According to the ancient Greeks, humans received the gift of fire from the Titan, Prometheus. Paleoanthropologists have unearthed evidence that our early ancestor, homo erectus, was able to control fire around 400,000 years ago. Whether looking through the lens of myth or science the analysis is similar: Controlling fire was a watershed event in human evolution. It was perhaps the first of many critical technological thresholds that would radically change our relationship with the environment, ourselves and what it means to be human.

Once again we are traveling through such a technological threshold. And while this digital edge is full of promise and potential, the transition, as we are witnessing, is full of peril — whether it be of the political, economic or social variety. As the philosopher, Ken Wilber, has stated, “technological revolutions can speed through the social system extremely quickly — leaving the old cultural worldview completely out of sync with the new realities.” It is precisely this lack of symmetry between our emerging digital infrastructure and our prevailing cultural worldview that is helping to fuel an age of uncertainty and disorientation.

Flourishing in the world of today and tomorrow requires not only facility with digital tools, but, perhaps more importantly, being digital. Being digital entails new kinds of social organization and new ways of thinking and communicating. The narrative of history informs us that new forms of social organization trail in the wake of new technology. And when disequilibrium between new technology and the prevailing social structure exists then cognitive dissonance ensues.

As an educator, I believe education has a significant role to play in guiding society through this twilight zone. In exploring the best way to do that, it’s crucial to first understand how the technological advances of our past have shaped us to this point. And, if we are to learn anything from this particular study of history, it should be that technology alone isn’t enough to prepare students — and society at large — for the monumental changes ahead.

Two places that have already instituted new ways of learning are the Media Lab at MIT and the d.School at Stanford. They both foster a culture of learning that underscore intrinsic motivation, collaboration, interdisciplinary thinking, trial and error and production versus passive learning. But before I get to them, it’s important to understand the history of previous technologies.

Technology’s history lesson

There isn’t consensus when the wheel was invented, but most archaeologists think that it probably emerged about 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. Initially it wasn’t a load bearing device but was conceived to cast pottery. Only 300 years later were they were used for chariots. Fast forward to 500 BCE and the wheel was adapted for metaphysical reasons in Indian. The Dharmachakra, or known more simply as the Wheel of Life, is the universal symbol for Buddhism. The wheel represents the teachings of the Buddha. His first discourse in Deer Park is known as the first turning of the wheel of dharma (or cosmic law). The eight spokes of the wheel symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha set forth. Interestingly, one of the key concepts of Buddhism, dukkha, which is commonly translated as suffering, has etymological roots that means a wheel out-of-true. Technology is invented for seemingly straightforward reasons, yet as society becomes ensconced in their new realities, they begin to shape habits of mind and create new metaphors we live by because they structure our perception and understanding in novel ways.

Buddha lived 2,500 years ago in what the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, called the Axial Age. The Axial Age was a time of great turning throughout the world. Iron was discovered and became a driver of change in warfare and economics. Coinage was invented and power began shifting from the kings and temples to the marketplace. Inequality and violence were widespread. The old worldviews were out of date for the new social and economic realities that were emerging. Rapid external development was putting pressure on internal development to keep pace with the outward changes. It was in this crucible that revolutionary thinkers emerged in China, India, the Middle East and Ancient Greece that would lay down the philosophical and religious foundation that is still the bedrock of modern civilizations.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that another German thinker, by the name of Karl Marx, provided a framework for seeing how a change in the techno-economic base of society begins to alter the social structure of society. Through his analysis of history, Marx noticed that as technological development propelled societies from hunting and gathering to plowing fields to mechanizing labor, changes in social organization occurred, which led to changes in beliefs and values.

Technological revolutions in steam power, iron smelting and textile manufacturing in the 18th century launched the industrial revolution and radically reconfigured the social structure of those societies in the throws of such monumental change. Almost every aspect of economic and social life changed. And while the economic growth was exponential, the social benefits of these technological and economic changes weren’t as swift. Dramatic social and economic change wasn’t embraced as a godsend by all sectors of society. The transition was disruptive, disorienting and painful. As a result, new civic models and institutions were needed to adapt with the changing base of society.

Education’s Role in Taming the Chaos

Classroom, Institute of Technology, Boston, circa 1850 - 1929. Photo by Boston Public Library on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Classroom, Institute of Technology, Boston, circa 1850 – 1929. Photo by Boston Public Library on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Education was one such institution that changed in response to the new social and economic realities. Universal education was designed to meet the social and economic needs of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial age most humans lived in rural setting and worked as farmers. The shift from country to city and from farm to factory was seismic. Universal education was conceived of to socialize and prepare the masses to think like a factory worker. This model is now severely outdated. Factories and factory works have been outsourced to developing economies decades ago. Both factories and the service industry, which makes up the bulk of developed economies, are increasingly being replaced by automation — whether it’s done with software or robots. These vary technological changes are creating a chaotic social climate: unemployment, vexing copyright laws, social media cocoons, and fracturing of values and beliefs. And social institutions haven’t been able to keep pace with these changes. Only new social structures can tame this chaos.

