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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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demetri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
do you really mean "corroborators" or is it collaborators?
Folwell Dunbar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Flat? I'm not so sure. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador almost fifteen years ago. The "drastic changes" Friedman writes about certainly haven't occurred there. If anything, conditions have gotten worse, or less flat. The divide between them and the developed world has actually widened. 75% of the population lives below the poverty line and most communities lack access to the technologies and opportunities mentioned in the book. The same could be said of much of Sub-Saharan Africa and many other countries in the so-called "3rd World." While India and China are lifting themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, others are falling farther and further behind. I could probably also include my own city, New Orleans, in that category. Here, as Hurricane Katrina so painfully revealed, we are anything but flat. If you don't believe me, just visit a private school and then go to a public one – the difference is shocking. The world would better be described as mountainous, with steep valleys and high, high plateaus.
Rob Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
While working in Chile, South America, I fully understand the premises and implications discussed above. I personally saw how, for the first time, the Mapuche children were getting access to a world that they would have never imagined. It brought them possibilities and dreams, combined with teacher encouragement, to strive for improving their conditions and choosing where to make their contribution to society. It sparked motivation and assisted in discovering the hidden gems within. It truly broke the economic divide for educational access. The Chilean government is making a great effort to get electrical power and data transmission lines to remote rural areas, because they have seen the positive impact on socio-economic development.

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