George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

What Does "The World Is Flat" Mean for Education?: A Closer Look at Our Educational Globe

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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?

Was this useful?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger

Comments (43) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

David Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I certainly concur that in many districts its: "Thousands for technology and millions for athletics." However, although the reality of school is that athletics often take precidence over all, I refuse to accept that status quo as the necessary condition of the future. Each teacher needs to be a real change agent in the school district--and often it's our administrators who need to be informed and changed the most. I'm certain that anger will get an angry response from those in power, but I'm also certain that (eventually) good information and the demonstration of our students abilities--students at all academic levels, will eventually win over wrong-headed ideas about what is important for schools. If I'm dreaming, let me dream on.

Darius Clarke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To answer Linda Sweeney's question: "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?"

I think it's a lesson not yet learned so there's not much available. However, I suggest that today's students "learn by doing" and visually learn from well done documentaries such as those shown on the Discovery Channel.

When they can "live it" and fail in 3D interactive simulations (they must be allowed to fail) then they may begin to perceive the invisible power of the global dynamics currently in force. Like the purpose of science and literature, the computer's strength is in making the invisible apparent. Simulations, even those in online multi-player games, seem to be among the best instructional tools for conveying the force of interdependent, dynamic systems.

Just as video documentaries help us to relive the past to evoke sympathy and empathy for those who endured those times as well as helping understand them, so too, video documentaries might help us to "relive" what may be an unpleasant future.

Darius Clarke
Technology Educator

Penelope Kerr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

By teaching Fashion Design at a college level, I am constantly refering to the theory of the book "The World is Flat" written by Thomas Friedman. Mostly all garment manufacturing is done off shore where labor is less expensive. I teach my students that there are two types of jobs: thinking jobs, and manual labor jobs. Thinking jobs fetch higher salaries as the job skills will be harder and more in demand. Simply put if you are one of few that have the skills for a particular job which there is a high demand for then you get paid more. If everyone could do your job with little education and training then those jobs would be a dime a dozen, and you know what they are; ironically they do pay dimes for that job. NO pun intended. You see it's not rocket science.

Penelope Kerr

Valerie Chernek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So, where can we as individuals and communities begin to make changes to view the world as flat?
As a non-educator, I can envision many wonderful scenarios:

In our businesses...encouraging collaborations and employeee support for neighboring schools.

As a volunteer to support educators who are eager to learn and use new technologies, but have no-one to take their place in class.

In our homes...sharing the importance of respect for learning and for the educators, administrators and fellow students who we have contact with.

In ourselves...for protecting the institution of education without placing blame and encouraging these professionals that they can make a difference in the lives of every child.

We are in this together! What shifts will you make to help "education" continue to move forward?

Martha Eldredge Heck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with nine large suburban high schools. We have been studying, discussing, and hosting seminars on Friedman's book for three years. Some of the resources we have utilized are the International Education and Resource Network (, which involves 20,000 K-12 schools collaborating on more than 150 projects in 115 countries. Teachers and students can join a project, and once they have participated in a completed project, they can create their own and ask the world to join them. Projects are available in a variety of areas, from writing poetry, to working on environmental issues, to sharing architectural plans or recipes, to understanding math applications. Projects are defined as structured interactions among students with specific discussion topics, activities, and a final "product" that shares learning & helps build a better world.
We have also utilized Globalization 101 (, a website which is a project of The Carnegie Endowment. This website features issue briefs and corresponding lesson plans (aligned with state standards), along with webcasts from speakers such as the author of The Google Story or the former governor of The Federal Reserve Bank.

We have also encouraged collaboration between our career and technical education classes and our core academic classes.

Jasmine J. Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi! Linda.

I have enclosed the URL for my website ( which will take you to a series of lessons that put the message of Friedman's theory into teenage accessible form. All the lessons are accessible from either the IT Thematic Unit or the E-learning Courses link. You may find the unit "A Financial and Career "Coping" Life Skills - an Interdisciplinary Unit for College Freshmen" not only pedagogically challenging for the students, but allows you to adapt the role of a facilitator. This is due to the partnering between instructional technology and project based learning (PBL). Blogs, "Rags to Riches" game, and project writing are just a few of the supplementary activities.
Modules, such as budgeting, understanding the fiscal role of government, and starting a business (simulation)provide each student with learning experiences and real-world purpose and meaning.Webquest such as "Come and Explore The Jewels of The Caribbean" gives students the opportunity to think out of the box, work as a team in completing challenging tasks and reinforces the need for reflection and journal entries as they complete each assignment. The lessons are designed to run either for a semester, year long, or a couple of class sessions.
Good luck!

Aaron Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

MAX Teaching is a learning strategy which uses reading, writing, speaking, and listening to get the most out of content-related classes. Author Mark Forget emphasizes that most classwork (meaningless section review checkups) is merely decoding information, not the critical thinking essential. MAX stands for Motivation, Acquisition, and Extension. MAX is not only for the reading class, but encourages and empowers the teacher to teach literacy skills along with the material. Statistics show that most kids that don't learn to develop higher level reading skills (literal, inferential, applicational, and so on) by the 4th grade, don't learn at all. Forget's material can be applied to most any grade level (4th-12th) or subject (shop class, history, etc.). This book is divided into two parts.
Part I presents to the reader three essential components of a complete reading/writing-to-learn classroom. Part II describes specific classroom strategies that have been developed over the last three decades.

Check out the website at or search "google books" to read the book.

Jay's picture
MLS program participant; teacher; OL Teaching Diploma program student

I've recently read Trilling and Fadel's 21st Century Skills: learning for life in our times (2009) I would highly recommend it. The book speaks to the confluence of literacies our students will need to master in order to participate fully in the current Knowledge Age marketplace, in which collaboration and innovation, and holding conversations on a global scale will be the norm in their lives in ways we can barely imagine.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.