to-date information to supplement our antiquated textbooks and become global thinkers instead of retaining the small town attitudes of the past. We have worked diligently in our district to provide the technology resources to allow all of our students the opportunity to access the Internet daily in their classrooms.

Freidman's thoughts on the ability to continually learn new skills and be adaptable to the changing workplace in order to have job security in the future certainly makes sense. Students' abilities to memorize facts and retain them for testing must be replaced with the desire to learn and the ability to think.

Marge Arnold

Jim Dostal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that economically there will be jobs outsourced but standard of livings will be expect in places such as India and China. As their standard of living changes for the better they will then have to deal with issues such as pollution and resource allocation.

I can see Africa being the place where in the future we will (meaning the business community) will chase the lowest wages for the production of their products. Obviously this will take any where from 10 to 20 years.

The reality is that Americans are known for innovation, we do well when challenged. In past generations we have always raised to the challenge, the future generations are still a question mark and it will be interesting to see what will happen.

Greg Carroll's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The whole concept of the flat world makes a huge assumption about access to the digital technologies. I work with communities where cell phones are not a reality because of the cost. The school is also the only place with internet acccess. How flat does this make the world for them?
(More?) Importantly what obligations does this put on the schools in these areas to provide a window on the skills and opportunities that the rest of the more affluent world take for granted. The digital divide is alive and well, and hard at work putting the mountains back onto the flat world!

Karen Stockton Wallace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that the point of the premise that the world is flat should be that the digital divide is narrowing. A recent Roper Poll indicates that America's students are woefully behind in their knowledge of geography as compared to students in other countries. In order to compete in a world in which the digital divide continues to narrow, our students need to increase their knowledge of the world.

In response to this poll, a national campaign has been initiated and can be found at MyWonderfulWorld.org. This is a National Geographic Education Fund-led campaign with support from sponsors such as PTA, 4H, NBA, Bush Gardens, Etc. The site has activities for parents, educators and students which promote geography literacy.

As a grandparent, parent, retired educator and a member of the Mississippi Geographic Alliance, I encourage you to promote geography literacy. Friedman's thoughts provoke the need to better understand how narrowing the gap in the digital divide is producing new challenges for our future citizens. They need to be better prepared to meet these challenges.

John Campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just finished re-reading Friedman's book. I thought that one of the most powerful concepts in the book was that of "the local untouchables". Think of the secure future that belongs to our kids coming out of vocational schools. Who do you think will face a more certain ecomonic future - the B+ liberal arts grad or that 18 year old who is a whiz in plumbing or HVAC?

Alpha Quincy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

But the gap between the haves and the have nots.... the rich and the poor.... is not flattening out. It is getting steeper, all over the world. Friedman admits that he missed this in the first edition of his book and has written a new edition.... but it is still not adequately dealt with.

Alpha Quincy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The key to flattening the gap between the rich and the poor is access to education, particularly higher education. The GI Bill, offering free education to all of the military after WWII, gave the U.S. the greatest middle class the world has ever known, but today, access to higher education is being made harder to get, with higher tuition costs and interest on school loans. Fewer people can afford to go to the University or College. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening.

Vicky Ferguson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The World Is Flat gave me much to think about as a high school principal----were we giving our students the skills they would need in the flat world? The faculty and I debated that concept. I think the hardest thing for educators to do is realize that we have to change how and what we teach to keep up with the demands of a flat world. We have decided to become a conversion charter school with an emphasis on "new skills for a new century." Our overarching theme is interdisciplinary instruction with an emphasis on problem and project based education. We believe and research supports that the skills our young people will need for tomorrow are not the same as today. The important thing to remember is that technology continues to flatten the world and our students must be able to compete. Our decision to become a conversion charter was not based on the book; however, it added food for thought.

Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm enjoying the ongoing dialogue here about the book and Friedman's take on the impact of a flattening world. I would absolutely agree that we still have some huge digital divide issues (and economic, health, welfare, etc.) across the world, which also need to be on the front burner. Perhaps he'll use his influence to bring a spotlight to those issues as well! (Check out The Digital Divide Network for some great information).

What I like about a book like this is that even though it's not specifically written for educators, it can provoke great professional dialogue. Getting all of us in education to think outside the bubble, even when we don't necessarily agree, is always a great thing!

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