Nicholas Negroponte, in his prescient book from the ’90s, “Being Digital,” writes about the power of digital technology to globalize society, decentralize control and flatten organizational hierarchies. He even speculates that digital technology is helping erode the power of the nation-state, which may eventually become an artifact of history. These dynamics are clearly in the process of morphing our society, but there is tremendous resistance to this digital tide on a social level because it is threatening prevailing institutional culture. Decentralized control and flattening organizations may be a good goal, and in fact my be the future, but this process of restructuring requires disarming institutional defense mechanisms that we all enable to varying degrees to maintain stability.

Psychological research has revealed that social structure is critical to identity formation. When societies aren’t stable and existing social systems — from economic to political to educational — are being bent by external pressures, then social integration is more challenging and identity negotiation becomes commonplace. This can lead to crisis or transformation. Social structure can be used to measure a society’s capacity to change and how flexible it is. On the whole we need to imbue greater adaptability into our relationships writ large: how we learn, communicate and collaborate. How we relate to one another and how we work together needs to undergo a phase change.

In, “Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” Robert Wright distills history’s trajectory from hunter-gatherers to our modern civilizations. Evolution of human societies follow a central template: New technologies emerge that encourage greater forms of interdependence, then social structures evolve that can capture the potential of the technology. Kevin Kelly comes to similar conclusions in “What Technology Wants“: “This cyclotron of social betterment is propelled by technology. Society evolves in incremental doses; each rise in social organization throughout history is driven by an insertion of new technology.”

Technology may be a powerful driver of change, but it is only a more evolved social structure — the way people interact within all facets of society — that can capture the potential of the technology. A transformation of social structure is needed. In physics, this is called a “phase change.” A classic example is when liquid water transforms into ice or steam. It’s still water, but its structure has transformed due to changes in external conditions. On a global level, we are undergoing dramatic environmental, technological, economic, political and social changes. These changing external conditions are heating human bonds and are leading to a transformation of social structure.

Technology Isn’t Enough

In education, digital technology and 21st century learning have become quite fashionable. Schools that have the resources to integrate digital tools are eager to do so. But digital tools are only the beginning. They are intimations of greater changes to come. It will be the novel and creative ways that people interact using technology that will generate the innovation all sectors of our society are looking for. If flattening hierarchies and decentralizing control are previews of coming attractions, then what does that mean for education?

Let’s start with the classroom. Flattening hierarchies and decentralizing control would increase autonomy and augment network interaction. A flattened hierarchy would transform the teacher from an omnipotent silo of knowledge to more of a designer, coach and guide. This would enable greater autonomy for students to pursue what intrinsically motivates them within an environment shaped by design thinking and under the guidance of a teacher. Greater network interaction would emphasize collaboration versus individual achievement. With an Internet connection via a smartphone, tablet or laptop, a learning network would be rooted in the local environment but limited only by one’s imagination. Integral to this structural shift is the collapse of departmental walls and cultivation of multidisciplinary thinking. This is not your father’s or mother’s school. But it is the kind of learning your can find at two of the world’s premier universities: MIT and Stanford.

The research and projects from the MIT Media Lab and the Stanford d.school are internationally recognized for their innovative methodology by corporate, non-profit and governmental organizations. Not only are these schools models of 21st century learning, they also provide a template for effective 21st century work environments. Harvard professor Tony Wagner in his book, “Creating Innovators,” interviewed Mitchel Resnick, head of academic programs at the Media Lab and a professor of learning research, to understand not just what the Media Lab does but how learning happens there. According to Resnick, the linchpin to future success is the ability to think and act creatively.

He goes on to say, “We take our inspiration from the ways people learn in kindergarten, where kids have opportunities to create, design, and build collaboratively. The best way to develop creativity is to design and create things in collaboration with one another. We also find that people do their best work when they are working on things that they care deeply about — when it’s their passion.”

In times of great change we are called to adapt to our changing conditions and think and act in new ways. Of course, we should learn from our past and respect tradition. But failing to ever leave the safe harbor of tradition won’t yield new discoveries, insights and innovations. In many respects, we need to adopt the mindset of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone. When asked if he needed more men for an expedition he replied, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” The quest for certainty prevents venturing into the unknown. Yet it is the unknown that is the frontier of opportunity and evolution.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. He taught middle school history and science for five years, where he integrated technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. Aran recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he’s the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School. You can follow him @fusionjones on Twitter.